The Need for Ethical Grounding in Social Activism: A Banker's Perspective of the Occupy Movement
February 11, 2016
This article is in response to the Carnegie Council video clip "Srdja Popovic: How to Fix the Occupy Movement" and was first posted on the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education website on February 11, 2016.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was 'a constructive failure.' It fizzled out after 'failing to create the social change that it set out to achieve.' These are not my words; they are the words of Micah White, one of the co-founders of the Occupy Wall Street movement.1
Why did a movement that should have resonated with 99 percent of the population, lack the support to achieve the changes that it sought? There are few, if any, issues that capture the interests of almost all of society, and yet the movement has faded quietly away.
What went awry? Was there no wrong to be righted? I will argue that that there was indeed a wrong to righted, but that the ethical roots of the social rights message was neither clearly articulated nor delivered and that there was no clear call for action. Without an ethically defensible core, a cry for change falls on infertile ground and eventually will wither and die from lack of nourishment.
On July 13, 2011, the rallying cry for #OCCUPYWALLSTREET went out on social media, initially calling for "Barack Obama [to] ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington." This seemed like a clear goal, but the end of the posting also asked supporters to "post a comment and help each other zero in on what our one demand will be."2
By mid-September, 2011, the movement had successfully set up camp in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street, and the media were hungry for details, asking those involved over and over again, why they were participating and what they wanted. The movement was purposefully leaderless, and so they polled their members and aired their list of demands online.3 The goals now ranged from a demand to return to earlier (more restrictive) banking laws, to calls for criminal investigations into bankers who were responsible for the economic crisis; from demands for fairer TV coverage for political candidates to calls for restrictions on the powers of lobbyists.
This long and varied list of demands did not excite the news channels, but something else certainly did, and that was the "We are the 99 percent" rallying cry that had suddenly set social media on fire. It was this cry that had a clear social rights issue strongly embedded at its core. Why were so few people basking in wealth, while so many struggled with poverty? It felt unfair. When something feels unfair, there is always an ethical question to be answered—why does it feel unfair, what is wrong here?
In a Vanity Fair article earlier that year, Joseph Stiglitz had raised a worrying statistic: "the upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation's income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent."4
This disturbing fact was adopted by the Occupy Wall Street Movement as a slogan for their Tumblr page "We are the 99."5 Social media quickly lit up with postings by individuals sharing their experiences of being one of the 99 percent. The list of original Occupy Wall Street demands slipped quietly into the background as the dialogue moved rapidly to who are the 99 percent and why do 1 percent control so much of the wealth of the nation?
In a Carnegie Council video interview, Srdja Popovic, executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) discusses the failures of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Popvic explains that the Occupy Movement faced difficulties because it lacked a clear vision and was tied to expensive and difficult tactics. On the tactics, Popovic says, "Nobody will join you if you can't explain to him or her who is going to do what, when, how, and why."6
I suggest that before the practical aspects of what, when and how can be considered the fundamental question of why that must be addressed. Why are we protesting? What is the wrong that must be righted?
Popovic quotes Saul Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals, where Alinsky "says anger is a powerful mobilizer, but anger without hope—what you are offering me should be the very important part. What is the vision of the future?"7
We instinctively know that placing most of the wealth in the hands of a small minority raises serious ethical questions regarding the distribution of wealth.
As a banker, walking past the protestors every day, I wanted to acknowledge their cause, I wanted to join them in effecting change, but I felt powerless to do so. What did they want me to do? Quit my job? Refuse my pay check? Join them in the street? Many of the employees in the banks were themselves 'one of the 99 percent' and they felt confused and conflicted.
If the argument was that the 99 percent were not getting their fair share, then surely democracy should have been able to fix that. Perhaps the 99 percent just needed to find, and vote for, a candidate who would run on a platform of improved income equality? However, the protestors often cried out that their voices were not being heard and that the fix was in for the political system.
