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Why Occupy Wall Street?By Daniel Johnson, Deputy Executive Editor, Salem-News.com
The eighteenth century philosopher John Locke, famously coined the concept of people’s fundamental rights as being to life, liberty and property and qualified this by asserting that people should appropriate only what they could use, leaving “enough and as good” for others.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - "Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power—in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions—is destroying financial security for everyone else?" (Blogger Glen Greenwald)
Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown, co-editor of Dissent and the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation says that “by finally making the gulf between the wealthiest class and everyone else impossible to ignore, the occupiers, in their tenacious rage, are doing a great service to our country.”
There is no consensus definition of capitalism, but there is general agreement that it is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned, or primarily so. Under the umbrella of competitive markets, goods and services are created with the goal of generating profits with wages and prices being basic elements of the system.
Capitalism and free-enterprise are routinely thought of us being the same thing, but they are not. Capitalism is an ideology that has gotten out of hand and threatens to destroy the earth making it uninhabitable for humans and many species of animals.
Free enterprise, on the other hand, is a playing out of the natural competitive proclivities of people. Some people are more competitive than others, but the nature of the competition is not naturally “kill or be killed” as it is practiced with capitalism. Wal-Mart is capitalism. Your locally owned and run business establishment is free enterprise.
How the world has come to this threatening dilemma requires background and understanding. I start with Aristotle who has done lots of other unacknowledged damage to Western culture.
Twenty four centuries ago Aristotle held a view of the world that still dominates our thinking in the West today. He placed all living things on a hierarchy of perceived importance, with humans at the top, just below the gods and descending down through the lesser animals to plants at the bottom of living things. Subsequently adopted by the Judeo-Christian world, humans were seen as dominant over all other creatures and the earth itself, in an ordering of life that came to be called the Great Chain of Being.
Seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes refined this worldview by declaring the universe to be like a machine—an idea supported and extended by many influential philosophers and scientists who followed him. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) discovered the planetary laws of motion which made it possible for Isaac Newton (1642-1727) to discover the universal law of gravitation. Said Kepler: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but rather to a clockwork.” Robert Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society (1660) described the universe as “a great piece of clockwork”.
Déscartes’ machine-world was exemplified by the influential Cartesian philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715). He and some friends were strolling one day when a pregnant dog came by. Malebranche knelt to pet her, then, making sure his friends were watching, stood up and kicked the animal in the stomach. The dog ran yelping down the street, and Malebranche’s companions protested vocally. Hardening his voice, Malebranche said in essence: Restrain yourselves. That dog is nothing but a machine. Rub it there, it scratches. Whistle, it comes. Kick it, it yelps and runs away. There is a button to push and a mechanism for each of its actions. It is nothing but a machine. Save your compassion for human souls.
The goal of these materialist philosophers and scientists was to reduce man to measurable and manipulable parts of a great cosmic machine. Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) argued that an all-knowing Intelligence, knowing the state (position and velocity) of every particle in the universe (from atoms to planets) could predict the future—like hitting balls on a pool table—and, going in reverse, know everything that has ever happened back to the beginning.
This view—called reductionism—is still dominant in science today (except quantum physics), where everything can ultimately (in principle) be reduced to physical terms. As biologist David Sloan Wilson puts it: “As with the can opener or the heart, the key is to understand the details”.
Philosopher Richard Watson describes the situation four centuries after Déscartes:
“The world is Cartesian to the core because all science and technology today is based on describing the material world mathematically as a vast machine whose various parts interact according to laws of motion.”
If reductionism has been successful, it should also be recognized as a one-way street. As physicist Philip Anderson puts it:
"The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by any means imply a 'constructionist' one: the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. In fact, the more that elementary particle physics tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society."
The effect is what the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, reacting to Newton's cosmic sterility, called a “universe of death”. MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky, as if he is channelling Descartes, is an example par excellence:
“The mind is what the brain does. The brain is hundreds of computers that evolved for five hundred million years. It’s a wonderful natural phenomenon, and we have to understand how this thing works. We must sweep aside the idea that the mind is animated by a soul or a spirit or anything like that. In fact, my view is that there is something insulting and degrading about the idea of a soul, and the idea of a spirit.” (italics added)
In 1799, three quarters of a century after Newton’s death, Laplace sent copies of his Treatise on Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon Bonaparte. In it, Laplace explained the origin of the solar system as not the product of divine design, as Newton had done, but as the result of natural gravitational forces. Calling on Laplace to discuss his Treatise, Napoleon asked him about the role of God in his theory. Newton spoke of God in his book, Napoleon said. I have read yours, but failed to find his name mentioned even once. Why? Laplace reportedly gave the now famous reply: “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis”.
