Listening to Occupy Wall Street

I’m a former banker, a one-percenter, and I’m mad as hell too.

Let’s be clear.  This movement is not frustration being expressed, as President Obama, Treasury Secretary Geithner, and now Eric Cantor have suggested.  Frustration is passive; anger is active.  Martin Luther King was not frustrated.  But beyond my anger is a real concern for Democracy, for America, for the people of the world, and for the planet upon which we all depend, and for my children’s future.  It’s why I do what I do.  It’s the inspiration for Capital Institute.

Our freedom to manage our complex challenges, interdependent as they are, depends on democracy.  During my trip to Zuccotti Park last week, I learned that OWS is first and foremost about restoring democracy in America.  That’s a bipartisan ideal I can get behind.

This concern led me to Liberty Park Plaza (bought and renamed Zuccotti Park in 2006) last week to look past the rag-tag and to listen, to show my support and empathy for the peaceful demonstrators, and to learn first-hand what the occupation is about.  I wanted to see if I could build a relationship with some of the organizers, which I did.  I was right not to trust what one sees in the press.  To understand OWS requires time, not sound bites, and listening not shouting, both of which are missing from the modern media.

“What do they want?” is not the right question.  That’s a question for interest groups, working their battle plans within the system.  That’s the question the media and our elite politicians from the left and the right want to ask and answer, putting complex issues in pre-existing boxes before they are understood.

OWS as I understand it today, is building a civil disobedience movement of everyday people who are fed up with Wall Street’s corrupting influence on our Democracy.

Wall Street does not mean capitalism, although capitalism’s critics are on hand at OWS.  It means the socialized losses and the unchecked power, greed, speculative excess, violence, and theft from fellow citizens that has gone unchecked by our bought and paid for government—Democrats and Republicans alike.  But it also means the dominant influence of Wall Street culture on short-term corporate behavior and misbehavior, from Enron’s derivatives-enabled fraud to the Koch Brothers’ and Exxon’s funding of climate change denial, to the health insurance industry’s power over affordable health care, to McDonald’s and Coke’s impact on childhood obesity, all to further short-term corporate and financial interests no matter the cost to “we the people.”

This is different from “We are the 99 Percent,” a divisive, although clever phrase that has not been formally adopted by the OWS General Assembly.  Wall Street’s culture is the target because money has corrupted the Republic.  Through this power lens, John Beohner, Eric Cantor, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the rest are mere tools in the system, not worthy of protesting against.

The right question to ask is, what is emerging here?

It is useful and eye-opening to go back to see how OWS began, and to view the original Adbusters blog post dated July 13, 2011.  The story and the language is a bit unsettling.  Many of the slogans we see in the news are silly—free food attracts many of the city’s most destitute harming and helping the movement’s cause all at once, and the drums are annoying. (I learned today they have decided to limit the drummers to two hours a day—we’ll see.)  But the first thing to understand about OWS is that it is serioius, organic, and uncontrolled, now spreading to hundreds if not thousands of cities around the world and connecting with pre-existing movements in Europe and North Africa.  Like the world we live in, the OWS movement is complex and filled with uncertainty.

What is emerging at Liberty Park Plaza is a mass experiment in participatory and deliberative democracy, some will say direct democracy. (Thanks for this link goes to our friend Katie Teague, who is in the midst of filming her documentary, Money & Life.)

I engaged with one of about a dozen experienced organizers of OWS.  He was unusually calm, articulate, experienced—a Seattle WTO alum—and well informed.  He had read Herman Daly and Schumacher—we discussed how the monetary system relates to biospheric limits.  He told me the General Assembly that meets every evening (“mic check”) to deliberate the course of the movement had determined explicitly not to develop a set of demands at this time.

OWS is focused on setting up a governance system for the movement, expecting to be around for the long haul.  As of today, any list of demands that you may hear, therefore, are unsanctioned by the governing General Assembly of OWS, but that does not stop anyone from creating them.  Here’s just one example of a proposal to the General Assembly, although not yet adopted as of this writing.  But it gives a sense of the direction this movement may be heading toward: the convening of a National General Assembly on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia.  In our uncertain world, nothing should surprise us.

The emergence of the practice of participatory democracy as the movement’s only initial priority says everything.  OWS is about taking back democracy.  Don’t be fooled by what some disparage as the accompanying “freak show.”   There is something serious afoot here, organic, influenced by experienced social movement organizers, yet uncontrolled.  Whether it can last is unknowable and not yet determined.  It will depend upon how we all react—politicians, business leaders, police, and most importantly, we the citizenry.  But their strategy is to build the power of the movement before seeking to use that power.  A million demonstrators speak louder than ten thousand, just like a trillion-dollar balance sheet speaks louder than a hundred billion dollar one.  Right out of Goldman Sachs’ playbook I’d say.

So far, OWS has established standing committees in areas like media, de-escalation (there is an explicit commitment to non-violence, let us hope there is a discipline to match), the canteen, first aid, enforcement (they have adopted strict no alcohol and drug use rules, and are struggling to figure out how to enforce them), sanitation, maybe a dozen such committees in total.  The day I was there, they were organizing to create a “phone book” for the community.  There is a library, and “new economy” study sessions.  OWS’s next and overdue priority is focused on their immediate downtown community, how to become better neighbors.

I support the non-violent movement “OWS” to restore true democracy in America.  While we must speak truth to power on Wall Street (more on this to come, and change is coming), this is not, in my judgment, first about the bankers—there are many good and hard-working people on Wall Street.  Nor, I hope, is this about the divisive message “We are the 99 percent.”  It’s about the idea of what Wall Street has become, and the corrosive effect it has had on the Republic.

William Blake cautioned that abstraction without the particular becomes demonic.  As a society, we became intoxicated with the pursuit of money, and then in our stupor, allowed demonic forces emanating from Wall Street to layer abstraction upon abstraction in the name of “innovation.”  This morphed into nothing but leveraged speculation at best, manipulation, conflicts of interest, cynicism, cheating, and fraud.  I know; I was there at the creation in the 1980s.  It was innovative then, purposeful, productive, and exhilarating, until it metastasized into a cancer, interestingly around the time we were shocked by the attacks of 9-11, although the toxins were in the body years earlier.   Free market fundamentalism blinded us to a timely diagnosis, and continues to do so today.

It is time for finance to resume its proper and humble place as servant to, not master of, the real economy—an economy that promotes a more equitably shared prosperity while respecting the physical limits of our finite planet.  Such transformation is the Great Work of our age, work that drives the Capital Institute and many other organizations fostering the emergence of a new economy.  Restoring our democracy is an essential step, which just may be at hand.  Still a long shot, but we shall see.