When I was at the Occupy Bay Street demonstration this past Saturday, I watched as two protestors, clearly affected by the cold, stepped into a nearby Starbucks and then emerged with a couple of pumpkin spice lattes. As they made their way back into the fray, all the while denouncing the evils of capitalism, I couldn’t help but think of the extraordinary statement they were making. Apart from the obvious hypocrisy of the situation, I think it shed light on an important aspect of our society and why many criticisms of the Occupy movement are right on point.
I would like to start by making clear that I do believe that the current state of affairs of our society is unacceptable. Bailouts, bonuses, and all-time-high profits during a time of high unemployment, widespread debt, and the greatest divide in wealth ever seen is wrong, to say the least. Everyone can agree that something needs to change. Exactly what, however, remains unclear.
The Occupy movement that began on Wall Street in New York City is a good example of this confusion. It has spread to hundreds of cities across the globe, demanding a great many things. The protestors want jobs, money, and health insurance. They would like their tuition paid, as well as such vague requests as “freedom” and “peace”. The movement has captivated the media: Is this the next Tea Party? What do they want? What will happen next? Tune in at 11…
The only common theme among the protestors (from what I could tell) was their stance against capitalism—the originator of corporate greed. Which begs the question: How does one make a stand against capitalism while simultaneously contributing to it as a member of our society? The two who stepped into Starbucks are representative of the rest of the protestors—and, for that matter, the rest of the population—who oppose bank bailouts and outrageous bonuses. Yet no one seems interested in looking at how we have all contributed to the problem we now face.
I think the protesters are, unfortunately, combining a general sense of entitlement with very little sense of what’s actually needed to accomplish their goals and what their own role is in solving the problem. It’s one thing to express your discontent, but another thing entirely to rage against the system you so willingly contribute to.
That said, I believe that the movement is an excellent opportunity for democracy in action. The conversation it has opened (belatedly, considering that the recession began three years ago) will speak volumes about our current state. I hope that somewhere in the confused mess of slogans and ideologies we can find a solution that is both fair and realistic. I hope that the protestors will come to understand that they continue to participate in the very same system they now fight against and that they realize that the bad guys aren’t necessarily those who work on Bay Street (a majority of whom, like the protestors, are just trying to make a living). Only then can constructive change occur.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek spoke recently about Occupy Wall Street. “They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are,” he said—and, perhaps more importantly, added that unless the protestors remember why they’re there, the protest will lose its meaning.
Michael Di Leo