Barely half a century later (1859), Charles Darwin gave the world his Theory of Evolution. It was at this historical juncture that humanity's self-view became mis-framed and it’s been downhill ever since.
That mankind was part of the animal kingdom was not in dispute. But it was the rich and the powerful men in society and their sycophantic minions who co-opted Darwin’s ideas to justify their greed and domination of society through a philosophy that came to be called Social Darwinism.
There is, in the animal world, an undeniable struggle for existence, governed by an overall mechanism—survival of the fittest. (Darwin had said “survival of the most adaptable; Herbert Spencer coined “survival of the fittest”) Class stratification in human society thus became justified on the basis of “natural” inequalities among individuals. The control of wealth and property was argued to be the result of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality, on the part of those on the top of the biological/social heap. Attempts to reform society through state intervention or other means would, in this view, interfere with the natural order. Unrestricted competition and defense of the status quo were in accord with biological selection. The poor were the “unfit” and should not be helped because doing so would go against nature and natural law. In the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. (As late as the 1980s, Nobel economist Milton Friedman was still arguing this tenet, that government activity went against the natural order.)
But, as sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote almost a century ago
“A man does not, by nature, wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose. Wherever modern capitalism has begun its work of increasing the productivity of human labour by increasing its intensity, it has encountered the immensely stubborn resistance of this leading trait of pre-capitalistic labour.”
In 1934, Joseph Schumpeter, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century made this view official:
“our analysis leads us to believe that recovery is sound only if it comes of itself. For any revival which is merely due to artificial stimulus leaves part of the work of depressions undone and adds, to an undigested remnant of maladjustment, new maladjustments of its own.” (sound like a familiar contemporary conservative argument?)
Herbert Spencer, the “Father of Sociology” in the 19th century, opposed government aid to the poor:
“If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”
A few decades later, in a Sunday School address, John D. Rockefeller said:
“The growth of a large business is merely survival of the fittest. The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendour and fragrance which cheer its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God.”
The most influential of the social Darwinists was William Graham Sumner who taught at Yale (1872 to 1909). He defended millionaires, saying that
“...millionaires are a product of natural selection, acting on the whole body of men to pick out those who can meet the requirement of certain work to be done. It is because they are thus selected that wealth-—both their own and that entrusted to them-—aggregates under their hands… They may fairly be regarded as the naturally selected agents of society for certain work. They get high wages and live in luxury, but the bargain is a good one for society. There is the intensest competition for their place and occupation. This assures that all who are competent for this function will be employed in it, so that the cost of it will be reduced to the lowest terms.”
If true, then today’s billionaires are an even greater good for our society. For example, hedge fund manager John Paulson made a fortune betting against the housing market. As Canadian journalist Linda McQuaig writes in The Trouble With Billionaires (2010), he
“figured out how to make money betting that the millions of people signing up for mortgages they could only dream of actually affording would soon start defaulting. When they did, Paulson was there, watching money flood into his hedge fund with the torrential force of a great deal of water travelling down a very steep incline. In 2007 he personally pocketed $3.7 billion, giving him the record—perhaps of all time—for financially profiting from the misery of others.” (italics added)
In the world of Social Darwinism, progress is a harsh taskmaster. Edward Youmans, the founder of Popular Science magazine summarized that sentiment, saying that
“We are born well, or born badly, and that whoever is ushered into existence at the bottom of the scale can never rise to the top because the weight of the universe is upon him.”
American mythology denies this, but it's a myopic view. Americans can believe this only because they are lucky enough to have been born in, or emigrated to, the United States. The same cannot be said of the billions of individuals born in most of the other countries of the world.
Lester Ward, the first president of the American Sociological Society, was not fooled by the veneer of pseudo-science over the Social Darwinist façade:
“The fundamental principle of biology is natural selection, that of sociology is artificial selection. The survival of the fittest is simply survival of the strong, which implies and would be better called the destruction of the weak. If nature progresses through the destruction of the weak, man progresses through protection of the weak.”
