September 12, 2012

Horse 1360 - Occupy Failure

I return to the 1899 work of Thorstein Veblen,  "The Theory of the Leisure Class" (see Horse 1358) because I think that this book held within its pages, an adequate explanation of why the Occupy movement has thus far failed so comprehensively and why it was doomed to fail from the beginning.
However, before we look at Veblen, we need to start with something smellier, something even more raw, something fundamental. Therefore, we start out this essay with one of Adam Smith's basic premises:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages” 
- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Vol 1 (1776)

The Occupy movement was begun by the Canadian group, the Adbusters Media Foundation and was at the time inspired by the Arab Spring. They say of themselves that:
“We are a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age. Our aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century.”
- Adbusters website -

Given Occupy's aim to topple existing power structures and Adam Smith's suggestion that people are driven with regard to their own self-interest, it would therefore follow that either Occupy had intended to do something about how power was organised, or perhaps replace the people in existing power structures with new people and modes of thinking or more likely themselves; again Veblen addresses this:
"The reason we will not have a revolution in America is that the lower classes do not want to overthrow their managers but to join them."
-  Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

This of course poses a problem. The actual real power structures which exist in industrialised nations, exists not the legislatures of the land but in the board rooms of corporations and to a slightly lesser degree, lies with the ownership of those corporations. Corporations and the Company is where the four basic economic questions are asked. Namely:
1. What goods and services should the economy produce?
2. How should goods and services in the economy be produced?
3. Who should receive the goods and services produced?
4. How should the economy provide for growth? 
Unfortunately the vast majority of people who live in a nation never ultimately ask these questions directly except through the mechanisms of selling their labour and using their wages/salaries in the purchase of the goods and services being produced by the economy. People's real wages are usually their only real bargaining chip in the economy and ergo the power of that economy.

The thing is though that real wages in the United States (and I use the example of the United States because that is where the Occupy movement has primarily had any influence albeit incredibly minor)  have been falling since 1972. It seems that with real wages falling therefore, that labour itself is being punished and that the relationship of enterprise and labour is returning to a state similar to that of the mid to late Victorian period.
Veblen writes that:
"The actitivites of the moneyed class are given society's stamp of approval. Labour by contrast us regarded as undignified even by the people who perform it."

If you want to talk about class warfare and by inference the excercise of power within the existing power structures then surely that is an expression of that just there. Of course we like to view ourselves as living in more enlightened times and surely such expressions of contempt can not be found today, or can they?

"If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself - spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.
Become one of those people who work hard, invest and build, and at the same time create employment and opportunities for others."
- Gina Rinehart, as quoted in The Australian, 30 Aug 2012

Or maybe:
"Furthermore, Africans want to work and its workers are willing to work for less than $2 per day; Such statistics make me worry for this country's future."
- Gina Rinehart, as quoted in The Daily Telegraph, 5 Sep 2012

Such contempt of workers and labour generally appears both incredibly churlish and mean spirited but also ignorant if the fact that the employment of labour is to some degree what gave her her fantastic wealth in the first place. It is as almost as though she had read Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management and taken the suggestion that "abuse of servants" should be taken as an instruction.
2153. It is the custom of “Society” to abuse its servants,—a faon de parler, such as leads their lords and masters to talk of the weather, and, when rurally inclined, of the crops...
Young men at their clubs, also, we are told, like to abuse their “fellows,” perhaps not without a certain pride and pleasure at the opportunity of intimating that they enjoy such appendages to their state.
- Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1865)

Given the contempt and disdain which enterprise has for labour, why then isn't there a modern political revolt by the labour classes as there was in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries? These political movements even lend the name of Labour itself to political parties in Australia, the UK, New Zealand, and formerly in places like Canada and America itself before the ideals died off.

It seems that Veblen's suggestion that  "the lower classes do not want to overthrow their managers but to join them" may hold more of a ring of truth than he envisaged. We saw in the riots across England and in particular London in 2011, not a sense that people wanted to change the system of power or indeed that the system itself was broken; nor did it appear that anything was going to be done about it. People seemed to be more interested in the material trappings of the upper class (mainly plasma screen TVs and lots of trainers) than any real desire to enact change.

I think that the Occupy movement has generally failed for precisely the same reason. Instead of the creation of a new political party, which given the presidential elections later this year in November, would have seen actual pressure been brought to bear, it dissipated.
Occupy in the United States should be fielding a candidate against Obama and Romney, it should be running for congress, it should be, well... occupying the political institutions which it sought to change. The mechanics of most modern democracies are such that that requires installing people on the floors of legislatures.
The mechanics of most modern power structures when it comes to an economic bent is such that it requires installing people on the boards of companies. Occupy should have been setting up collective investment schemes to buy shares and the seats on boards of companies that go with them. Occupy did none of those things.
Instead Occupy did exactly as I suggested it would 11 months ago in Horse 1135.
Occupy became a but a walking shadow, a poor player, that strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage and then was heard no more. It was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury... Signifying nothing.

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