Ain’t Exactly Clear

October 24th, 2011

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In a recent New York Times column titled, “Something’s Happening Here,” Thomas Friedman suggests “two unified theories” clear up questions about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Why only two? In the Buffalo Springfield song “Something’s Happening Here,” the next line reads: “what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Friedman seems pretty clear that OWS is evidence of “The Great Disruption” or “The Big Shift.”1 Paul Gilding is the Australian environmentalist and author of the book The Great Disruption. He argues that demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits. “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation—I see our system in the painful process of breaking down,” which is what he means by the Great Disruption. Gilding makes good points but then goes awry.

“Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes.” Not really. The kid in the story wasn’t saying what everyone knew—he saw what everyone else refused to see. OWS isn’t a “broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up,” as Gilding claims. It’s an entitled generation that refuses to wake up and confront brutal reality.

This became apparent when Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen sent a researcher to Zuccotti Park last week to interview nearly 200 protesters. His company characterized the majority of protesters—mostly college graduates—as opposed to free-market capitalism and for government redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas. “Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement—no matter the cost.” This is hardly Hooverville, however. The protesters can afford Starbucks lattes and iPhones. They have no qualms about calling on friends to give money so that they can order copious amounts of pizza from capitalist pizza companies. On closer inspection, Occupy Wall Street has a decidedly Marxist take on capitalism.

Most Americans recognize this. That’s why they aren’t paying much attention to OWS. Those who know a bit of history would say the kid in the fairy story would say the emperor is naked—but the emperor is OSW’s take on capitalism. It’s essentially Marxist. “Karl Marx gave capitalism—the system he hated fiercely—its now-classic definition,” writes Novak in Business as a Calling. Marx reframed it as merely a system of market exchange, private property, and private accumulation of profit. “Knowing Marx’s animosity against capitalism, why should we accept that definition?” Novak counters that capitalism was historically “an economic system, dependent on an appropriate political system and a supportive moral-cultural system [italics mine]. Rodney Stark concurs. In The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, he writes that Christianity was the supportive moral-cultural system that made capitalism flourish. Gilding doesn’t include this in his analysis.

Friedman’s second theory is “The Big Shift,” part of John Hagel III and John Seely Brown’s book, The Power of Pull. They suggest that we’re in the early stages of a “Big Shift,” precipitated by the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution. Friedman claims the Big Shift “unleashes a huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities. This flow is disruptive at first, explaining OWS. But it taps “the global flow” to “productivity, growth and prosperity.” Friedman gets positively frothy about how “flow will prevail and topple any obstacles in its way.” The problem is, when you blow off the froth, there’s very little beer left in Friedman’s glass.

My wife and I recently had a couple from Burundi spend the night with us. Burundi is a dirt-poor African country. Corruption is rife, the court system is broken down, Internet is sporadic, roads hardly exist, and poverty is entrenched. This couple would be considered upper middle class in Burundi, yet their home lacks running water. When Friedman writes “that individuals—individuals—anywhere can now access the flow to take online courses at Stanford from a village in Africa, to start a new company with customers everywhere or to collaborate with people anywhere,” he’s overlooking the reality that this requires overlapping networks. Individuals may be able to access more information than ever before but assembling networks requires institutions such as good government, a competent and efficient court system, honest police, an effective educational system, honest bankers, and a reliable transportation system. In a word, infrastructure. Burundi doesn’t have it. There is little “flow.”

In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter writes: “It is sometimes true that economic revolts and social movements (such as environmentalism) occur from the “bottom up;“ that is, through the mobilization of ordinary people. And while they can have tremendous influence, on their own terms, the specific ends are often limited and/or short-lived.” He notes how “the deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occurs from the “top down.” OWS is essentially agitation—and that has a place. Hunter however notes the impetus for change from popular agitation “does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.”

Friedman’s column closes with a dichotomy and calls for a decision: “So there you have it: Two master narratives. You decide.” It’s not that simple. Simplistic frames present a problem. They tend to overplay their hand. New frameworks become problematic when they claim to be predictive of everything. If Friedman feels something’s happening in Occupy Wall Street, he’d be wise to include the historic contributions of Christianity to capitalism, or else he ain’t exactly clear on what’s happening here.

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1 Thomas L. Friedman, “Something’s Happening Here” New York Times, October 11, 2011.

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11 Responses to “Ain’t Exactly Clear”

  1. Chris Harness says:

    Great piece, Mike!

    While showing friends from Missouri around Brussels last weekend, I happened to walk through our equivalent of OWS here in the heart of the EU. There was an orderly tent city of about 300 people with the standard signs we have all seen in the media.

    I was able to walk through the demonstration because they were not demonstrating. They were sitting in small groupings. Admittedly, I did not speak with any of them but there appearance was definitely ‘Rasta’. Dreadlocks were the predominant hairstyle and I could smell the distinctive odor of their favorite recreational ‘tobacco’.

