I can thank a facebook amigo of mine for the observation that the Occupy protests, and workers’ complaints in general, tend to be ‘completely misdirected and deflecting personal responsibility.’
This line of argument runs that, it is each person’s responsibility to better his or her situation, not by ‘complaining,’ but by ‘doing.’ I.e., work hard, and/or if the situation is stinky, leave and find another situation. By ‘voting with your feet,’ workers will teach bosses that they cannot get away with certain abuses, and over time the worst of these will disappear.
This line of argument, it will be noted, has become most common amongst those citizens of the U.S. who:
a) Are the unwitting beneficiaries of a unique confluence of economic factors which made it extremely easy for American citizens to earn a decent middle-class living during the 63 years between 1945 and 2008, but which will perhaps never again favour US citizens so much (these conditions included a very developed US, and a very poor India, China, Africa, and Russia, and a socialist Europe. – which made the US by default an economic powerhouse, with a unique ability to command and produce resources – like the Dutch and English in earlier centuries, who had advanced economies and few competitors but which then lost this advantage and melded into relative mediocrity.)
b) Are ahead of the IQ, education, and starting social network curve, and thus can always find a better-than-average-paying job with relatively little effort and/or luck.
c) Have ‘paid their dues’ buy buying into the system – working long hours, sacrificing many dreams and goals outside of work life, sacrificing many quality of life issues, but receiving in return a better-than-average remuneration, which gives them a decent amount of capital and ‘stuff’ to protect. Thus both ‘survivors bias’ (meaning they are already good at/accustomed to working within the system), and also ‘sour grapes’ bias – i.e., the very real element of jealousy for those who haven’t had to make such sacrificies, inspired even by the thought that anyone might have their cake without having to make the same sacrifices– play heavily into their opinions.
d) And/or, have been influenced by a highly professionalized corps of demagogues, who in the US are overwhelmingly funded and maintained by the economic elite, whose primary purpose is to find ways to sell the agenda of the economic elite to the masses, by appealing to and systematically inflaming their commonest fears of ‘the other.’ This strategy has over the past 20 years worked incredibly well, and created an army of Limbaugh-zombies, who are highly suspicious of science and logic, and who, hypnotized by Rush’s admittedly skillful demagoguery, will now systematically vote against their own best interest, and that of the global community, virtually in lock step with the agenda of the corporate elite… gee, how did that happen? Isn’t it strange that the will of a large block of the working classes should correspond almost exactly with the agenda of the ultra-rich? Gosh… some coincidence, eh?
A bit of reflection will reveal that this line of argument, however, is based on the following fallacious assumptions:
1- The economy is inevitably ‘darwinist.’ It assumes that the system is essentially as fair as it will ever get, because the economy is naturally a ‘survival of the fittest’ type system. Libertarians like to assume that ‘nature’ inevitably requires people to struggle against one another for a piece of a very limited pie.
The problem with this is, that as I have argued elsewhere, there are many, many laws in place which make everyones’ lives so much better than they would be in a darwinist situation, and many of these have been won by long-term struggling and protest, and also by legislation. For example, it is illegal to own your own rocket launcher. The reasons for this should be obvious, but true libertarians suggest that we should all own them, if we wish. This would very obviously create a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, in which nothing could get done. So, the philosophy is flawed, fundamentally. No other proof need be offered. The point of democratic protest is to stir legislators to do the right thing. In a totalitarian system, the point of it is to instill democracy, which will be more responsive to the will of the people.
2- They assume, therefore, that there can never be anything wrong with the economy, or ‘the system.’ It just is, and as Pope wrote: ”Whatever is, is right.” So I ask them in response: if you were a 19th century British factory worker, with children ‘allowed’ to work 80 hours/week, in factories with no safety features so that they died of ‘fluffy lung’ disease when they were 16, would you still have no right to protest? Or if you were a low-caste Indian worker today, in which landlords ‘loan’ you your rent payments at extortionate interest so that you have to sell them your daughters (which happens on a grand scale), would you have no right to protest? If your congress will not tax the top 1% at the same rate as the middle class, do you have no right to protest? If MBA-admin people have systematically turned your profession from full-time to part-time contract-only work, while simultaneously increasing their own salaries, and those of their ever-expanding crony-networks, would you have no right to protest? This line of argument boggles the mind.