Ward’s benevolent understanding, however, did not prevail as it would have undercut the interests of the millionaires. Sumner had published a book What Social Classes Owe Each Other (1883) and Ward reviewed it, understanding exactly how humanity’s mis-framing had occurred:
“The whole book is based on the fundamental error that the favors of this world are distributed entirely according to merit. Poverty is only a proof of indolence and vice. Wealth simply shows the industry and virtue of the possessors. The very most is made of Malthusianism, and human activities are degraded to a complete level with those of animals.” (italics added—emphasizing the exact mis-framing that has delivered mankind into today’s global peril)
A virtually inevitable result of 19th century Social Darwinism was the 1930s Great Depression where the Struggle for Existence and Survival of the Fittest were reduced to an even simpler social doctrine: Every man for himself. President Roosevelt apparently went against his class in establishing things like minimum wages, Social Security and unemployment insurance, but in doing so he was simply preserving the system despite the terrible stresses of the Depression.
In believing we are free individuals in a free society, we blame ourselves for problems that are beyond our control and the causes of which we often don’t even comprehend. Carl Jung said that:
“…a collective problem, if not recognized as such, always appears as a personal problem, and in individual cases may give the impression that something is out of order in the personal realm. The personal sphere is indeed disturbed, but such disturbances need not be primary; they may well be secondary, the consequence of an insupportable change in the social atmosphere. The cause of disturbance is, therefore, not to be sought in the personal surroundings, but rather in the collective situation.”
In 1931, for example, James H. Gray applied for public relief in Winnipeg.
“At home were my wife and daughter, and my mother, father, and two younger brothers. Applying for relief might prove the most humiliating experience of my life (it did); but it had to be done, and I had to do it. The deep-down realization that I had nobody to blame but myself made the journey doubly difficult.” (italics added)
In 80 years since, that feeling has not only remained but has become more pronounced in society at large. Republican presidential aspirant Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza railed against the Occupy Wall Street protesters during the 2012 presidential campaign:
"Don't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks, if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!" Cain said. "It is not a person's fault because they succeeded, it is a person's fault if they failed. And so this is why I don't understand these demonstrations and what it is that they're looking for."
Nearly a century ago (1914) President Woodrow Wilson said:
“American industry is not free, as once it was free. The man with only a little capital is finding it harder to get into the field, more and more impossible to compete with the big fellow. Why? Because the laws of this country do not prevent the strong from crushing the weak.”(italics added)
For the overwhelming majority of people, industry (now called “business”) is not only less free today, but is positively tyrannical when 80% of the nation’s income goes to the top 5% of earners. This is the inevitable result of more than a century and a half of expanding Social Darwinism.
Concepts from biology have become part of the business lexicon and a demonstration of society’s mis-framing. Notice the business terms that are used in daily discourse to describe ordinary life. How often do we talk about things like efficiency, the bottom line, cost-effective, profit, productivity, due-diligence, to name only a few, when referring to ordinary life?
Were Charles Darwin alive today, he would aggressively reject what has been done in his name. He was particularly unhappy with the argument linking social progress with the harsh treatment of people who were “unfit” to survive in the struggle for life. In The Descent of Man (1871) he wrote:
“With savages, the weak in body and mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.”
What motivates people in this way, he said, is
“the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but [was] subsequently rendered more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” (emphasis added—rejecting the social Darwinist dogma that man is an animal and nothing more.)
This describes modern society, where the “noblest part of our nature” has not only deteriorated, but has been actively rejected. Sympathy is just not a value in our business-dominated society. As biologist Richard Dawkins (best known for The Selfish Gene and more recently The God Delusion noted:
“[T]he welfare state is a very unnatural thing. There is no need for altruistic restraint in the birth-rate, because there is no welfare state in nature. Since we humans do not want to return to the old selfish ways where we let the children of too-large families starve to death, we have abolished the family as a unit of economic self-sufficiency, and substituted the state. But the privilege of guaranteed support for children should not be abused.”
And so it has come to pass. Political scientist Frances Fox Piven, writing in Regulating the Poor (1971, updated 1993):
“Some of the aged, the disabled, the insane, and others who are of no use as workers are left on the relief rolls, and their treatment is so degrading and punitive as to instil in the laboring masses a fear of the fate that awaits them should they relax into beggary and pauperism.”
