Occupy Wall Street has this week made it onto the front page of the New York Times, after several weeks of being ignored by cable TV and major media outlets. The movement has been criticized by all sides, variously called an amorphous, leaderless and undirected bunch of ill-behaved punks, or anarchists, or communist extremists. Somebody out there is all of those things. But as for the movement itself, though tainted by its more obnoxious and narcissistic elements and maligned in the press, is still very much worth paying attention to.
My main issue of agreement with the protesters, like many others, is that corporations are running the government–that therefore our government makes decisions that are not in the best interest of the people. Corporate personhood, plus K-Street lobbyists, have got to go in order for this to change.
Occupy Wall Street was originally started by AdBusters with one demand–that the structuring of campaign finance be addressed so corporations do not have as much sway. The movement has indeed been bandwagoned-on by communists and other varied interests, many of them with unreasonable demands. I still support the protests, not because I believe everything everyone protesting is standing for. Indeed, people from across the political spectrum are voicing demands so to agree with all would be impossible.
But I support the movement first because I support grass roots activism and protest, and second because the fundamental issue at stake is reeling in corporate misbehavior and their unfair influence on our institutions. Note it’s not an anti-capitalist stance, just one wanting free markets to work the way they’re supposed to. The cause seems to be close to universal among the general populace. Whether Occupy Wall Street can make headway on that issue or whether it will get mired in itself is another question.
The most notable sign I saw in coverage of the protest “I will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” Involving a social justice issue I care strongly about and rightfully dissing Texas on it aren’t the only reasons I liked the sign.
Corporate personhood is a strange concept to any citizen but it is a legal reality. That corporations are legal people has been gradually working our way into our laws for more than 100 years, since Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. Citizens United vs. FEC (which ebbed campaign finance reform victories achieved in McCain-Feingold) is only the most recent manifestation of this.
Does the status of corporations as legal persons have huge relevance to the obvious manipulation of government by corporate interests? Not obvious. It has at least some. And certainly it is a shocking and worthy poster cause: a corporation has the same rights as you, has more money, can’t be imprisoned, and never dies. I think this is where it gets so much attention–it is an obvious and codified instance of corporations overreaching.
Clearly, all evils in our system can’t be tracked to corporate personhood. The related phenomenon of K-Street lobbyist sway is a much bigger deal. But eliminating corporate personhood is an easily voiced and concrete, uniting demand. It is a most salient and egregious example of the kinds of abuses corporations perpetuate. As such, it is an appropriate banner issue for the movement, and I think a reasonable way to sum up the “list of demands” in a way that is easily understandable.
My friend Dan pointed out that NYC seems an odd place to protest. In some sense, I agree, the Wall Street location is purely symbolic. No corporation is going to respond to a protestor’s demand. The avenue of any hope for reform ultimately goes through legislative change. Corporate personhood was not even a legislative decision but a supreme court one. There has been at least one sister protest in DC. But the reality is that legislators are acutely aware of the protests in NYC as well. In some sense, the Occupy Wall Street movement is too big to ignore at this point, regardless of its location.
Also, the original protest was actually started by Adbusters magazine, who are Canadian. Maybe they didn’t feel as comfortable going after the US capital, but rather chose the world financial capital? In any case, the Adbusters publication has been one of my favorites (next to the Economist) since I first learned about them in The Shanty in college and later had copies brought hope by my more free-spending brother Eric (with no ads, the magazine costs almost $10).
Most of us are not gonna protest on Wall Street, so our varied voices cannot be heard. But almost everyone should know and care that corporations have unjust sway in who gets elected and thus, in turn what legislation is created and how they vote. And we should think this is a problem. Therefore we should support the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
The protesters, in turn should recognize the achievable centrist middle ground that they are demanding and focus on those issues, not their own pet issues. In this way they can receive unconditional support from moderates of all stripes and those of use here in more mellow parts of the country who don’t have the fertile environment in which to protest.
I have been accused of hypocrisy as a Libertarian leaner who supports the protests. Of those who defend the free market, I am indeed one of them. However, saying we are market supporters does not equate with saying anything that is done in the name of free market is good. Certainly, abuses by corporations, though prevalent, are not good.
The goal of a Libertarian (or Libertarian Paternalist even) is a small, independent government, not the large entity doing corporate bidding that currently exists. But just because we want less government doesn’t mean we’re ok with corporations puppeteering the government that exists, (however much larger it is than it should be). Corporations aren’t necessarily good, though we believe the free market is. Corporations and special interests using the bloated government for leverage actually stiles competition and destroys the free market. Stealing isn’t part of capitalism, though it is part of the corporate strategy.
Those who oppose government involvement (for good reason) should realize some government involvement (even paternalism) is optimal. Yes, it is important to be self reliant. But sometimes fires happen and you need a fire department. Sometimes people rob you so you need courts to bring them to justice. And sometimes corporations step out of line and so they need to be reeled in–perhaps by an independent non-government board, as we have seen how subservient current watchdogs are to corporate interests. Since the government curries such favor with Wall Street, they are not reliable to work for the people. We need to change this fundamental structure.
Occupy Wall Street is more extreme as a whole than is useful or even coherent. The actual list of demands that has been recently raised is a bit silly,unrealistic, and perhaps not doing the movement any good (demanding a $20 minumum wage, as well as payment for not working?). But then again, sometimes you need a Malcolm X to speak loudly in order for powers-that-be to embrace the more moderate position of MLK. Let’s hope that’s the way this juggernaut goes.
A good article on the universality of the protests is here. An excerpt: