“To what end?” a friend asked this week while discussing the protests originating in Wall Street and spreading now from one city to the next. “What’s the point?”
We were two lawyers standing in the hallway of a local court, wasting billable hours while awaiting the attention of a judge, any judge. We have a privileged perch in this economy, in any economy really. We are a derivative class, earning a living helping others navigate their troubles.
“There doesn’t need to be an end,” I replied.
“Then what’s the purpose?” My friend wandered off, dissatisfied.
He wants there to be a point, a manifesto, a program for change drawing all those together who are now taking to the street. He wants a category into which to place these folks. He wants a leader to cajole, co-opt and control. He stands on the doorstep of the privileged class, looks out, and shudders. Chaos frightens him.
It should frighten him. Nothing disturbs the peace of the leisure class like a brick through the windshield of their luxury car.
I am sitting at home writing this. In the background, the radio reports news on the posturing of presidential candidates. Is Mormonism a cult? Is Mitt Romney really a Christian? Do we have too many taxes, or not enough? It’s the same old tripe recycled over and over and over again by the electioneering class, the well-heeled, well-financed folks with money, power and privilege. It sounds like white noise.
These debates don’t mean much to a man or a woman without hope, without a job, without a home they can hold or any confidence that the American Dream is anything more than a propaganda device, a prime-time plot device, a sit-com without the soundtrack laugh.
Better to occupy Wall Street, or Los Angeles, or Hartford, or the Main Street of any city in that divides the rich from the poor in ways that threaten to forever leave behind the overwhelming majority of Americans while a tiny fraction laughs all the way to the bailed out bank. Sometimes change does not come from the policy wonks, fiddling with ideas in think tanks, and recycling platitudes in sound bites. Sometimes change is forced from below. A brick speaks too.
I believe in biology. Whatever else we are we start with need and desire. We require food and shelter, all of us. We want safety. We crave love and a sense of belonging. If we have all these, then we focus on self-esteem. The lucky among us can focus on self-actualization, becoming the very thing they imagine.
The previous paragraph walked from one sentence to another from the base to the top of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. One must eat and have shelter before craving safety -- a hungry man risks all. Ask Jean Valjean. When these basic needs are met, we want love, and then warm self-regard. Only when we have there do we seek to become the person of our dreams.
Put another way, biology is destiny. First the food and shelter, then the home, then association with others, then a sense of worthiness within the group, then the self-mastery of a dream fulfilled.
The protests sweeping North America are not about self-actualization. This isn’t the leisure class deciding which designer shoe to buy, what luxury car to drive. It’s not the Wall Street banker seeking the best and safest place to invest his bonus. It is the look and sound of people afraid. They may not yet be hungry, but they lack security, they are searching for a sense of belonging.
The 99 percent don’t have the wealth for personal trainers, life coaches, summer homes or, for many, even homes at all. They look at those atop Maslow’s hierarchy and ask, simply: Why the 99 percent should support the one percent of folks who control the nation’s wealth? Because the gap between haves and have nots has become a chasm, the 99 percent no longer buy the platitudes -- “work hard and you will get ahead,” “we are all free and equal,” “the work of the affluent benefits all.” Even political debate between the major parties looks farcical. Is Obama a center-left plutocrat?
The protests are need without an agenda. They are new wine bursting the old skins of a political culture and range of policy options that do not, and cannot, meet the felt necessity of the times. I look to the streets and I see hope, not a reason for despair.
Politicos and policemen are getting nervous. They fear the gathering “mobs” and the storm these people represent. Good. It will take more than passive, peaceful protest to force change in this country. The leisure class won’t give up its perquisites without a fight. Sometimes you need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. My hunch is that the nation is in an egg-breaking frame of mind. New barbarians are at the gates. Good, I say. Change is both terrifying and exhilarating.
The ideas and institutions pedaled by the mainstream media, the courts, the pundits and the politicians don’t work. The peddlers of these ideas have powerful institutional reasons to avoid thinking outside the box. I watched Judy Woodruff on PBS this week report in puzzled terms about the meaning of these protests. I wondered what her townhouse looked like, and how much she tipped her doorman at the holiday seasons. She cannot see what she does not experience. She lives in a bubble, as do I, that requires bursting.
“No,” is the most powerful word in the English language. “Move along,” the police say. “No.” “Trust and obey,” the power elite say. “No.” “Trust us,” the politicos say. “No.” The one percent want to self-actualize while the 99 percent focus on more basic needs. It’s time to disturb the peace of the one percent.
Exciting and terrifying times, these days of occupying one place or another. Felt necessity is forcing change. I smell smoke and I hear the sound of tinkling glass. Could it be the fire next time is about to be lit? Old ideologies fail to meet felt necessity. Bring on the anarchists, I say. It may well be time to clear the landscape of unsightly social forms.