Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupying Wall Street (and other Financial strongholds)… Be Careful What You Wish For

I’ve been following the grassroots movement that has been tagged, “Occupy Wall Street” with interest and some trepidation. The media certainly portrays it as a movement of malcontents – of those for whom the status quo isn’t working. They are the unemployed, the underemployed, the otherwise economically marginalized of our society who can no longer afford to live the American Dream. They significantly include what is perhaps the first recognizable wave of middle class casualties who are caught between the idealism and artificially manipulated appetites of a consumer driven society and the reality of limits in the form of debt – and if we look into the horizon - also the limit of ecological sustainability.

I suspect that many of them are quite baffled as to how this has happened. How is it that they now have the time and the inclination to join a grassroots protest movement? In many cases, they might tell us that not that long ago – maybe a few years ago, or even a few months ago - everything was good. They were employed in jobs that seemed reasonably secure. They had enough money to pay the bills and enough credit to enjoy the latest gadgets and other consumer comforts. They and their kids were busy, coming and going, with all kinds of activities and events. They were part of a culture that thrived on busyness. But then the economy took a nose dive – how did the government and the banks let that happen!? - and they suddenly couldn’t keep it all afloat. Maybe they lost their house, their job, their ability to stay in the game. Literally overnight they lost their position in society and with it, their confidence in the future.

And so, as more and more found themselves on the sidelines, the seeds of protest began to grow. Indignation set in. And puzzlement is giving way to frustration and frustration to indignation and indignation to anger. Maybe not enough anger to do anything rash, but enough to say ENOUGH. It’s not fair. I don't like what’s happening.

But the trouble with protest movements – even ones that start out peaceful – is that it doesn’t take much to unleash the anger that is simmering under the surface. And crowds of people are not rational. Even in Canada we’ve seen compelling evidence of this uncomfortable fact in recent years, most notably in Vancouver the night of the Stanley Cup Final last spring.

Sociologists can tell us that crowds do not think like individuals do. Crowds will bring out the very worst behaviors in people who would never think of doing the very things that they end up doing in the passion of the moment. Crowds are not rational. Crowds are not to be trusted – ever.

But what I really want to say in this post is that the protesters should be careful what they wish for. Most of them feel that the present system is unfair. They chant that they are the 99% and want to draw attention to the fact that the other 1% - the economic elite – are manipulating the system to their advantage. Governments are catering to corporations and corporations are greedy and exploitative. And it’s just not fair. They argue that the rich should not receive the spoils, but that they should be distributed more equitably. They want justice. Or do they?

I suppose that if the world really were only as big as one country – Canada or the US, for instance – then maybe they’d have a point. But the world is not one country and if we’re demanding justice, then we have to ask how far our concern extends. Do we want justice only for ourselves – because we suddenly can’t take for granted the relatively affluent lifestyle we’ve come to expect? I’m sure that I’ve quoted before in a previous blog, the astounding figure that the top 20% of the world controls some 86% of the wealth while the bottom 20% controls only 1%. And as incredulous as we may be, even the protesters in Canada and the US – the 99% in their country - fall in the camp of the top 20% of the world’s wealthy. Where should justice draw the line?

I expect that if the protests become violent – say someone decides that it would be a good idea to trash a mansion or two – the government will intervene swiftly and with the use of force. And who can blame them if they do. After all, no one can afford to allow our society to collapse into chaos and anarchy. These are dangerous times.

And because these are things I think about pretty much all the time, the question I have for people of faith is this: where will WE be if things begin to unravel. Will we be fighting for our rights and to hold onto what we’ve got (or had), or will we – in the worst of times – live out a gospel of justice and righteousness for the poor and downtrodden?


Christopher D Drew said...

Thank you for this post. I have been trying to figure out this protest group for the better part of 2 weeks as Occupy NS was starting to take hold. My fear is that very soon violence will break out in New York and then around the world.

I am troubled that as far as I can tell the thrust of the protest is that those protesting want more, not that they think people in general should do with less.

Robbie said...

I also think it needs to be considered that these groups are pretty diverse. A few weeks ago I hung out at the local "Occupy" protest, with mixed feelings of curiosity and embarassment.

There were a few people there that I thought bordered on crackpot status. But the more people I chatted with, the more I got the sense that these were average people in search of justice - and not necessarily the selfish, self-preservation, violent kind.

There was a lot of inarticulate talk about making the world better, sharing 'first world' wealth, and hoping that this would be the change (whatever that means) that would give the world hope for the future. There were also hippies drawing flowers on the sidewalk and someone with a 'free hugs' sign.

I think our fear and distaste for these groups might be born out of ignorance. If we only know what we've read in the news, then these are dens for drug abuse and potential hotspots for violence. Having spoken with some of 'them,' and in spite of their disorganization and feel-goody assemblies, I am forced to consider my own apathy to the real challenges the world is facing.

Some of it is selfish. We've seen in recent weeks that sometimes it is violent. And while the so-called Mob is scary, it is comprised of individuals that are searching for something better and attempting to do something about it. Maybe we should go be church with the occupy people - at least we would be doing something.

Mike Shreve said...

I'm wondering if there has been any effect from the occupy movement on the 1%. I don't mind them sitting there in a public place making their statement. But after a while they would become sort of invisible and the 1% would just walk by with no effect on them. I wonder, if the 1% really listened, would they try to do something? Like Nova Scotia power asking for enough of a power rate increase so their stock holders could be assured of a 1% return on their investment instead of 10%. (What is the interest rate on bank accounts these days? 0.025%? and the banks are still recording billion dollar profits!