I’m am not part of the 99%. I mean this in both a global and in a local sense. While many university graduates struggle to find any work at all, let alone work in their field or work that uses their degree in some way, I find myself employed by my alma mater in work that I find stimulating, meaningful and lucrative. Does this mean that I am part of the 1%? I pay my taxes fairly willingly (knowing that I will get the bulk of it back), would have voted NDP in both the federal election and the Manitoba provincial election had I been allowed, and am entirely on board with wealth redistribution. Perhaps others in my position could lend their support to the Occupy movement whole-heartedly, without a shadow of doubt. I cannot.
Let me be frank: my qualms are visceral, and in the last month and a half I have sought to make sense of these qualms in a rational way, but their origins are not straightforwardly intellectual. My immediate distaste for the Occupy movement in Canada (which will be the focus of this piece because it is the movement that I am, as a Canadian, invested in) rises out of my general distaste for the shocking ignorance evinced by most Canadians regarding the differences between Canadian and American histories, political structures and social realities. There are many Canadians involved in the Occupy movement who understand these things very well, I’m sure, but Occupy started on Wall Street, not Bay Street – as in just about everything else, we are importing a vocabulary and a politics rather than attempting to develop our own. But that is largely an aesthetic judgement.
My real problem with the Occupy movement is summed up by the tension I tried to name in the first paragraph, a tension which I hope to tease out further over the course of this essay; I am not part of the 99%, and I am not part of the 1%. I am neither suffering prole nor a corporate baron. In order to contextualize this problem and speak of it in a general enough way for it to be helpful without making a caricature, let me draw attention to what I believe are the major threads in the Occupy rug. First, a sense that wealth redistribution is needed in order to create a just society. Second, the belief that such a redistribution is impossible within the normal avenues of government politics. Third, the notion that private space must be retaken for the public. Fourth, the conviction that the private sector, and especially the financial sector, cannot be trusted to uphold the common good or even act within its own rational best interests. I am sure that there are other factors – an inherent distrust of capitalism, a desire for social transformation, etc. But I believe that these four strands run through the fabric of the whole movement in both Canada and the United States.
The Occupy discourse, like that of many popular movements that have gone before it with greater or lesser degrees of success (and as a sidenote I’ll argue that the Tea Party fits very comfortably into this category as well) is predicated on the belief that a few wealthy, powerful and generally corrupt people on the top are responsible for the scarcity experienced by the masses. The problem comes when one tries to draw the line concretely. For the Tea Party, the line is drawn between the hardworking, productive middle class and the parasites on the top and bottom who feed off of its rightful earnings. For the Occupiers, the line tends to be drawn between those who own the means of production and manipulate it to their own ends and the workers who give their sweat to lubricate the machine and yet receive a fraction of its gains.
Of course, there is a sense in which both of these positions are true, and that is why they have both garnered significant support. My issue, especially regarding the Canadian protests, is that on some extremely important questions, questions that touch at the very heart of what it means to live in a just society, there seems only to be an unhelpful ambiguity. Let us look at the first strand: wealth redistribution. The logic under which Canada currently operates is one of wealth redistribution: the current political questions revolve around how much and to whom the wealth should be redistributed. We may lobby for more redistribution, or for a different focus on spending, but it is fundamentally an issue of reforming what currently exists rather than transforming it. Do we want to work within the structures that exist and strengthen them, or is the problem more fundamental than that?
Which brings us to the second strand: the belief that the current structures are insufficient, or too tainted, to fulfill this goal. This means, practically, that one is no longer talking about higher taxation of the rich but rather the development of a system in which the very possibility for individuals to acquire massive amounts of wealth is challenged. For obvious and very good reasons the Occupy movements have not tried, to the best of my knowledge, to sketch out exactly what this means, but the question it raises is an extremely important one: what is the relationship between the Occupiers and the multitude of small business owners and operators who are actively invested in the production or generation of wealth and yet who are not ultra-rich – who may in fact be very active in their communities, generous in their donations, and conscientous in their practices? Just as the London rioters in their random violence turned against fellow members of the middle or lower class, I am afraid that the Occupiers are in some ways turning against a whole class of Canadians who would be otherwise sympathetic to their complaints. If this happens, then where does the “99%” justification come from?
Third strand: public space. This grows organically out of the second strand. We may argue that all space was originally public (a fairly clear observation, I should think) but the question at this point in time – in downtown Edmonton, for example – is that people have invested massive amounts of time and money in building things (parks, buildings, homes, churches) and those people have shown a commitment to those things that gives them a sense if not of ownership at least of responsibility. For those things to be taken away from them and handed over to people who have had no hand in creating them without some sort of return is unjust, as unjust as taking someone’s labour and witholding pay. In order to be truly just, we need to develop a sense of communal ownership that makes all equal partakers, but also makes all equally responsibility for creation, upkeep etc. In order to move in that direction we should pool our resources and start purchasing property and then attempt to develop a practical theory of collective ownership outside of the established state. Especially in Canada, where many of the protesters are not unemployed and destitute (many, but not of course all) this seems to be the much more effective route, and one more likely to achieve long-lasting transformation.
Fourth strand: the conviction that the private sector cannot be trusted. At this point in history this much is self-evident. But how are we to reign in the worst impulses of human freedom while allowing the best to thrive? Regulation, whatever its intention, is a straightjacket – the constrained party cannot do as much damage, but nor can they do anything very positive. Moreover, the reality is that regulations often hurt small-scale local operations much more than they hurt large far-reaching ones for the simple fact that a large corporation is better able to absorb the costs associated with regulation than a small family business. How can we make regulation work not only for the good of the consumer, but also for the broader good of the communities the consumers live in, work in and sustain? For this question I have no answers, but I hope that through dialogue we can begin to understand what an answer might look like.
I suggested at the beginning of this essay that all of my concerns about the Occupy movement spring from the tension of not feeling either of the 99% or the 1%. I believe that in order for us to truly move forward we must appeal to those who do not have the experience of being either the very powerful or the highly marginalized. We must appeal to the “silent majority” who work eight hour days, have children, cannot drop everything to join a protest without compromising their own integrity. Instead of standing symbolically outside of the structures of power we must work as yeast within them, offering alongside our intellectual critique positive, active models, and alongside the spectacle of protest the painful personal commitment of scarce resources to building communities that have the power to make themselves equitable, fair and just. Where this is already happening – and I believe there are places within Occupy where it is happening – I humbly step back and applaud it. Where it is not happening, I hope that we can come together and make it so.
Andre Forget is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He works in the admissions department at Canadian Mennonite University and is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.