#OWS, a catalyst to change or or another social moan?
The various occupy movements around the country are responses to the unpalatable corporate hegemony causing havoc and discord while we’ve stepped away from conscious thought. People have returned to find themselves unemployed, homeless, without prospects, and all around clueless as to how this could have possibly come about. After all, aren’t poverty and homelessness supposed to be occurrences or circumstances that we read about in the Times while sipping our morning, three dollar cups of coffee? How then is it possible that our short absence from active participation in our government has left more than 50 million in poverty, in rising debt, hungry, and not to mention uninsured from the inevitable health catastrophe already plotted on our life lines? And most important of all, what are we supposed to do about it?
The most vocal action we have taken is Occupy. Since October, 2011, we have protested and camped out in front of corporate headquarters, overrun parks, caused traffic, made new friends, united, and altogether spread the word that we’re dissatisfied with how our country is being governed. Whether we talk about the environment, the corporate greed, the rampant inequality, the corruption, the farce that is our vote-for-sale democracy, or the fact that our leaders are waging perpetual wars for causes that no longer seem as clear as they once did; the fact is, we’re unhappy. A collective dissatisfaction that has manifested itself through various tactics, opinions, and forms of political expression; nevertheless, the soul of Occupy is definitely anti-capitalist; and unrightly so. Yes, you read right—unrightly so.
Like most I lament the abuses, inequalities, injustices, the corporate greed, and overall irresponsibility that runs outright rampant in our economy, in our country, in our world. But capitalism only holds the blame if we are willing to look in the mirror and point the finger at who we see looking back at us. Because capitalism, itself, is nothing more than a vehicle, or a structure permitting us to exchange things of value—i.e., ideas, products, services—all the while allowing us to own, accumulate, and invest in the same. The disagreeable aspects that we lament and live with are no more caused by capitalism, as is obesity caused by fast food or soda pop—the latter are definitely aggravating factors, but they aren’t the actual cause. And the anticaptalist soul of #OWS is self-defeating because it doesn’t offer a viable alternative.
The fight against capitalism is as futile as the “war on drugs,” and for exactly the same reason: once Pandora’s box has been opened, the market created, there is no going back. The only real question is not whether there is going to be a market, but how it is to be organized and managed, how humane it should be, and how the benefits and costs should be distributed. Anything beyond this is to peddle a fantasy like a “drug free America,” that simply isn’t helpful.
Anti-capitalists typically argue that it isn’t reasonable that prices go up when circumstances are dire. But then, under what conditions would it be reasonable for the price of anything to go up? We often forget that the function of prices is to ration goods so as to achieve a balance of supply that meets demand. The price of gasoline goes up because supply is low or threatened, not because of some sinister plot between the oil companies to bankrupt us at the pump.
Does it not seem reasonable that we limit our gas consumption in times of shortage? Yes, but what about when it comes to “price-gouging” and “profiteering,” whenever there is a natural disaster, like hurricane Katrina, or the quake that recently struck Japan? A fair point; but one that predates capitalism by almost 1500 years. In AD 301, the Roman emperor Diocletian imposed the well known Edict of Maximum Prices, which set price restraints on about 1000 goods and services. According to the American Journal of Archaeology Diocletian’s edict read:
And to the avarice of those who are always eager to turn to their own profit even the blessings of the gods, to seize hold of the abundance of public good fortune; those who in years of need traffic in the services of hucksters, the very ones who drain off huge fortunes which could abundantly satisfy the people, who chase after private gain and pursue their mutilating percentage—on their avarice, provincial citizens, regard for common humanity impels us to set a limit.
Diocletian’s punishment was permanent (i.e., the death penalty), which I doubt that many anti-capitalists would be willing to stomach. My point is simply that opportunistic greed predates capitalism and therefore can’t be caused by it.
However, there is a moral intuition at play here that whispers to all of us: that it is unfair, in times of shortage or disaster, to charge people extortionary rates for basic staple goods and necessities. Free market or not, it doesn’t seem right that unjust allocations should deprive people of shelter, food, heat, electricity, and all because “supply and demand” says so. After all, how can it be appropriate for companies to raise prices at the first sign of scarcity, thereby aggravating the already delicate predicaments of the poor?
