Wall Street and the Power of No
I see Wall Street and I keep thinking the state of nature. I am not referring to the bare knuckle tactics of brazen traders like Gordon Gecko, huffing, puffing and bragging about a life lived on the solitary, nasty, brutish and short trading floors of our financial palaces. I am thinking of the folks now gathered outside those palaces, those protestors huddled together beneath the banner of Occupy Wall Street.
These folks are doing something fundamental. They are rejecting the status quo and facing the future without a plan. They are armed simply with the conviction that the world as it is is unsatisfactory. So rather than suck the teats of the bankers, and the politicians whom they serve, these folks are simply saying no. Their message needs to spread from one end of the country to another.
The spreading protests reflect a widespread loss of confidence in our government and governing institutions. While one percent of the population grows richer and richer, buying politicians, votes and influence, the rest of are expected to play silent servant, happy with the leavings the rich leave behind. There is no good reason to sit passively by while the leisure class rapes the earth, the economy and as many of us as will simply bend and spread.
The protestors are withdrawing their allegiance from a set of institutions and ideas that do not serve. They are saying no. If enough people simple say no, refuse to play by rules that serve simply to impoverish and to enslave, those sitting at the top of the various pyramids governing the nation will tumble. Kick ‘em to the streets, I say. I’m betting plenty of people trying to reassemble the wreckage of their lives don’t care a whit whether they shoulder necessity’s wheel alongside a banker forced out of work.
The national news media hardly knows what to make of these protestors. I watched Judy Woodruff on PBS last night. She looked at the protestors as one might behold an exotic animal at a zoo. She wondered what “they” wanted. What is “their” agenda? Will “they” select leaders? Woodruff looked like a captive of her class: she lives in the privileged bubble the protestors hope to burst. She is blind to the bars holding the world on which she reports at bay: she’s an existential tourist.
“What do you want?” the jailer asks the captive. Answering that question is pointless. When someone looks at your chains, fails to see them, and then asks what you want, the response should be actions not words. A fist in the face is one answer. A brick through the window of a bank is another answer. A failure even to engage in the discussion is another. A man who cannot see another’s chains asks what the prisoner wants. The prisoner knows there is only one thing he lacks, the thing that matters most: freedom. Requiring the slaves to ask for freedom is merely a way of buying time, trading words for necessary action.
We are well beyond words in this country now. Words are what Congress serves up. Words are what the media serve up. Words are what you read here. Words are fuel, to be sure. But it is time for combustion. Otherwise we will get just another set of electoral tap dances by members of the leisure class vying for power. Barak Obama, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry: all are so many coffin nails.
I have not voted for a listed candidate in my Congressional elections for years. When I vote, I write in the name “Clarence Darrow.” Yes, he’s dead. But so are the candidates in my district, at least from the neck up. Saying no to the unacceptable alternatives offered by the two major parties doesn’t make a better world. I build nothing with my vote. But I am not betrayed.
Two images come to mind as I watch Wall Street. The first is a primeval forest where men and women who are strangers come together and strike up new terms of engagement, new laws, new customs. Each has their own needs. No one speaks for them. They speak for themselves. They are alive. They have withdrawn their allegiance from a sovereign who no longer serves and have returned to the state of nature.
Just like Thomas Hobbes said they could do.
Hobbes wrote one of the classic authoritarian works of all-time, the Leviathan. Because we need security in order to live, we create a government. We join together and give the sovereign almost unchecked power so long as it serves our needs for survival. But we retain the right to transfer our allegiance from this sovereign when it fails us. We can return to the state of nature.
Hobbes wrote in the wake of the English Civil war, a conflict that resulted in the beheading of Charles I and decades of instability. Civil war is violent and untidy. It is a sign of a society divided, a society that does not work. Neighbors turn on one another when institutions too often and routinely offer unacceptable options. In New Haven, several of our principal streets are named after men who signed Charles I’s death warrant: When you drive down Whalley Avenue or Goffe Street, you are on a revolutionary road.
We are not yet at the point of a Civil War in this country. There is no regional or social divide sufficient to drive us to the point of war with one another. But there is enormous economic discord. When the 99 percent realize that they are not about to be welcomed into the arms of the one percent club, when the 99 percent realize they have nothing left to loose by refusing to kowtow to the one percent, then fundamental change takes shape, a social tsunami that can topple all in its wake.
What comes next?
The power elite demands an answer. What is your legislative agenda? What candidates do you want to stand for office? How can we tweak the status quo to accommodate you? Refusing to answer these questions is the path to freedom, new institutions and radical change. None of us asked for the life we have. We adapt. Why not force our institutions to adapt by simply withholding allegiance and obedience?
And hence I think of the second image that Wall Street calls to mind: Odysseus placing wax into the ears of his sailors to avoid the seductive Sirens’ songs. He knew his men could be distracted by the lovely sound of promised pleasure. He made sure that the sailors could not hear the promise of seductress.
Barak Obama and the Democrats try to seduce. The Republicans try to seduce. The media tries to seduce. The monied class will spend a lot to keep the doors to the banks and corporate board rooms closed. So the Wall Street protestors are wise simply to tune out the demands of the chattering classes for explanations, answers and programs for reform. The protestors need simply to practice saying no over and over and over again. In time, the naysayers will find new and more serviceable ways to survive. Let power serve the biological imperatives in need.
The protests are spreading. There is a group forming even in New Haven, the city closest to where I live. No is a word that can be said anywhere power holds doors closed to the needs of ordinary people for food, shelter, works and self-respect. No is the hero’s creed.
Have you said no to anyone today? Small acts of defiance add up when multiplied by thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people. The ruling class has been saying no to you for years. Watch them scurry and scramble when they begin to hear you say it.
No, I say. I needn’t plan a better world to declare the status quo unacceptable. I needn’t debate the issues in the forum of your choice. I can walk away from the forum. No, I can say. I can say it by failing to act. I can declare it with my lips. I can say it with a brick.
I love the look of the gathering storm, even though I do not know where it will lead or whenit will end. It may all signify nothing. But today it feels like freedom. I am looking forward to Occupying New Haven.