If the protesters had undertaken an ethical examination of the issues they could have argued that it was necessary to take the thumb of the lobbying corporations off of the sales of justice in order to ensure that (a) the Kantian ethical principles of righteous behavior could be adopted, (b) to allow for an approach that imagined a veil of ignorance in the design of the rules regarding income equality, and (c) to ensure that society was pursuing the common good.
In fact, the simplest and most effective call for action may well have been the original call for a "Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington."
So let us imagine that the Occupy Wall Street Movement had simply renamed itself the "We are the 99 percent" movement, and it had clearly stated that it stood for a rebalance of the violation of fundamental rights as espoused by Kantian, Aquinas, and Rawlsian ethics (but with the use of simple slogans).
The next important step would have been to clearly align the call for action with that ethical vision. If the placards had been instructional, the movement could have rallied millions of television viewers and newspaper readers to action. If every sign had said "A Fair Share for the 99 percent" on one side and "Call your congressman now and demand a Commission" on the other side, then TV viewers, protestors, passing bankers and the person in the street would have felt the ethical pull of the cause resonate with them, and would have known what to do with their outrage.
That Commission could then have addressed the many underlying injustices that led to gross income inequalities. If the protestors were looking for a more dramatic approach they could have called on everyone in the 99 percent to mail a heavy and symbolic object to their congressman or senator (perhaps a clock to signify 'it is time for change') as a demand for a commission and for action in government.
"It's not fair" is not a social movement, it does not expose an ethical disturbance in society; it is just a complaint. Unfortunately, the "we are the 99 percent" Occupy Wall Street movement lacked the nourishment of a clearly articulated ethical grounding and suffocated on a lack of a clear call to action.
1 In an interview posted on the home page of the movement's website, Smith declares it a "constructive failure," stating that "Occupy Wall Street didn't create the social change that it set out to achieve."http://occupywallst.org/
3 Excerpts from https://occupywallst.org/forum/proposed-list-of-demands-please-help-editadd-so-th/:
LIST OF PROPOSED "DEMANDS FOR CONGRESS"
- CONGRESS PASS HR 1489 ("RETURN TO PRUDENT BANKING ACT") THIS REINSTATES MANY PROVISIONS OF THE GLASS-STEAGALL ACT.
- USE CONGRESSIONAL AUTHORITY AND OVERSIGHT TO ENSURE APPROPRIATE FEDERAL AGENCIES FULLY INVESTIGATE AND PROSECUTE THE WALL STREET CRIMINALS CONGRESS ENACT LEGISLATION TO PROTECT OUR DEMOCRACY BY REVERSING THE EFFECTS OF THE CITIZENS UNITED SUPREME COURT DECISION
- RE-ESTABLISH THE PUBLIC AIRWAVES IN THE U.S. SO THAT POLITICAL CANDIDATES ARE GIVEN EQUAL TIME FOR FREE AT REASONABLE INTERVALS IN DAILY PROGRAMMING DURING CAMPAIGN SEASON.
- CONGRESS PASS THE BUFFETT RULE ON FAIR TAXATION SO THE RICH AND CORPORATIONS PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE & CLOSE CORPORATE TAX LOOP HOLES AND ENACT A PROHIBITION ON HIDING FUNDS OFF SHORE.
- CONGRESS COMPLETELY REVAMP THE SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
- CONGRESS PASS SPECIFIC AND EFFECTIVE LAWS LIMITING THE INFLUENCE OF LOBBYISTS AND ELIMINATING THE PRACTICE OF LOBBYISTS WRITING LEGISLATION THAT ENDS UP ON THE FLOOR OF CONGRESS.
- CONGRESS PASSING "Revolving Door Legislation" LEGISLATION ELIMINATING THE ABILITY OF FORMER GOVERNMENT REGULATORS GOING TO WORK FOR CORPORATIONS THAT THEY ONCE REGULATED.
- ELIMINATE "PERSONHOOD" LEGAL STATUS FOR CORPORATIONS.
6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W23d2g2LNo and also at https://www.youtube.com/user/carnegiecouncil/videos. Full transcript available at http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/studio/multimedia/20150422/index.html
7 Full transcript available at http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/studio/multimedia/20150422/index.html