This is the first essay-length philosophical thing I've written in four years. It took two hours to get everything right and do the cost research. It felt wonderful.
I was going to title this “What the Occupy opponents don’t get” but then I realized, heck, this is Occupy we’re talking about, and most of the protesters don’t get it, either. So instead it’s just some thoughts.
So, you’re a member of the non-struggling middle class. Perhaps you’re just an intelligent and reasonable person who knows what you want and doesn’t spend your time desperately trying to live a life well beyond your means. Lord knows that a real middle class salary can buy you a very nice life without credit, but if you’re constantly striving for more you’re going to always be unhappy and always be struggling.
Or, more likely (since there aren’t so many reasonable and intelligent people out there who live within their means), you’re actually part of the upper middle class or even the upper class but refuse to admit that to yourself or anyone else.
In either case perhaps you’re happy, satisfied, and not afraid, and you could care less about the Occupy protesters or the Occupy movement. Great! Good for you. You can stop reading now because I’m not talking to you. You don’t need a talking-to. You need to put a little money aside for a nice vacation and go pick up the kids from school.
But maybe you spend an inordinate amount of your time thinking about why the Occupy movement is wrong, why the protesters are boneheads or hypocrites or worse. Maybe you think that in reality if you just work hard and keep your expectations attainable you can live a perfectly happy life and shouldn’t be asking for handouts. Ha! You’re funny. You need to keep reading.
And maybe you think of yourself as just smarter than those idiot protesters, and you like to laugh at how they turn down job applications or refuse to offer their tents to the homeless. You, my friend, you are afraid of them. (And I haven't noticed you offering your living room to the homeless, either.) You don’t want to hear it—in fact, I just lost ALL of my readers who fit into this category because I’m not part of their preferred echo chamber—but the truth is, you are afraid of them. You are afraid because although you are comfortable now, you lack the requisite faith in yourself, your religion, or your society that, were things to change, and change meaningfully, you might not be able to make it. You are afraid that you could become one of the people Occupy is protesting for (or wants to think they’re protesting for; I suspect the majority of them are protesting to annoy Mom & Dad, who, ironically, were hippies themselves and protested mainly to annoy Mom & Dad. Who, of course, fought World War II and built the greatest nation-state the world has ever seen.)
The truth is, you’re afraid of something the protesters symbolize for you. It might be that you simply are afraid of anything that’s different; xenophobia is so third-millenium America, after all. Or it might be that, on some level, the bastards are actually right about something. But it’s too big of a problem or too difficult to really wrap your mind around and frankly life is so much easier and better if you don’t actually have to think about it. After all, the reason the echo chamber that is the modern opinionews industry (like that one? Infotainment is not the right word, since modern news doesn’t rely on information) is so successful is that frankly we all, all humans, want nothing more than to be justified, to have our feelings and opinions and attitudes reflected and justified by society (and Mommy and Daddy) to prove our own self-worth.
For people in subsistence societies this isn’t a problem—if you can help put food on the table in any way you’re justified. You’re all right. But for late modern humans in consumer cultures—and that’s about two or three of the seven billion of us—what we get from society every single day is that we aren’t good enough, that we need to buy more, have more, do more, see more or we aren’t worthy. We aren’t justified. Three generations have been raised now in this country and most of what we refer to as “The West” (Greece used to be a part of it, but not any more) under the guiding consumerist principle that your self-worth is entirely dependent upon your net worth.
(Aside: That WWII generation that was the last generation before this consumer culture spread its poison? Yeah, let’s not let them off the hook for their hand in creating said culture, okay? They were great. But when they came home they invented the American Dream, and that’s where it all started.)
If you conflate your self-worth with your net worth, some interesting things happen. First of all, you are never satisfied. Now, there’s something to be said (a lot, actually) for not being satisfied with where you are. But somehow not being satisfied with who and where you are no longer means that you need to learn more, or give more, or try to get better at your work, your hobby, or your life; it has instead come to mean that you aren’t satisfied with the income you have, the stuff you have, the material trappings of the life that you live. You strive to improve your position at work not because you want to be better for your own purposes, but because you need to get a raise to buy that cool new 3-D TV (hey, 3-D movie makers: you still haven’t improved on real life! How about just trying to write a good story for God’s sake? Damned sequel factory), the latest model-year car, and those seven dozen kitchen gadgets and new gas range from Williams-Sonoma you don’t actually know how to use. (Ever been through a model home in an upper-class development and seen the kitchen with the six-burner gas stove and commercial size fridge? Give me a damn break, more than half of the people who live in those homes don’t know how to cook anything more complex Spaghetti-o’s. But they have to have the best appliances!)
And so we come back to the anti-Occupy crowd (the ones who aren’t actually 1%-ers or investment bankers and actually have good reason to be scared). After three generations of self-worth/net-worth entanglement, these folks are, to be blunt, just scared that if society were in fact to change and we did in fact learn to separate our fiscal value from our human value, they’d have nothing to go on. They’d be unable to determine a self-worth, unable to find it, or, perhaps—and this is truly terrifying if you’re part of the crowd—that they might take a step back in relation to their fellow citizens.
This leads us, at last (hey, only two pages, that qualifies as brevity for me), to the original point, what the Occupy crowd (those who are protesting but also especially those who delight in making fun of the protesters) don’t get. We no longer live in a country where if you just work hard and do your best you’ll be rewarded and be able to afford the things you need and some of the things you want.