As a society, we have not advanced much beyond the workhouse attitude of Victorian England. Consider the tens of millions of unemployed in today's America. While there are many caring citizens, national policy seems to echo the sentiment that the employed are the fit and the unemployed are the unfit.
The inequities roll on and increase. In 1970, the pay of the average CEO was thirty times more than that of the average worker. By 2007, the ratio was about 340:1. This, however, tells only part of the story. Comparing only the top 100 CEOs, the ratio in 1970 was about 45:1. By 2006, that ratio had become 1,723:1! Social Darwinism in action.
As Linda McQuaig writes:
“Every situation in which an individual is unable to realize an ambition—of going to university, of pursuing a career, of earning enough to support a family, of developing his or her talents to their fullest—is a dream denied, just as surely as the billionaire’s fortune is a dream realized.
“A society top-heavy with billionaires may seem like a paradise of upward mobility, but it’s actually closer to being a boneyard of broken dreams for all but a lucky few. Those wanting to give their children a real chance to live the American Dream would be well advised to move to Sweden.”
This is not a new observation. Capitalism, wrote Ferdinand Lundberg in The Rich and the Super-Rich (1968) is, in reality, a failure system:
“For every businessman in a given year who makes enough of a splash to come to the attention of Fortune's editors, about 10,000 split a gut trying and cough blood in the bankruptcy court. If it weren’t committed to dispensing sunshine, Fortune could write a melancholy article every year on business failures and issue a thick supplementary directory merely giving names and addresses."
Is Occupy Wall Street a cause for hope?
Western society is in decline, particularly the United States. A consuming society, with the push on to consume ever more in order to continue enriching a few, cannot endure. (Wal-Mart is a good example. The more junk customers can be induced to buy, the richer the Waltons become, and the poorer society overall becomes, with the increased waste of natural resources that only benefit a relative handful of people.)
I (and more than a few others) have spent much of our lives looking for the equivalent of a silver bullet to not only understand the source of the evils of our society, but to find ways to mitigate the harmful, even evil, tendencies of our capitalist society. As Darwin said:
“The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”
Society’s contemporary evil is rooted in how we have been taught to frame humanity—as animals and nothing more. We are animals, but we can transcend our animal nature (viz. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, to name only four). The key orientation, said the Catholic theologian Thomas Merton:
“To live as a rational animal does not mean to think like a man and live as an animal. We must both think and live as men.”
He was echoing echoing earlier thinkers:
Relegating mankind to the status of an animal, is the basic ethos of capitalism. Casting off this anti-human ethos and rising to our higher potentials is the only source of hope for the human race. This is why the Occupy Wall Street movement has such potential and is the repository of so much hope.
This transcendental human progress is what the rich and powerful men of the nineteenth century had forestalled. They bewildered ordinary people into denying humanity’s transcendent nature. This flows from what might be mankind’s fatal flaw which, said writer Colin Wilson in A Criminal History of Mankind, is that
“When we look back over the past eight thousand years, it is clear that the most irritating characteristic of human beings is their passivity. The mass of people accept whatever happens to them as cows accept the rain”.
This is where the Occupy Wall Street movement could signal a break in the trend of history. A small number today, but it is growing, it may be the beginning of man’s breaking out from the cow-state and waking up to see the real world around them.
Greed, as a human trait, is not going to go away. It only needs to be reined in and labeled, if not as socially unacceptable, at least in society’s eyes a less than admirable trait. (Here is cognitive dissonance writ large across the entire American culture: Americans see themselves as a religious nation—In God We Trust—but at the same time have no conflict with venerating greed, despite its being one of the seven deadly sins.)
In the last sentence of his book The Waste Makers (1960), Vance Packard wrote:
“The central challenge seems to be this: Americans must learn to live with their abundance without being forced to impoverish their spirit by being damned fools about it.” (italics added)
Impoverishing the spirit is at the head of the capitalist agenda. Recall MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky quoted earlier saying that: “there is something insulting and degrading about the idea of a soul, and the idea of a spirit”. Indeed.
