I have been very interested in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. I have the impression that I am watching the dawn. It’s new. There’s light, heat and lots of color. There is promise and fresh potential. The new day does not yet burn white hot. You can look directly at it and see what will later become obscured by its own intensity.
For many years, I have believed that I live in a culture that is in the process of deconstruction. I’m a middle child of the baby boom, born in the second half of the decade following the conclusion of the Great Depression and WWII. I was born as the United States emerged, center stage, as a world power.
The culture that had arisen in the founding of the nation and carried it through its Civil War, industrialization and Westward Expansion was struggling to deal with the new realities of a changed position in the world. My impression is that, for the most part, we handled it like a clumsy adolescent. There were lots of mistakes and irresponsible behavior, punctuated by moments that showed amazing promise.
And, like adolescents, growing into a new role creates strain, struggle and ultimately old ways must give way to new. That struggle ate away at the cultural institutions we inherited. Many of them are proving to be inadequate to our new challenges and must change or die away. Cultures may always be in the process of deconstruction and reconstruction; but, that can also be seen as evolution. I perceive that what we are experiencing is more severe, perhaps more analogous to an extinction than an ongoing gradual modification.
One of the hallmarks of cultural deconstruction on that scale is the peoples loss of trust in the existing cultural institutions. There seem to markers, where tipping points were reached and the loss of faith in an institution generalized in the population. We first lost trust in our legislative representatives. The exact tipping point is probably fading from memory. It could have been any of several. I think about things like “Red Scares” and some of the more noted scandals that led to convictions and prison terms. But, finally Congress spent so much time and energy on the election process that they stopped doing the business of governing altogether. The Watergate scandal marked the end of our trust in the Office of the President. Similarly, the O. J. Simpson trial marked the end of our trust in the judiciary. Our churches began to do as much spinning and posturing as anyone else engaged in the quest for power. Some, actively abused the trust placed in them to steal either treasure or innocence. Probably the tipping point was the uncovering of the child abuse so desperately covered up.
I don’t mean to imply that these have been universal or that there haven’t been great, wonderous and inspired people and moments. There have been. We are still the culture the rest of the world turns to for example and help. We’re still the people who pull together in times of greatest travail and do the most to help feed, house and treat the ill in the world. We always are at the head of the line to provide disaster relief. When disaster strikes the world knows it can expect the people of the United States to be generously compassionate.
Yet, even that has been perverted before our eyes. Since September 11th, 2001 I have watched amazing unity in the face of assault wither into a cynicism that has critically eroded freedoms fundamental to who we believe ourselves to be. It’s like we have sought the safety and security of a jail.
One of the last of our institutions to fail us was business. The end of trust in our business was marked by: the Enron and Worldcom scandals. They were the revelation that business was gaming the financial system. Sub-prime loans, credit default swaps, derivatives and and just plain stealing that brought us recession and unemployment were just the expansion of that game.
But, this last failure of business brought a genuine crisis and created a broader picture of the cultural failure. For example, our government responded with bailouts of businesses that created these problems. Business convinced cloying politicians that they were “too big to fail” and if we rescued them they would rescue the rest of us. Well, we rescued them and they, have failed to rescue the rest of us. They have shown that in their existing culture all that matters is: “I’ve got mine.”
Now we being forced to see through that hogwash. Still, though, we wanted our institutions to succeed so badly, to avoid the necessary changes, that we gave them another chance to fix things. Then in the debt ceiling debates of last summer we were forced to the realization that our existing institutions are not going to “fix it.” At that time, I sensed a general attitude shift to: “If we’re going to end this recession, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. There’s no use waiting for government or big finance to help. They aren’t going to. We had better get at it” And, that brings me to “Occupy Wall Street”. The “Occupy Wall Street” is a movement.
It is a movement away from what has become a dysfunctional financial culture to a new one. It is, I believe, one of the first moments we can identify as new culture in construction. It is the glow on the horizon. At present it mostly expresses outrage and frustration at the failure of the old culture. That frustration that captured in the slogan: “We’re the 99%”. But, there is more than just the voices of frustration. The movement is about doing something to relieve that frustration. The movement is still in the process of determining what it wants a new financial system to look like. There is discussion and no resolution, yet, about what fair distribution of wealth and opportunity to acquire wealth should look like.
But, if I’m right, eventually that consensus will develop. When it does, that consensus will become the paradigm for the new financial culture. Don’t expect that consensus to come easily or soon. Their are many voices to be heard and the fringes will have to be trimmed away to get to the core. It won’t be an easy or short process. But, I am getting the sense that the people on the front line of the movement, the ones in the parks and camps, realize this and are preparing to stay engaged until that consensus develops and is on its way to being adopted. Constructing a new culture is not light work.
The “Occupy Wall Street” movement, in my opinion, has a significance far beyond what is being reported in most of the media. Ben Hecht said: “Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time, by watching the secondhand on a clock.” I think that analogy applies to media coverage of “Occupy Wall Street”.
I also think Occuppy Wall Street’s significance is being missed by those most invested in the culture that is being replaced. The denizens of Wall Street seem to think that this is just kids occupying time, and it will all go away. I think they’re wrong.
A new day is upon us, it’s dawn. It’s time to embrace the new day and make the most of it. The folks in the Occupy Wall Street movement are ready to get up and get at it.