I agree. But believe it or not there is a reasonable explanation behind this sort of behavior.
Any friend to humanity and community agrees that in a wealthy, industrialized nation like America it’s entirely unacceptable that some people have to survive on cat food or take shelter in dumpsters. But to treat this reality we must first identify the fundamental problems. Yes, they obviously can’t afford these bare necessities. But is this because of something being too expensive, or because they don’t have enough money? To which we might reply that it doesn’t matter, either way, since there are only two solutions: change the prices, or supplement people’s income. And here is where we’ll get anti-capitalists to hesitate.
There exist all kinds of moral hazard reasons as to why just handing people money to alleviate their problems makes even the most radical liberals hesitate. For many it comes down to personal responsibility. If someone is poor, we wonder why, and we may ask ourselves why it should be our responsibility to pay for his dinner—rather than his. A short-sighted question that we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another. There are those of us who just hand over the money, irrespective of the personal responsibility issue—I’ve sure done it.
However, fiddling with prices of any given product or commodity is a terrible way of resolving the issue of distributive justice, for the reason that low prices benefit everyone, and not everyone needs the benefit. Prime examples of this are the submarkets and supply issues manifested through rent-control laws in Manhattan; or the abuses of overuse with gasoline and electricity when made cheap irrespective of market prices. If something is cheap people will use more of it than they need. Which makes the idea of conservation, in this context, a lot like reminding people about their weight problems right after having given them discounted admission into an all-you-can-eat buffet.
A solution to this dilemma that balances out equality and efficiency would be to charge people the market price for the good, then provide an income supplement or voucher to be used on that particular good so as to defray the hardship that such a price would impose. Distributive justice is resolved without the wasteful incentive to overuse. Whether socialists or capitalists, scarcity pricing is the only reasonable way to avoid waste in respects to labor and resources. If a government were to try and assume the balancing, distributive role of the market, we would just be creating commodity black markets with even larger gaps of distributive justice, and more tax-free revenue to organized crime.
Instead of trying to debunk a system (capitalism), that in itself is not the problem, we should direct our collective efforts towards eradicating the temptations that, when pursued, make corporate behavior so destructive to society. In other words, we need to change the rules by which corporations are allowed to play. We’ve tried things their way and it just doesn’t work.
One of the instigating factors behind the American Revolution, and the onslaught of British colonists had to do with corporate rule that many of them lived under. Which probably had something to do with why corporations (as we see them today) were heavily restricted, in essence illegal, when the United Sates came to be. Yes, corporations could form, raise capital, and share profits, but only for certain activities that offered some form of public good—e,g., roads, dams, bridges, railways. However, they also had to share liability; and corporate licenses were only temporary; not to mention that corporations had no rights or personhood that would permit them to influence elections, public policy, laws, or civil life—essentially, they couldn’t make a mockery of democracy.
So what happened, what went wrong? Well, for the first century after the American Revolution legislators were able to protect us from the corporate hegemony. A defensive power revoked by the judicial branch who, in all its wisdom, decided that a corporation should have personhood. Later aggravated by the introduction of limited-liability rules in the nineteenth century. Basically a form of insurance whose insured and beneficiaries are the wealthy, and the premium payers—the public.
#OWS needs to direct its inertia towards informing the public on specific agendas, for example: revoking corporate personhood and limited liability; creating social safety nets for education, healthcare, and extreme poverty; and doing away with a loophole-riddled, 72,536 page federal tax code that currently allows corporations to only account for 8.9 percent of federal revenue, while individuals account for 81.5 percent. A task that despite Occupy’s popularity will not be easy, given that corporations and their interests control the airwaves. Nevertheless, it’s a battle that can be won if we direct our most popular weapon (the vote) towards the specific solutions we require. At the end of the day we don’t necessarily need airwaves to elect a candidate, we just need solidarity—and that we have.
Either #OWS leads us to real change, or it ends up being another social moan easily ignored by our amoral, immortal masters.