    I can away thinking that this is an opportunity for a sub-culture to promote their lifestyle. The people there had already checked out of the mainstream long before the economic crisis. This is their Armageddon. The scene seemed to say, “See, global capitalism is evil! Repent and live in peace with everyone!”

    The world is definitely in transition. I share your scepticism, Mike. Mr Friedman is hoping. Hope is an essential human perspective but it’s terrible prognostication!

  2. John Seel says:

    Wall Street Boomers have given capitalism a bad name. Likewise, OWS gives contemporary youth a bad name. In the end, better minds and visions will have to prevail. Entitlement, narcissism, and celebrity culture does not a significant historical movement make. There is too much work to be done both here and abroad to waste time on a movement based on playing the victim.

  3. Alan Jones says:

    Good post. Thank you.

    I grew up in South Africa and had a lot of opportunity for non-tourist travel right up East Africa, from Botswana to Northern Kenya. I have stayed in homes in villages and cities and I agree with you, mere information is one piece of a complex puzzle which involves good governance and infrastructure. And it also involves culture, family and belief systems.
    Has anyone here ever read “The White Man’s Burden” by William Easterly?

    I think what you’re insinuating is that systems of government are built on belief systems, culture and family ethics; be it tribalism or western capitalism. And it is not western democracy which has made Capitalism flourish, but Christianity. I think you’re spot on!
    The legislature should take what is right and make it legal. In reality it makes something legal and tells us that it’s right. The legislature is faulty because it’s moral bedrock is in decay. But that’s the same reason why our government is faulty and our media is faulty and our food distribution, medicine and science is also faulty.

    I now run a business in Tacoma. Forget the 1% safely behind the police line… and the 79% sitting on their bums outside. Let’s support the 20% who are carrying both the Tax and the Economy!

  4. Bob Robinson says:

    Although you want to remain “non-partisan,” you’re tipping your political hand here, Mike. It is not fair to the entire OWS movement to caricature it as merely full of bratty college students who favor Marxism over capitalism. While it is true that many of the protestors are what you characterize here, there are legitimate concerns being voiced about how our political system has been subverted by crony capitalism.

    As Timothy Sherratt pointed out, “Protest is by its nature more inchoate than coherent,” but as protest movements mature and more and more elites get on board, they increase in power to can steer the public discourse.

    You don’t have to be a Marxist to want to protest how our political system is being corrupted by corporate money. The main issues of the OWS movement are not that difficult to discern: (1) The protestors believe that the wealthiest 1% have an unjust advantage over the rest of the country’s population because they can influence the political process and tax laws with their pocketbooks, and (2) they believe that corporations have an imbalanced influence in Washington, unfairly getting favors in the legislative process and doing all they can to wipe out regulatory restrictions at the expense of the common good.

    Conservatives can scoff at these young protestors drinking Starbucks lattes and tweeting with their iPhones, but one can purchase items made by corporations (and even affirm the goodness of corporations and capitalism) while at the same time demanding that corporations be held accountable to the people. Notice that the political conversation is beginning to shift: Even the Republican candidates for president now have to deal with these issues.

    I know you don’t want to believe it, but Thomas Friedman is an elite with a lot of influence. If he is writing these things in his very popular column in the New York Times, the most read news source in the country, then the ideas of OWS are not just coming from the “bottom-up,” but also from the “top-down.”

    I agree with you about the historic contributions of Christianity to capitalism, but Christianity also has a history of overcoming social injustice and economic oppression. Something else that Friedman did not mention is how many Christians have sided with the OWS movement – one does not need to be a socialist to find huge problems with crony capitalism.

  5. kyle vitasek says:

    This Fortune article seems to give some good perspective – http://finance.fortune.cnn.com/2011/10/24/american-dream-is-gone/?iid=SF_F_LN – no prognostication, but great analysis. The “Young And Jobless” section is particularly interesting. When we sit around and don’t learn the value of work or “how the world really works” as kids, we take much longer to grow up, and cry when the world punches us instead of getting up and moving on with it.

    I encourage you men to pour into guys my age so that we can lead our families and change the next generation for the better. Many of my peers are “asleep at the wheel”, up to their eyes in debt, and letting their wives be the only one in the house w/any ambition.

    This doesn’t bode well for America, or the world in general.

    Thanks for writing Mike. Great e-mentoring 🙂

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Bob:

    You make several good points and of course you don’t have to be a Marxist to agree with some of OWS’ arguments. I agree by the way about your characterization of Friedman as very influential. I want to – and do – believe it! But I don’t think I characterized the entire movement as bratty – simply pointed out what the research indicates. The best books on this might be “Reckless Endangerment,” which describes our current crisis as far more complex than OWS makes it out to be, and “The World is Flat” by David Smick, which refutes some of Friedman’s simplistic notions about finance, trade, and capitalism.

