By BJ Bjornson
I�ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests with a mixture of hope and pessimism. The hope is buoyed by the fact that the protests have sustained themselves and even built momentum over the past month, finally forcing the powers that be to start paying some attention to the anger that underlies the movement.
The pessimism is of course related to the clear unwillingness of a large segment of those powers to actually change a system that�s working quite well for them unless forced to, and it remains very uncertain whether or not simple protests will be sufficient to force more than merely cosmetic changes to the system.
Before I get to the reasons for that, it is a good idea to remember just why the protests exist to begin with. John Robb has been doing a pretty good job in following these things as well, and in a recent post, included this chart as a pictorial representation of just what these protests are about.
The same point has been made elsewhere, but basically boils down to the fact that since the late-70�s, early 80�s, gains in worker productivity have not been matched by gains in worker compensation. Instead, the cream�s been skimmed off the top by those at the top, and it�s mostly the latent anger at this which is driving the OWS protests.
The skimmers now find themselves in a very bad situation that makes compromise difficult, partly of their own making. That part being that while workers� pay hasn�t matched their increased productivity, the cost of living has, and now far too many of the 99% can�t afford the products they�ve been getting paid less and less to make. This is also why OWS is a worldwide phenomenon. The trans-nationals have been competing by looking for cheaper and cheaper labour forces to make their products, but we�re now getting past the point where there is any benefit from doing so. And with so many formerly well-paying jobs disappeared off-shore into sweatshops or transformed into low-paying service jobs, the potential customer base for those products has started to shrink as well.
Without customers, there is no demand, and with no demand, there are no profits to be made, short of the casino trading in financial products that Wall Street has become.
The second critical point is the one Ron has referred to often, and which Kevin Drum has a post on today: Peak Oil
It�s not the only resource which is facing constraints; though it is one of the biggest where the economic effects are already being felt. This is bad news for everyone, but for the folks at the top of the ladder, it means that simply moving back to a post-WWII economy where strong unions and government oversight allowed for a successful middle class and growing incomes across the board, including those at the top, just isn�t possible anymore. The overall economy is going to struggle to maintain any kind of real growth without smacking up against resource constraints that stop it in its tracks.
That means things might actually be a lot closer to the zero-sum game some of the more reactionary pundits make the �class war� out to be, which means the �haves� are going to be ever more reluctant to give in to the �have-nots�.
On the other hand, there is still a fair bit of room for that increased productivity to be put to truly productive uses at a local level that will allow for greater prosperity for most people even as resource constraints constrict trans-national supply chains and businesses that depend upon them. That change is coming upon us whether we like it or not, and it remains to be seen just how hard the entrenched interests fight against it.
Another John Robb post looked at the possibility of a Capitalist Reformation, modeled after what happened to the European Church, which may wind up being the model this transition takes. And while a reformation might not mean a complete rejection of the current system, but only a rejection of the current implementation/hierarchy/rules due to corruption, failure, and injustice (his words), I don�t recall the historical Reformation being at all peaceful, and it took a good long time to shake itself out.
Thus, my pessimism regarding the OWS movement. I wish them every success, because the alternative means things will ultimately get a whole lot uglier, as they have at other points in history.
All the shouts about "class war" bring to mind images of rabid Jacobin mobs in 1793 hauling brave nobles and gentlemen to the guillotine. But if Rupert & co. really want us pondering that image, we owe it to ourselves to leaf back just a few pages to 1789, when the revolution began as a much more moderate thing, inspired by events across the ocean, in America.
France was broke. Louis XVI and his ministers were incompetents who deliberately squelched commerce with internal tariffs and policies that crushed innovation. The church owned much of the productive land, tax-free. So did the feudal aristocracy. Top merchants and corporations managed to wrangle exemptions too. After years of quagmire wars, poor tax revenue, bank collapses and mismanagement, Louis needed more money to stave off bankruptcy and save the country. So he summoned the Estates General.
That was the rough French equivalent of the British Parliament, but with much less authority. In fact, it had last met in 1614. But Louis was desperate. What he needed was for the first and second "estates" -- the clergy and nobles -- to vote themselves a temporary levy and join the third estate (the people) in paying their fair share.
That's how it all started. The country's leader asking oligarchs and aristocrats to pay the same rates as common folk, for a while, especially since they already owned damn near everything. The answer given by the dukes and bishops and marquiseseses? Heck no! We're the ones keeping it all together. The managers and investors and owners and job-makers. The government can damn well keep its mitts out of our pockets. It's our money, not the state's.
We�re not there in North America quite yet, and if the OWS movement results in some real change rather than a simple re-entrenchment of wealthy interests, we can hopefully still avoid it altogether.