I must admit that there is something about Occupy Wall Street that makes me think of the American Revolution. Not the fully developed American Revolution complete with an army, George Washington, and Valley Forge; I'm thinking of the earlier days, when there were only sporadic protests and occasional clashes.
All those historic events took place in a world very different from the modern world. The economy of the colonies was based on farms, and most people were farmers. And when those people rebelled, it was clear that they were rebelling against what they saw as oppressive government.
For me the most remarkable thing about Occupy Wall Street is that it is not protesting against the government. Its people are not in Washington marching down the Mall to urge change on a reluctant Congress. No, they believe that Wall Street and the major corporations have Congress in their power; so they are going to where the power is and where they believe the problem originates.
And they could be right in their choice of target.
Some American History -- Political Parties
The world of 1776 was a largely agricultural world, mainly small farms. There were few large organizations. There were almost no corporations.
Far from worrying about corporations and their possible political power, our founding fathers were even dubious about political parties themselves.
George Washington was against having political parties; he thought that people could simply vote and elect those they thought best suited to run the government. This was easier to imagine in the agriculture-dominated world in which he lived than in today's complex society. However, even in that simpler world, political parties sprang up almost immediately and they have been with us ever since.
We still think of government today in pretty much the same terms that were used then. When we think of governing, we think of the government, the voters, and the political parties.
But that way of thinking about today's world is wrong; it leaves something essential out.
Government in Today's World -- the Power of Money
We are no longer a nation of farmers; we are today a nation of corporations. In today's world, unlike the world of 1776, there are many centers of economic power. And those centers, such as the major banks and great corporations, use the power of money on a large-scale to affect the actions of government.
Today's political candidates with enough money can reach directly to anyone in the country, but without that money they believe they cannot win elections.
And between elections, because of the complexity of modern finance and industry, bills relating to their interests can be loaded with special sections intelligible only to those who benefit from them. These centers of economic and political power have enormous influence on the actions of government. And that influence is often used for their own benefit.
We need to get used to the idea that in addition to voters and political parties affecting government, there is in today's world the often decisive influence of money. And that power is being used.
Global corporations influence our governmental policies on trade and the offshoring of jobs. Financial industry money influences how much or how little change will be imposed on Wall Street. The tax code has been gradually restructured and loopholed so that the wealthy often pay lower rates than those below them on the economic ladder.
The Goals of Corporations
Furthermore, starting in the 1980s, corporations narrowed their own purposes. Instead of sharing productivity gains with their work force and considering also their effect on the community and the country, they shifted to a single focus, maximizing profit. Their executives became large-scale shareholders through stock options so that the corporate leadership and the shareholders united on a single goal, maximizing profits to raise the stock price. However, since as Professor Edward Wolff of New York University has shown, two-thirds of all corporate shares are held by the wealthiest five percent of Americans. The focus on maximizing profit means that the effect of corporate activity is to make the wealthy wealthier.
These factors explain why, despite the economic hardship that Wall Street's self-serving policies inflicted on the nation, Wall Street and the major corporations are having record years while the rest of the country struggles. They have demonstrated clearly that their fortunes are not linked to those of most Americans. And this gap between the richest and the rest is not the product of the recent crash, but has been growing over the last 30 years.
So Occupy Wall Street may be right not to waste its time on a government that it sees as a tool of the few, and instead to go directly to what it sees as the true source of political power.
Goals and Plans
One reproach leveled against Occupy Wall Street is that it has no plan. And that is probably correct. But it does have a goal. Goals and plans are different: a goal is where you want to get to; plans explain how you are going to get there. Goals are the effect you want; plans are the means to produce that effect.
Occupy Wall Street has a goal that is probably best expressed by the phrase "Democracy not Plutocracy." While their people don't have a plan, they do have a goal. They want to change the system so that its wealth and power are not so concentrated in the hands of a few.
In having a goal and no plan they are the exact opposite of Washington where plans abound. But it is often much less clear what goal those plans serve or what effect they will actually have.
The Significance of Occupy Wall Street
The Occupy Wall Street focus on Wall Street, not on government, points out to us that in today's world, in addition to voters and the very visible political parties, there is also the less visible but often decisive influence of money. Very often this money is from the wealthy and the great corporations.
Occupy Wall Street has brought to our attention the goal of lessening the concentration of economic and political power. In short form, they are for Democracy not Plutocracy. Doing something about the concentration of power is not a subject discussed in Washington. But sometimes a country needs worthwhile goals, even worthwhile goals without a plan. It is up to us to find ways to get there.
If we choose to do nothing, the factors that are causing the present extreme concentration of power will continue to operate with the same effect. We are still in the early days of dissatisfaction with the political process, but we may not have forever to solve this problem.
Occupy Wall Street deserves our respect for stubbornly refusing to let us avert our eyes from what is happening to our country.