To reiterate, capitalism is framed on the assumption that man is an animal and nothing else. But, because man is actually so much more, it’s irrefutable that capitalism is not a natural phenomenon for human society. ISS astronaut Sandra Magnus is one who has transcended this limitation. Asked what the earth looks like from 380 kilometres above the earth, she said:
“Up here I've seen the world from a different viewpoint. I see it as a whole system, I don't see it as a group of individual people or individual countries. We are one huge group of people and we're all in it together.”
Animals do not live in space stations; animals do not land on the moon; animals do not send Rovers to Mars, photographic probes to the other planets, or Voyagers fifteen billion kilometres into interstellar space. Voyager 1 is still sending scientific data back to “human-animals” on earth after 34 years! Those are things that only transcendent human beings can do!
Astronauts are not capitalists and now, after tens of billions of public dollars and nearly 20 astronaut deaths have made space exploration viable, it is now being turned over to capitalists for profit. As Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations (1776), capitalists “love to reap where they never sowed.”
This may be remembered in history (provided we survive) as the greatest failure of the American people. For decades they supported the initial steps to exploring space and then, in the end, let all those accomplishments dribble through their fingers. This is not a fitting tribute to all the astronauts who died in this quest.
Canadian freelance writer Brennan Clarke writes: “As the holder of not one but two undergraduate arts degrees…I am quickly reminded by the working world that being intelligent and capable is no longer enough. You have to do something that makes somebody money.” The lives of the dead astronauts are now being put to the service of making somebody some money.
The real tragedy, Neil Armstrong's "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind", has been converted into dollars and cents. It is to weep in frustration at how mankind's greatest achievement (so far) is being reduced to a commercial enterprise.
I cannot be against capitalism any more than I can be against the weather and it is quixotic to suggest that capitalism somehow be halted. This is impossible and would be against human nature. Many people are competitive and do wish to have more to the point of surfeit. Sumner did say one thing that is true: Competition as a law of nature “can no more be done away with than gravitation”.
The eighteenth century philosopher John Locke, famously coined the concept of people’s fundamental rights as being to life, liberty and property and qualified this by asserting that people should appropriate only what they could use, leaving “enough and as good” for others. It was the nineteenth century capitalists, as I have noted above, who subverted Locke’s philosophy and set the United States on a path to destruction.
What I do think is best, however, is that the excesses of capitalism be fenced off as a cultural anomaly and those who want to live in a dog-eat-dog arena, can have their place to do it. But speaking from a more transcendent vantage point, we are not all capitalists in our orientation and many people would prefer to live quieter, less material lives in a civilized, not a wholly capitalistic society. It was Thomas Jefferson who later consciously replaced the right to property with a right to “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.
Capitalism is a system that separates us; it divides and conquers. Emphasizing our animal nature alone has made manifest Wordsworth's “universe of death”. But as Jeremy Rifkin writes in The Empathic Society (2009):
“Faith-based consciousness and rational consciousness share a disembodied approach to existence. But it’s the very feelings and emotions they discount that allow human beings to develop empathic bonds and become fully mature social beings. Without feelings and emotions, empathy ceases to exist. A world without empathy is alien to the very notion of what a human being is.”
Born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Daniel Johnson as a teenager aspired to be a writer. Always a voracious reader, he reads more books in a month than many people read in a lifetime. He also reads 100+ online articles per week. He knew early that in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader.
He has always been concerned about fairness in the world and the plight of the underprivileged/underdog.
As a professional writer he sold his first paid article in 1974 and, while employed at other jobs, started selling a few pieces in assorted places.
Over the next 15 years, Daniel eked out a living as a writer doing, among other things, national writing and both radio and TV broadcasting for the CBC, Maclean’s (the national newsmagazine) and a wide variety of smaller publications. Interweaved throughout this period was soul-killing corporate and public relations writing.
It was through the 1960s and 1970s that he got his university experience. In his first year at the University of Calgary, he majored in psychology/mathematics; in his second year he switched to physics/mathematics. He then learned of an independent study program at the University of Lethbridge where he attended the next two years, studying philosophy and economics. In the end he attended university over nine years (four full time) but never qualified for a degree because he didn't have the right number of courses in any particular field.
In 1990 he published his first (and so far, only) book: Practical History: A guide to Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” (Polymath Press, Calgary)
Newly appointed as the Deputy Executive Editor in August 2011, he has been writing exclusively for Salem-News.com since March 2009 and, as of summer 2011, has published more than 160 stories.
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