  7. Denis Haack says:

    Mike:
    You say, “OWS isn’t a ‘broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up,’ as Gilding claims. It’s an entitled generation that refuses to wake up and confront brutal reality.”

    I do not doubt this is true, as far as it goes, and suspected as much from the start though I have not gone to any of the demonstration sites and talked to those involved. From what I know about our world I would have been rather surprised to find a sense of entitlement absent. What I find troubling about your essay is not that you would note this, but that you ignore the wider context that gave birth to these protests.

    The young adults I talk to have questions about capitalism not because they are Marxists—I doubt many in OWS have read the primary authors of either system—but because they sense an inequality in American capitalism that reeks of corruption. Although I do not always agree with Matt Tiabbi of Rolling Stone, he is correct when he notes: “When Joe Homeowner bought too much house, essentially betting that home prices would go up, and losing his bet when they dropped, he was an irresponsible putz who shouldn’t whine about being put on the street. But when banks bet billions on a firm like AIG that was heavily invested in mortgages, they were making the same bet that Joe Homeowner made, leaving themselves hugely exposed to a sudden drop in home prices. But instead of being asked to ‘suck it in and cope’ when that bet failed, the banks instead went straight to Washington for a bailout—and got it.” As Tiabbi notes, this sort of unjust inequality has been going on for a long time. (His online piece is here: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/owss-beef-wall-street-isnt-winning-its-cheating-20111025)

    To interview demonstrators is helpful, but not in itself sufficient. The OWS demonstrators may have most things wrong, especially in the changes they seek to see instituted. They may even be so shaped by their sense of entitlement that they are currently incapable to forming the sort of thoughtful solutions that ought to be under careful consideration. But having been in college in the Sixties I know that protest movements can not be measured only by the goals they propose, but by the sense of outrage that motivated them to join the movement to begin with.

    To the extent that OWS represents a sense of entitlement, I would as a Christian be unable to be supportive. To the extent OWS is a movement spawned by outrage over the injustices presently practiced by our financial system and protected by law, I would argue that as a Christian I must be concerned to work for greater justice.

    As Michael Novak so brilliantly demonstrated, capitalism is not isolated from culture, law, and justice, and must not be.

  8. Mike Metzger says:

    Bob (et al):

    Another way to think about this (since my work is bi-partisan) is neither party shows much appreciation for what Lord Moulton called for: cultivating “obedience to the unenforceable.” This is the moral middle, were people act as they ought. It requires morality married to markets and government. Most Republicans are facile with God talk but unfamiliar with how it actually informs capitalism. Result? Markets without morality – what OWS sees. I get it. Capitalists largely do what they “want to.” Many Democrats are facile with God talk as well, but they look more to the coercive power of the state to change behavior. They talk about what we “have to” do. This is contra Moulton as well as human nature, which operates by desire. Capitalists get this part right – we operate by desire, but desire should not be grounded solely in “want to.” Neither party, as well as OWS, seems to be clear on Moulton and calling for a system that takes seriously the kind of sacred order that can meaningfully change capitalism. That would require expanding the moral middle, not appealing to “want to” and “have to.”

  9. Mike Metzger says:

    Dennis:

    Well said – can’t complain with much except asking, “Why did the banks get the money from Washington?” Washington is responsive to voter (homeowner) mood. Again, I agree with you that Christians must have a greater concern for injustice. I would submit however that had Washington, Fannie Mae, and all the rest – including us – been able to keep kicking the can down the road and postponed the recession, there would be no OWS. The sub-title for David Smick’s “The World is Curved” says the housing crisis is just the beginning… not the culmination of a crisis. Finger-pointing at a select few will breed resentment and get us nowhere. China’s recent indictment is essentially correct – “the U.S. must learn to live within its means.” Niall Ferguson (“The Ascent of Money”) suggests we are following in the footsteps of fallen economic powers – Spain in the 1600s, France in the 1700s, England in the 1800s, US in the 1900s… Look at what’s happening in Greece, Italy, and Ireland. When the bills start to come due, it is those nearer the bottom who feel the pain most acutely (i.e, OWS kids). But the solution, including frugality, is usually beyond the grasp of most citizens, not just the first unfortunate few. Decline is not destiny, but we’re spitting in the wind unless we get on the same page on this problem. Einstein said we cannot solve a problem inside the frame that created it. Who is reframing this problem outside the current frames of resentment, entitlement, coercive redistribution, and/or capitalism without a conscience?

  10. Mike Metzger says:

    Oops… Smick’s book is “The World Is Curved.” I mistakenly wrote (above) “The World is Flat,” Friedman’s title.

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