3- The libertarian tea-partier types therefore assume: It is not your responsibility to change the system if it is bad, except by choosing another work situation. But again, in a democracy, is it not your responsibility to change a bad system? Or even in a non-demcoracy, do you not have a moral obligation to change the system if it is exploiting people? The wealthier American libertarian is so isolated from history, and the rest of the world, that they have no idea of how easily systems can get incredibly unfair. And, sadly, even those who are exploited in the US, have fallen so prey to the Fox news and co. propaganda of the billionaires, that they have been brainwashed into supporting a system which could very easily be much less harsh on them (i.e., something closer to a European social system).
My same facebook friend who argues that OWS is an ‘evasion of personal responsibility’ is very active in local government. He has a hometown, a network, and he votes for his own economic interests (i.e,. votes against any tax increases for his wealth bracket, etc). Is it not the duty of those who are at the other end of the spectrum, who have fewer skills, less IQ, or are less able to submit themselves to a corporate regimen to also vote in their own best interests? This includes making a system in which the rules of the game allow for the most access by the most people, and the fewest loopholes for those who would exploit the system. And I think that paying much less taxes, as a billionaire, is exploiting the system: you have congress in your pocket. That is plainly exploitation.
The economic system is hedged by laws. It is not ‘pre existing’; it is not ‘natural.’ It is composed of them, it can only work because of the federal reserve, and hundreds of other systems built up over hundreds of years, which keep the economy running smoothly. It also consists of safeguards, safe housing regulations, safe work regulations, insurance regulations, etc,. etc,. which are designed to keep the system from being horribly exploitative, as it is in India and Mexico. The libertarians, would wish to live in a society which is just like India and Mexico today: as long as they are the wealthy few who live in barbed-wired houses with a staff of armed guards. If we had no regulatory safeguards, that is precisely what our society would look like. I really am amazed at how my libertarian friends can possibly not see this?
So, in conclusion:
1. The economic system is not just ‘work and wages’, but the laws which determine this relationship, its causes and effects, at almost every level.
2. It is our duty to change these laws to make life as good for the many as we can – this means balancing quality of life with maximizing per capita income.
3. If you have no truck with government (because you are young, poor, unconnected) , it is your duty to protest, to raise awareness and pressure on government, when it is clearly following the interests of the economic elite at the expense of the obvious interests of the non-elite.
4. Those who bah-humbug the protestors tend to be either
a) well endowed with assets and thus have a vested interest and a survivors’ bias in preserving the status quo,
b) jealous of the idea that others might not make the same quality of life sacrificies that they have,
c) Lacking social empathy in general, or a code of morality which obliges them to make sacrifices to improve the common good. Often, they have convinced themselves that they are improving the common good by ‘paying taxes,’ which is rather ironic; or if not this, they argue that they are improving the common good by working in and preserving an economic system which ‘creates the most jobs’
- not realizing that these jobs would be as exploitative as those in Indonesia and Nigeria, China, and most of the rest of the world, were it not for generations of protesters who have won the right to such things as weekends, running water, windows, and heat in all rental homes, pension plans (now a thing of the past), a basic concern with workplace safety (who cares about toxic emissions inside the factory?), the right to sue in cases of sexual exploitation (gee, would you like to be a nineteenth century serving maid?), and countless other, rather obvious when you think about it, improvements.
Recap: Again, the only thing that makes the US a better place to work than Indonesia (with its seas of child labourers, and human trafficking, etc., etc.,), is its laws. Yep. Regulation. That means, a legislature which responds to the will and needs of the many. This is what won us Social Security, Equal Rights for non-whites, and anything else which keeps the system in the US from chewing up and spitting out the many, as it did before the 1930s (police routinely called in to shoot striking workers, etc. – read some labor history, folks!!!).
Without protest, congress and other legislations will inevitably tend to serve the rich, who are their biggest campaign financiers (and who can most easily run for and win office, esp. in a system which is now designed to highly favour the rich, and the corporately sponsored). Voting is the ultimate weapon, but the only way for those who do not control the media – i.e., the non rich, to send a message to fellow voters, is to demonstrate.
Finally, the decision to demonstrate is hardly ‘goofing off’ or avoiding work. It often entails a serious personal sacrifice, for personal safety, for reputational safety, for economic security. It takes, in short, balls. (or balls-ettes). Much more balls, I would argue, than it takes for you to report to the same job you have had for the last decade, and which provides all the creature comforts one could want, in exchange for a sacrifice of time and life quality which has long since become routine.