the fully human meaning of
OCCUPY WALL STREET
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
is not only in economics
but also in metaphysics
that man must earn his living.
Wall Street (OWS) targets the structural corruption of certain
American and global institutions, both economic and political.
To be sure, economics and politics remain starkly interpenetrating.
Usually, whatever happens in either one of these seemingly discrete
realms, more or less substantially impacts the other.
if OWS supporters were to look meaningfully behind the news,
beyond the ritualized economic and political orthodoxies, they
could uncover something vitally important and under-examined.
The genuinely core problem of economic weakness and inequality,
they would discover, is not fiscal, but human.
sales comprise an overwhelmingly large fraction of GDP. This
is not newsworthy. But, by simple deduction, Wall Street’s
volatility and fragility are ultimately the product of a society
that most desperately requires hyper-consumption. Below the
tangible surface of timeless and ubiquitous manipulations, our
underlying market difficulties are rooted in utter dependence
upon Main Street’s craving for goods. From the expert
standpoint of any needed economic recovery, the more insistent
this choreographed craving, the better.
are what we buy. There is nothing controversial about this assertion.
Adam Smith and Thorsten Veblen, among others, made it an integral
part of their respective economic theories.
is it in any way a uniquely American condition. The true and
unacknowledged generic or universal problem is that in any society
where one’s perceived value as a person is determined
by observable consumption, the derivative economy is necessarily
built upon sand.
is not what we hear from the experts, least of all from the
learned economists, the bankers, or the quick-thinking corporate
chiefs. After all, it is assuredly not their task to inquire
beyond pleasingly hard, measurable and quotable fiscal calculations.
Still, if we should look more closely, it would become plain
that we and the OWS movement have as much to learn about market
crises and asymmetries from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as
from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.
we can finally get a handle on the insatiable public need for
more and more things, on the unceasing search for shiny goods
that can seemingly validate us as persons of merit, our economic
problems will not go away. And even if we could somehow fix
these current problems by further encouraging contrived consumption,
exactly what sort of society would we be sustaining?
kind of economy and society must rely on crude coaxing and engineered
purchasing to sustain its life-saving buoyancy? In the 19th
century, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke prophetically of "self-reliance."
Already, long ago, the American Transcendentalist thinker had
fully understood that a foolish "reliance upon property"
was actually the result of "a want of self reliance."
living insecurely amid a humiliating barrage of advertising
jingles, delirious collectivism and embarrassingly empty witticisms,
the apprehensive American and counterparts elsewhere sorely
want to project a correct image.
the end, each tentative claim to self-worth must be founded
upon having the right stuff. In the end, it is always about
possessing an enviable cornucopia of all the right things. In
the end, hyper consumption is never really about greed; rather,
it is about the enhanced image of personal importance that can
presumably be conferred by glamorous houses, cars, and electronic
demeaning consumer message of our mass society is everywhere,
even in the universities. Here, where the Western canon has
been supplanted by reality shows, mimicry and repetition now
define academic excellence. Today, almost all higher education
in America has become fiercely-commercial, proudly anti-intellectual
and openly vocational, obsequiously dumbed-down by faculties
who are running scared from no-longer literate university administrations.
America, we ceremoniously graduate newly minted Ph.D.s, MDs,
JDs and MBAs who know only how to progress in their own chosen
fields. They may, of course, turn out to be perfectly good teachers,
doctors, lawyers and accountants, but they shall always remain
trained. Through no fault of their own, they will never have
we want a genuinely robust and fair economy and stock market?
Then we must first reorient our American and other societies
from their corrupted ambience of mass taste, toward a more distinctly
cultivated environment of thought and feeling. Indisputably,
there is still great beauty in the world, but it would be best
not to search for it at the bank, the brokerage, the classroom,
or the shopping mall.
Smith had argued, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes
of the Wealth of Nations (1776), that a system of "perfect
liberty" could never be based upon "mean rapacity,"
and "needless" consumption. On the contrary, said
Smith, who remains a fashionable mainstay of conservatives,
the laws of the market, driven by competition and a consequent
"self-regulation" (including his famous "invisible
hand"), demand a principled disdain for all vanity-driven
Adam Smith, "conspicuous consumption," a phrase that
would be used far more devastatingly later by Thorsten Veblen,
could never be a proper motor of economic or social improvement.
America, even in that part of Main Street that intentionally
knows little of Wall Street, there is widening anxiety and palpable
unhappiness. Taught that respect and success lie in high salaries,
and corollary patterns of consumption, the American dutifully
worships the commonplace. Why should it be otherwise? Galvanized
by mostly patronizing and shamelessly vulgar entertainments,
a lonely American crowd unhesitatingly follows a flamboyant
but impotent ringmaster.
ringmaster and the surrounding circus of public life are most
conspicuous in politics. Soon, Americans will turn yet again
to another presidential election. Ironically, this falsely reassuring
ritual will have no adequate effect upon what we have already
become as a people, or even upon the essential durability of
our financial markets.
Wall Street remains wholly dependent upon the self-destructive
imitations of mass society. Such a mutually corrosive dependence
or synergy can never succeed. Instead, we must first create
conditions whereby each of us can feel important and alive without
somehow surrendering to manufactured images of power and status.
Without such altered conditions, millions of Americans and Europeans
will continue to seek refuge from the excruciating emptiness
of daily life in mind-numbing music, mountains of drugs and
oceans of alcohol. Insidiously, without impediments, the resultant
brew will effortlessly overflow and drown entire epochs of art,
literature and sacred poetry.
the endless noise and bravado, America is now generally an unhappy
society, one where citizens can rarely find authentic meaning
or satisfaction within themselves. Only this distinctly human
problem of a socially crushed individualism can become the promising
starting point for repairing what is fundamentally wrong with
our broad economy and financial markets. All else is epiphenomenal,
or merely what philosophers since Plato have recognized as shadows
he alive today, Plato would call our economic problems a "sickness
of the soul." Before Occupy Wall Street protestors continue
to direct their anger at just the usual suspects, a predictably
futile exercise, they should first understand very basic logical
distinctions between cause and effect. In matters of structural
economic corruption, what now needs to be differentiated are
underlying pathologies and their visible symptoms.
of engineered hyper-consumption are critical. In themselves,
however, the symptoms of resultant unfairness and inequality
are never genuinely significant.