No, I’m not a communist. Hear me out. Now, the math for the pronouncement I’m about to make will be available after I tidy it up a bit because right now it’s scratch on paper. But let’s say we have somebody who is making minimum wage, works a 40-hour week every week without any vacation (52 weeks a year) and some occasional overtime, has an average commute and no car payment and lives in the cheapest safe apartment complex around, has a basic cell phone plan with a parasite company, eats hamburger and tuna helper and store-brand bologna sandwiches every single day except when ordering some stuff off the dollar menu at Burger King, never drinks any alcohol, doesn’t have health insurance and basically doesn’t go to the doctor, never goes out in the evenings to restaurants or clubs, and doesn’t have internet access or cable or satellite television. This person manages to spend $13,764 every year just for the bare minimums to sustain the above described existence in this country (and this is in a cheap part of the country). That’s before the poor soul has to purchase any clothing, or put any money aside for savings, or experience any sort of emergency from a car accident to an unexpected sickness to the need to replace something broken. And God forbid this person has children or other dependents. $13,764 is covering the basic needs for a safe but wholly uninteresting existence.
And how much does our safe dullard earn? Well, assuming he gets a bit of overtime here and there, we’ll give him a whopping $14,970 a year, after FICA but assuming no income taxes. So he’s got $1,206 at the end of the year he could put toward savings, pay for basic cable (which isn’t worth it; maybe he’ll get Netflix instead), or, given the way life goes, have to spend on some emergency (I had a $1400 unexpected medical bill this year. I sure as hell didn’t plan for that. That would break our poor hypothetical person).
Now, it’s all well and good for you to say, okay, but if this guy works harder, tries to better himself, earn a raise or a promotion, go to night school (which costs money he doesn’t have), get a better job, then he can rise out of that boring and meaningless existence and make something of himself. He doesn’t need the government’s (or my) help, and it’s just more evidence that everybody but me wants to get everything without working for it that anybody would complain about such a situation.
Fine. So our hypothetical man does get out of this job and makes a better life for himself. Good for him. But here is the key point: somebody else has to take his place. There will always be people who can’t make it, because there will always be a need in this country for people to do the minimum-wage scut work that the rest of us don’t want to do. Somebody is always going to have to be on the bottom of the pole. Somebody is always going to be barely getting by, if at all, and our economy demands that. You cannot take Homo economicus as an individual and say, he should get a better job, because the economy demands a H.economicus to work every necessary position, including the guy who cleans the toilets at Wal-Mart, and the guy who picks the tomatoes in Florida. Those guys cannot afford to live a decent life in America, and yet those of us who live better do so on the backs of those people. We aren’t standing on the shoulders of giants; we’re resting on the backs of midgets. And the last thing anybody wants is for the midgets to stand up and throw us off. That’s why Occupy is threatening, and why you feel a need to make fun of it. You rely on poor people to live even a moderately comfortable existence.
And here’s the kicker. If we decide, okay, those folks need to make $10 an hour. Everybody should earn a minimum wage that allows them to live decently, not just barely scrape by. Sounds good. I’m pretty sure I’m hearing that from Occupy types, some of them (some of them are just waiting for law and order to break down so they can get to looting, but that’s a tiny minority). So then what happens? Well, Wal-Mart’s salary expenditures go up by 50%, so their prices go up by a similar margin. Those of us who were previously comfortable now find that everything is more expensive, and we’re a lot less comfortable. Those tomato-pickers in Florida, the illegal immigrants you hate so much? Let’s let them earn a living wage, too, or, if you don’t like that, let’s throw them all out and hire unemployed Americans at the same living wage attested before; people would pick tomatoes for $10 an hour. But now your tomatoes cost $8.99 a pound (and that's for the nasty flavorless hothouse tomatoes bequeathed to us by Big Agriculture). A bag of lettuce costs $10. And because corn is doubling in price a whole roasting chicken now costs $3.99 a pound instead of 89 cents. But everybody’s earning a living wage! Except that wage has to keep rising because the cost of business keeps rising.
Know what doesn’t change in this scenario? How much money the 1% make. How much profit the corporations make. See, Wal-Mart will happily pay a higher wage, and raise their prices, whatever it takes to keep the profit margins where they are now so none of the high-rollers running the show have to take a pay cut and the stock price doesn’t fall. The richest, the ones with the power to change things, what the fuck possible reason do any of them have to change anything? The only way to create real change, change that doesn’t result in the endless inflationary cycle described above, is to fundamentally reevaluate how we value the wealthiest and most powerful people. And that is never going to happen.
That’s what Occupy should be protesting. And you can go home and listen to your echo chambers and make fun of the protesters, but bear in mind the echo chamber is owned by part of that 1%. You’re hearing what you want to hear because you’ve been told it’s what you want to hear by wealthy and powerful people who want you to think that way. As long as we continue to be lined up on opposing sides, we 99%, the 1% don’t have to worry. We’ll fight each other tooth and nail and let them keep the spoils.
H.L. Mencken once said that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” I might add that this is also the whole aim of modern capitalism. Capitalism is not bad (it's the best thing we've got, although no society has yet actually tried distributivism and nobody these days has even heard of the philosophy). The way capitalism is practiced in 2011, on the other hand, is not good. The protesters have a point. Their opponents have a point, too. But we’re all missing the bigger picture, and that’s exactly the way the power wants it to be.