Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive
— Atukwei Okai
Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I watch with keen interest the Occupy Wall Street movement and its affiliates, in my case Occupy St. Louis. Like many Americans, perhaps most Americans, I wonder if this movement is ephemeral.
Occupy Wall Street says in its “Statement Of Purpose, “We, the 99 percent, are hereby taking action against the greed and corruption of the richest 1 percent, the bankers, politicians, and corporate persons that govern our nation.” In my experience, the problem with being the 99% is that there are 99 voices all speaking at once. Mass movements are often as exciting as they are confusing. There are 99 sub-texts. In this case, however, there is a clear message. America, it is OK to critique capitalism.
It is OK to critique capitalism. This is an affirmative message in that it encourages reform that mitigates against the worst impulses of capitalism, impulses that have enriched the already rich, impoverished many who were middle class, and further impoverished the already poor. Occupy Wall Street is a reform. Far from being a violent manifesto, the “Statement Of Purpose” endorses nonviolence.
I am reminded of our political ancestors. Roughly one hundred years ago, the British consolidated their social democratic impulses with the trade union movement, the result being the Labour Party. In our country, these same impulses became more fragmented, with the social democratic critique of capitalism, Eugene Debs for instance, becoming a tiny voice, and the union movement becoming both pro-worker and capitalist. Any lingering critique of capitalism was muted by several persecutions of the left, the worst being McCarthyism.
But that’s over now. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, there also fell the fear of the leftist critique. No one worries about the communist take-over. They worry about the corporate take-over of their pension plan, their small business, their family farm. Folks worry about their jobs, their homes, their health.
This is the critique that is not going away. It is a call for reform. But it is reform with a hard edge, because the 99% are clearly saying that capitalism cannot go on like this. If it means class warfare, then let there be class warfare. Folks remember that, from Reagan’s deregulation to Madoff’s larceny, this war was ignited by the 1%.
Embedded in this critique is a clear narrative, a clear story – some people are inordinately rich because some people are inordinately poor. Bob Smith is poor because Bernie Madoff stole his money. Sam Smith got laid off while the CEO got a million dollar bonus. The poor fight the war while Haliburton … . You get the idea. It is a consistent narrative. Nothing sparks reform quite like a good story.
Let me tell another story. I am a Vietnam veteran from a modest background. I am grateful for the G. I. Bill. In large part, it was through the G. I. Bill that I got my bachelor’s degree, my M. A., and my first teacher’s certificate. The G. I. Bill also helped me finance my home. Should I need it, I have health coverage from the Veterans’ Administration, a fact I find comforting. I can say, without hesitation, that the G. I. Bill changed my entire life, as it has changed the lives of millions of veterans. My point being that I am one of millions of citizens who can attest to the fact that large scale governmental programs can do tremendous good.
Folks are not blind to the fact that unchecked government can do harm. But that is not the problem right now. Indeed, in most arguments these days, that’s the red herring. The problem is unchecked capitalism. Thus the gift of Occupy Wall Street – it is OK to critique capitalism.
Someone once said, I think it was Huey Long, that if a guy worked hard and played by the rules, he didn’t want to take away this guy’s first limousine. Long wanted to take away his second limousine. There are practical consequences to a critique of capitalism. Reforms lead to proposals, and proposals lead to laws. Tax the rich. Regulate the corporations. Pay for the wars. But in the spirit of our political ancestors, like Huey Long, this doesn’t mean punish those who have done no more than work hard and play by the rules. It means this. Take care Vince, a janitor, who worked hard, played by the rules, but is now, at age sixty, out of work because a corporate take-over led to his impoverishment.
first published in The St. Louis Beacon