How does one make sense of Occupy Wall Street, the protest phenomena playing itself out in cities throughout the United States? Some ordering device is necessary. This essay proposes to overlay the following two.
First, Aristotle’s analysis of the four causes: material, formal, efficient and final. Though more apposite for describing things rather than events, the taxonomy is flexible and useful. It facilitates analytical separation among phenomena according to distinct inputs: that out of which they are formed, that into which they are formed, that by which they are formed, and that for the sake of which they are formed.
Second, philosopher Michael Novak’s description of the social order as resting on three legs—political, economic and cultural-moral—is also helpful. It rests on the recognition that political, economic and moral systems work in tandem to form social reality. They are three aspects of a social phenomenon such as OWS separable according to distinct motives.
Together, the two frameworks afford a closer and more refined look than that presently available in the undifferentiated deluge of information in the media. They will tell us what OWS is.
Once that analysis is performed, the second part of this essay will turn to the hope that underlies the protests. This will tell us where OWS comes from, and should enable readers to better judge what they agree and disagree with in the protests.
I. What OWS is
Material cause across the three systems
As a political matter, these protests are an expression of political will. In the U.S., as elsewhere, they are protected manifestations of Constitutional rights. Naturally, where narrowly circumscribed laws are disobeyed, the right to protest can be curtailed. Now wearing into its third month, OWS appears as protest to be degenerating into lawlessness, confrontation, violence, predation, filth and farce.
Economically, OWS is a manifestation of populist anger at some Wall Streeter’s ability to profit from calamity that their actions helped to bring about, but were able to avoid by running to political friends who foisted the tab onto the public.
It is worth considering that some Wall Streeters lost fortunes as well. Bear Stearns’ Jimmy Cayne, Lehman Brothers’ Dick Fuld, and shareholders of those firms, the GSE’s, AIG, and others spring to mind. Moreover, those in places dear to OWS’s heart are equally or more culpable for the crisis. Fannie Mae is located on Wisconsin Avenue in NW DC, not on Wall Street. Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd, the GSE’s protectors, provided cover from Capitol Hill.
Morally, protesters are aggrieved at unfairness. Greedy investment bankers from central casting lavished themselves with outlandish bonuses when their reckless bets paid off. When their bets blew up, banking chieftains ran to soul mates in government for bailouts—Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (former Goldman Sachs CEO), NY Fed President Timothy Geithner (protégé to former Treasury Secretary and former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin), and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (a student and admirer of the New Deal). True to their free market principles once again, bankers lavished themselves anew with bonuses provided courtesy of the taxpayers. This orgy of reckless greed morally offends people and resonates broadly among the populace, not just with OWS protesters. Especially outraged are those without jobs or a home of their own.
Formal cause across the three systems
Politically, the form of the outburst is confused and confusing. Beyond it being a bona-fide left-fest, there is no actual unifying narrative among the various protesters demanding free education, gay rights, the release of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, the destruction of capitalism or the elimination of hierarchy.
The formative narrative emerging is more the product of media narrators than of actions taking place at Zuccotti Park. They have focused on a preferred message: 99 percent of the population wants the other 1 percent to pay its fair share of taxes, which presumably it doesn’t. (It pays 37 percent of federal taxes; the top 5 percent pays 59 percent.)
The picture this time around, however—unlike in the 1960s–is especially diverse and harder to control due to the existence of alternative media such as the Drudge Report. Thus, despite the reporting of protest strategists such as Natasha Lennard in the New York Times, the public is nevertheless aware of counter movements such as “We Are The 53 percent,” which refers to the percentage of the American populace paying taxes.
Professional agitators, community organizer and union enforcers have been on the ground with idealistic college students and the perennially malcontented since the beginning. They are privy to robust funding courtesy of the US taxpayer (stimulus dollars and re-funneled union contributions), billionaire short-seller George Soros, and fellow travelers.
Economically, the impetus is towards a planned, targeted or directed economy. The free market is decidedly the bogie man among this crowd. That markets didn’t work freely to discipline those who were instead bailed out only makes matters worse. A command and control economy that redistributes wealth to protesters from Wall Street bankers, or whoever, is the order of the day.
Morally, protesters are unified around a desire for a redistribution of resources from those who have to those who need, or want, more. This is contextualized in a belief that we live in a world of plenty where there is more than enough to go around if only greedy bankers and rich people would be made to share.
This reallocation of wealth is viewed as the sine qua non to the alleviation of suffering, injustice and a myriad of social problems rooted in the unequal distribution of resources. Not much thought seems to have been given as to what will happen should that not prove to be the case, or to what the motivational consequences will be after redistribution is affected.
Efficient cause across the three systems
Politically, the trigger has been President Obama’s emergence this summer from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation as a populist firebrand. His attacking, provocative, confrontational style was displayed before the joint session of Congress that he convoked to unveil the American Jobs Act. It has since been repeated daily in fund-raising fora and political rallies across the country. The gist of the message is that the rich are not paying their fair share, the poor (primarily state union employees) are suffering as a result, and Republicans are to blame. As former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said recently, President Obama owns OWS; it is his. The President’s floundering poll numbers coupled to fears that he might lose his re-election bid have added urgency to the moment. Fear of losing power and control over the governance of the country after a hegemonic tilt to the Left has driven people into the streets to clamor for more of the President’s spend-borrow-and-tax initiatives.
