A number of readers have asked me what I think about the Wall Street protests. In general I think public protest is usually a good thing, and I’m pleased to see demonstrations in favor of good things like corporate accountability and against bad things like climate change. I think there are plenty of reasons for political activism in our country, and am always pleased by it.
On the other hand, do I think that this is the beginning of something profound and important? I can’t say for sure, but I would guess not. Protesting Wall Street isn’t a bad idea – but there’s a fundamental problem in marching and demonstrating against something you are wholly dependent upon.
The college students who are admirably taking the lead depend for their educations on investments and growth – private savings invested to enable them to go to college by parents, but also government subsidies and loans that must be supported by economic growth in order to continue. The very act of taking out a loan to support your education implies a presumption of growth – the idea that your earnings will grow in order for you to pay it back with interest.
Standing against Wall Street and calling them out to justify their implication in the political process and in issues like climate change is great – except that Wall Street gets its money in large part from, well, us. An economy that depends for 70% of its worth on consumer spending is not one in which one can look entirely to the powerful abstract evil of “corporations” but to the specific evil of that fact that all of us depend for food, clothing and shelter on those institutions we claim to deplore.
This is the same problem that leads those who protest middle-eastern oil wars to drive their cars to the demonstrations, to those who protest coal plants writing their angry blog posts on grid, coal powered laptops, and any number of other hypocrisies. Now hypocrisy itself is not evil, and it is generally inevitable – none of us can live here without implication in a larger economic system – all of us are complicit.
That said, however, the disconnect between personal action and political action, carefully fostered by a society that believes that personal choice is personal choice and has little to do with your political convictions, constantly undermines real political action. Yes, deplore Wall Street. Remember when you do so that while large corporations (or polluters or whatever) would prefer, ideally that you both love them and give them great big wads of cash, given a choice, all such institutions prefer the cash to our love. It is a very good thing to remind them that they are zombie institutions, but it helps not to feed the zombies your money – and that involves a radical reinvention of lifestyle.
None of us trust a politician who depends on the campaign dollars of those who oppose their fundamental values. Why should we trust ourselves to depend for food, shelter and our basic way of life on institutions that are also destroying that way of life? While recognizing that the Thoreau-model of perfect disconnection is not open to most of us, should we not hold ourselves to at least the same standard we hold public officials to – asking that we disconnect economically from the structures that warm the world, deplete its resources, etc… and that we participate as little as we can (and that means we are critical of our own excuses) in that degradation?
None of us will ever get this perfect – we live in our interconnected, oil fueled, coal warmed, economically messy society. Perfection is not the goal – but it does not take a vast contraction of earnings to send a much more impressive message than public protest can provide alone – if you want to change the world, stop feeding the zombies.