The news story dominating the headlines as Tracy and I return from our ten day visit to America’s largest creditor are the protests being staged by “Occupy Wall Street” down in New York City. Despite the relatively small number of participants, OWS is getting major play on cable news and, of course, in the blogosphere.
A major theme of this coverage is the group’s lack of a clear, focused message. The criticism is hardly new, and certainly not unique to OWS. In fact, it’s plagued the left since forever.
I’ve been to anti-war protests and pro-choice protests, and I found that both attracted the same travelling coterie of seemingly random elements (“Free Mumia!” “Free Peltier!” “Legalize It!” etc. etc.). This glomming on of fringe interests is not unique to the left – the Tea Party, despite being a largely corporate-organized Astroturf affair, attracted its share of unrelated right-wing nuttery – but it hurts us more because the media finds Dirty Fucking Hippies™ much easier to parody than they do the right’s corresponding contingent.
Assuming OWS can get its act together and focus on the economy, however, they still have a tough job to do in communicating a message that’s simple and accurate. The right’s economic message – Taxes Bad! Government Bad! Freedom Good! – is just plain easier to convey than the left’s more nuanced and complex view of the proper role of government in regulating the marketplace, policing corporate bad behavior, maintaining the commons (public infrastructure and whatnot) and providing a safety net for the less fortunate among us. That doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.
But we on the left always make this messaging problem worse than it has to be. When we rail against capitalism we play right into that dirty hippy caricature. When we launch into tirades about the Republicrats and Demicans being wholly-owned subsidiaries of Wall Street whose explicit goal is to keep us in line while they do the bidding of the Plutocracy, we sound like tools. And when we talk about the need for revolution and overthrowing the system – and yes, a few among the activist left still do, and they’re often the ones who you’ll see viral videos of, not the sober, reasonable majority of us – you can hear the mind of Joe Sixpack slamming shut.
We need a message that’s simple and more accessible than that. Something that resonates with the non-politically-obsessed majority. And here’s what I think that message should be:
We want our share.
That’s simple, right? We’re not aiming to replace global capitalism with a Socialist Utopia. We’re not trying to recreate a European-style welfare state here in America. We’re not lazy assholes who want the government to take care of us. We’re not looking for a handout.
We just want our share.
Because for the past thirty years, we haven’t been getting it.
United States GDP has climbed steadily since the early 80′s, and corporate profits have climbed along with them. The shareholder class – and I’m not talking about you with the hobbyist E*Trade account or me with my 401-K – has done amazingly well. The top 10% has kept up with the pace of growth and the top 1% have seen their fortunes grow to Gilded Age levels.
But the middle class and working class? We got jack. We got wage stagnation. Our incomes have flatlined since Saint Reagan brought the dogma of low-taxes and deregulation as solutions to everything into our lives (and New Democrats rushed to become more “pro-business” in response).
The promise was that, unfettered by regulation and taxation and the demands of labor, the John Galts of America would be set free to create growth and opportunity for all. The reality is that they looked around and just decided to keep everything for themselves. The staggering amount of wealth our country has generated in the last three decades? All for them. Skyrocketing corporate profits? Straight into the pockets of the shareholders, and to hell with the employees who made it possible. Thirty years of riches. All for them, none for you.
(And you didn’t really call them on it, did you? Because you kept believing that some day, if you kept your nose to that grindstone, they’d reward you. Sucker.)
Remember, they didn’t create this wealth in a vacuum. We helped. We put in the hours at our desks, behind our counters, and in the factories. We gave them the consumer demand they needed by taking our paychecks (and our plastic) and ponying up for the stuff they were selling. We were part of the engine – the most important part, actually – that created the pile of gold they’re now hoarding. The myth of the Superman CEO and the Genius Investor notwithstanding, the financial elite didn’t suddenly start doing more to earn their share of the pie in 1980. They add about as much value as they did before (and to be fair, they have a role to play) and so do the rest of us. But they got to keep the loot.
So, you see, what Occupy Wall Street is trying to say – or at the very least what they should be trying to say – is simply that this state of affairs is fucked up, and it’s time for it to end.
We want our share of the wealth we helped create.
Not a handout. Not a free ride.