Economically, OWS owes its impetus to the worrisome shape of the US, and world, economy. Official unemployment remains stubbornly high in the low 9 percent range long after it should have dropped to more normal levels. Unofficial unemployment is off the charts. The economy remains stubbornly inert. The sense of malaise in the country is palpable. Faith in DC’s ability to lead is low.
The trillion-dollar stimulus, legislative tsunami, and regulatory blanket that constituted the Obama Administration’s economic agenda have generated the worst possible outcome for the economy: tentativeness among those who make investment and hiring decisions.
Patronage, corruption and cover-up at taxpayer subsidized boondoggles such as Solyndra, combined with a general reawakening as to why America turned its back on Keynesianism to embrace the prescriptions of Reaganism three decades ago, fill the sails of a Tea-Party movement to cut government spending and to lower taxes.
These developments are anathema to the protesters assembling in Zuccotti Park and around the country under the OWS banner.
Morally, the fear that Wall Street greed and injustice will prevail, that financial crisis harms so fresh in the mind will recede into memory, that redistributive victories may be reversed or rolled back fuels this movement.
So much has been gained by the American Left since 2008, and even more broadly since Democrats capture of Congress in 2006 until their 2010 expulsion, that there is much to be lost with reversals of fortune. Carpe diem.
Final cause across the three systems
Politically, OWS exists to support more government spending and higher taxes. More broadly, it supports the utilization of federal power to achieve social goals. Its aim is a more powerful state that can distribute whatever protestors demand, and an enfeebled private sector that is brought to heel.
Economically, the end game according to David Mamet, a reformed Leftist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is a government-run economy and country. For the time being, that control takes the form of corporatism where huge swaths of government policy are enacted through the auspices of domesticated private corporations such as General Electric and Dow Chemical.
Neither protesters in Zucotti Park nor media apologists have articulated principled limits to the state’s power to effect desired ends. To the contrary, they evince a belief that unbounded collective power should be marshaled, post haste, to redress their respective grievances.
Morally, this movement is driven by hope, and change towards what it perceives to be social justice. Most voted for President Obama, though many are disaffected because, in their opinions, he has not been Leftist enough.
Having gained a firmer grasp of what OWS is, the second part of this essay will address the hope that drives Occupy Wall Street in order to discern where it comes from.
II. Where OWS Comes From
By examining the roots of OWS’s hope, we might more readily distinguish OWS from other movements seeking social justice, fairness and other moral themes that resonate broadly among the public, especially religious believers. In what does OWS hope? Of what does its better world consist?
Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope) is helpful in this regard. Though addressed to Catholics, the letter is of interest to any religious believer, or non-believer who merely wishes to know in what Christian hope generally consists.
Benedict teaches that Christian hope is grounded in faith. It is something received in the process of coming to know God, the one true God. Those who have hope live differently, as if the anticipation of what is hoped for reaches into the present life with a foretaste of what is to come if we but persevere in our goal. Through faith, the whole, true life that is hoped for is already present “in embryo” in this life. Hope makes even pain bearable.
Through hope, the believer knows that ultimately, a personal God who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love will have the final say over life, not elemental spirits of the universe, material laws, evolution or what-have-you. Man is not the plaything of impersonal forces.
Hope is a social reality, something apostolic, rather than an individual phenomenon. Benedict’s historical exegesis of how the modern, individualistic notion of hope in personal salvation developed is particularly illuminating for our purpose, which is to discern whether that which is on offer at Zuccotti Park bears any resemblance to a hope that others, especially religious believers, can embrace.
He identifies the foundation of the modern age in the correlation of experiment and method, science and praxis. These led to the discovery of America and to heady technical achievements that promised to finally usher in “the triumph of art over nature”.
The theological application of this development, personified in the 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon, was that science and praxis would reestablish the dominion over creation lost through original sin. Redemption was no longer to be expected through faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, the restoration of paradise was henceforth to be expected from science and technology. Faith became displaced into the purely private, otherworldly realm. Hope was now transformed into faith in progress.
The technology-driven emergence, and squalor, of the industrial proletariat by the 19th century moved Friedrich Engels to describe its dreadful living conditions, and Karl Marx to call for a proletariat revolution in bourgeois society.
Faith in progress remained the new form of human hope, whose guiding stars were reason and freedom. After Karl Marx, however, the decisive step towards salvation would henceforth come from politics, and revolution—a step first taken in 18th century France. Marx presumed that the New Jerusalem would be realized through expropriation, revolution and socialization because “everything would then belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another”. Things didn’t work out that way as Marx’s interim phase, his “dictatorship of the proletariat”, ushered in a trail of appalling destruction rather than a perfect world.
Benedict identifies materialism as Marx’s error, the mistaken belief that man is merely the product of his economic conditions and that it is possible to redeem him externally by creating ideal economic conditions. Man always remains man, with freedom, which always remains freedom for evil as well as for good. Fixing the economy through whatever means will always be insufficient to save man and to anchor his hope.
Technical progress opens possibilities for the good, but for evil as well, if not matched by a corresponding moral growth at the personal level. The imbalance between man’s material capacity and the reasoned judgments in his heart can only be rectified if human freedom converges at the foundation and goal of our freedom.
“Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” Christian hope is substantially different from political hope in progress, or science-based hope.
In the moral–as opposed to the material–sphere, freedom is always expressed anew through personal ethical awareness and decision-making. Incremental ethical progress is not directly possible as: “the moral treasury of humanity is not readily at hand like tools that we use; it is present as an appeal to freedom and a possibility for it”. This means that the world’s moral well-being cannot be guaranteed by structures alone, as even the best structures “function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order.”
Every generation leaves structures to guide ensuing generations in the proper use of human freedom. But, redemption comes neither through science nor politics. Rather, man is redeemed by love. Only an absolute certainty provided by an absolute love–God–can redeem man “whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances.”
“His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life.”
The hope of Occupy Wall Street
The Pope’s sublime reflections seem far removed from the reality unfolding in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere, which are wholly rooted in a political conception of hope. Concretely, that hope is to tax whoever can bear the burden, and redistribute the takings through the welfare state.
For the time being, recipients are apparently to include federal, state and municipal employees, college students, universities, unions, green entrepreneurs, political confederates, community organizers, abortion providers, and other Democratic Party constituents. Catholics need not apply.
Protestors neither consist of nor represent the downtrodden proletariat. They alternatively appear to be scions of privilege, union enforcers, well-funded organizers, rabble-rousers, or adventure seekers. Generally, they are youthful freeloaders, and professional grievance-mongers bound by a common sense of entitlement, and anger that someone would dare deny them while the resources to placate them still exist, somewhere, anywhere.
Ironically, protesters bristle at the presence of actual homeless people, and decry their sponging on resources intended for protestors. (From where? By whom?) They tellingly bemoan the theft of laptops and other expensive items foolishly brought to the demonstrations, as if misinformed that only the best people would take part.
Their political idea of social justice is the right to an easy living for little-to-no effort. (Oh, and an end to all injustice, generally.) Moreover, they expect government to ensure this right. This is a twist on Marx’s notion that peace would ensue from shared ownership. Protestors believe that peace will follow the provision of everyone’s desires–at least of those on the Left–at the rich’s expense: rich being defined as $250,000 of annual income.
Christian hope does not look to government to supply the person with every desire. Rather, its object is something beyond this life’s ability to provide, whose possession through faith makes life’s burdens and struggles tolerable, even lovable.
We know a tree by its fruit. What, then, is the person of religious belief, or simply of good will, to make of OWS’s lawlessness, confrontation, discord, violence, predation and the like? What is one to make of the apparatchiks on the sidelines urging more contention, even to the point of Kent-State-like martyrdom?
In a word, OWS is manipulative. As the godfather of the community organizing left, Saul Alinsky, taught, “Revolution by the Have-Nots has a way of inducing a moral revelation among the Haves.” The movement is trying to stir a moral revelation in the public’s breast not only by appealing to hope and a sense of justice, but by threatening revolution.
At least for this author, hope lies in faith, not politics; justice lies in truth, not grievance. And, the revolution has already begun, peaceably at the ballot box, to reduce the size and scope of government, and hence the domain of political opportunism and opportunists. OWS is but a reaction to it.
Thus, while the moral duty to pursue social justice is indisputable; despite the fact that self-serving investment bankers are deeply upsetting to me; and despite the fact that life’s circumstances are as uncertain for me as they are for any and every contingent being; I do not see much in Occupy Wall Street to recommend it. It offers false hope, panders to grievance, and menaces rather than consoles. It is not for me.
I will be happy to see it dissipate its energies, though I expect it to persist as long as stimulus funding for it does, or until the present Administration collapses. The continued threat of bankruptcy playing itself out in Europe, the home of the social welfare state, will serve to fuel the ongoing revolution in America.
As Jesus did not say, the agitators and utopians you have always with you. Once they relinquish their hold on government and the public purse, Americans will be freer, wealthier and abler to alleviate real suffering, and to ease the plight of the poor through personal initiative, intermediate associations and the subjectivity of society—in a word, through subsidiarity.
Professor Max Torres is a Visiting Professor of Business Ethics, and Organizational Behavior at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. He teaches at other institutions around the world and has held positions at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and on other business and law faculties. Prior to a career in academe, he worked in the Investment and Securities fields with Merrill Lynch and other firms. He is the founder of the Three-dimensional Leadership Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which aims to help leaders and organizations harness the intangibles rooted in human motivation. He blogs at Noman Says: www.nomansays.blogspot.com.