It has been almost a year since Occupy Wall Street. The world and our mood have both changed quite a bit since then.
Originally posted at minyanville.com.
Last month opened up with a call for a general strike on May Day, and then we saw protests at the NATO summit in Chicago. But what impact did they have? Well, in the case of the general strike on May Day, it was a strike that wasn’t one. There weren’t any widespread work stoppages that brought communites and cities to a grinding halt, no reports of unrest (but that’s not really the Occupy M.O. anyway). The protests during the NATO summit were for the most part, a non-event as well.
So what do we make of the whole Occupy movement, 9 months after that initial protest last September? Initially we all had a feeling that they were trying something new, something different. And many were drawn to what the Occupiers were attempting to do: raise consciousness about what they felt were the problems in our economy and society and propose some solutions, although some of them will probably struggle to gain any modicum of acceptance. The point seemed to be that we need to have serious discussions about how our markets are structured, how finance works in our modern economy and how our government works as well as how it doesn’t work.
Have we had those discussions? Are we really thinking long and hard about these issues? Well, yes and no. Discussion around what it means to live in a too big to fail world is everywhere, and people have been talking about reshaping America very differently on a number of fronts for the first time in decades. Think about it: when was the last time anyone really talked about eliminating bases in Europe or legalizing marijuana? And yet, because social mood had darkened and horizon preferences changed from “us, everywhere, forever” to “me, here, now,” those discussions are being had.
And as profound as some of these conversations are, they really won’t even address many of the issues that have been talked about in the wake of the last recession. Why? Because while many of us may be part of the 99%, we’re individuals first and foremost. This truth was one of the biggest reasons I simply could not agree with the Occupiers on many things, regardless of all of their proseltyzing that we’re all “in this together.” No, we’re not. Economically and financially speaking, that was what I was trying to point out in my last post (see “Go Your Own Way: Correlation Breakdown in the Market”): the potential for a breakdown is the one market meme we’ve operated under for decades. Others like Sober Look and the Pragmatic Capitalist have other variations on this idea, but we seem to arrive at a similar conclusion: a decoupling of the US from other parts of the world. As old linkages and relationships break apart, new connections and drivers emerge; both for the economy and social mood. And as social mood changes from negative to positive, protest and angst fade.
But to understand that social mood embodied by a group like Occupy, it may help to look at literature that captures its zeitgeist. One of the books which seems to have become a standard bearer for the Occupy movement is Ken Layne’s Dignity, which I bought based on the recommendation of Kevin Depew. In a book which can only be described as a series of modern day letters on the gospel of communal simplicity, you can see what kind of world some of the Occupiers might envision: communities occupying vacant suburban or ex-urban subdivisions, farming the land themselves, bartering with doctors and the like, and shunning modern technology (which Layne derisively referred to as “the screen” or “screens” in his book). So when someone thought this photo montage reminded them of Layne’s book, I thought it was something to pay attention to. This is a cohort that believes moving forward means moving backwards. Occupiers, take note: in a world without debt, where your system of exchange is barter, these photos are what your world looks like. This occupation will not be Facebooked, Instagrammed or Tweeted. But take heed: on the upside, there’s very little stopping you from living this way tomorrow if you wish. Just don’t insist on everyone else living the same way as you and don’t excoriate them when they resist. That’s just oppression under a different guise.
At its heart, the financial crisis and recession revealed something not only about our market system and government, but it also revealed something about us. And what it revealed is something we don’t like to talk about: a chronic condition that has been building for generations which Tom Matlack over at The Good Men Project called “The Disease of More.” This passage really hits home:
We have all allowed ourselves to get trapped into this rampant level of consumerism which rots our souls and makes us miserable. Capitalism by itself is just a tool to make stuff: cars, ice cream, iPads. What we do with that stuff is really up to us. And we’ve become Pavlovian dogs who chase and chase and chase the stuff of life like some kind of narcotic that will fix what ails us. But it never does because inside the trap of the disease of more no matter how much you have–even if you are a billionaire–you don’t have enough to be happy.
He’s absolutely right. People, particularly the younger generations, are waking up to the notion that largesse isn’t all it was cracked up to be. Which lifestyle is better: Taking public transit in densely populated areas where the people who are there are seeking community versus the expansionist, suburban model where everyone preached against “stranger danger” and locked themselves in their cul-de-sacs? The answer of course, is in the answer of this question: How much stuff does it take to make you happy? The former definitely requires less than the latter.
So in the end, the answer to what ails us isn’t going to be found in occupying public parks or government buildings, protesting and shouting. It’s going to be found in genuine self-reflection and reassessing who we are and what drives us. In short, we need to occupy ourselves. Toddo’s book, is a prime example of this. And if that message encourages others to join in that process, I’d be willing to bet the results will be more transformational than demonstrating in Zucotti Park, no matter how good those intentions may be.
Photo by Shutterstock