Occupy Wall Street with Solidarity
The Occupy Wall Street movement which recently has spread around the country raises interesting questions. The central thesis of the leading organizers is that wealth plays far too large a role in shaping public policy in the United States. Wall Street and other financial centers in various cities have been targeted because of the dual perception that the trading of financial instruments is a key source of economic inequality and that selfishness in such trading lies at the root of the current and prolonged economic downturn which has left so many Americans unemployed.
The founding demand of Occupy Wall Street is that President Obama must establish a commission to figure out how to eliminate the interests of the wealthy from government. This, of course, is completely impossible (not that a commission could be established but that its objective could ever be achieved). A front-page photo in my local paper pictures demonstrators holding signs that say things like “Money is not speech”, “Dollars for jobs and schools, not war”, “End wealth inequality” and “Rights for the people, not the corporations”. A thousand different policy initiatives could be based on these slogans, but none of them are being systematically pursued by the Occupy Wall Street movement. I also suspect that even the sign-holders really do not know what they mean, or how they would work. Perhaps, then, the movement is best taken as an indicator of our national economic frustration.
It is inescapably clear to me that Providence (which in a bad mood I am still erroneously prone to call “luck”) plays a key role in determining who becomes wealthy and who does not. For every person who has made his fortune, there are thousands with similar aptitude and skill who have tried and failed. But if there is one personality trait which most helps people to get by economically in the twenty-first century, it is the ability to think outside the box. Flexibility and adaptability, along with the ability to envision and implement alternative scenarios, are critical to survival in an economic world characterized by frequent change. When one’s “normal” path to a sufficient income is closed, one must be able to envision and pursue alternatives.
Of course, some people are without the basic ability and material freedom to pursue any promising alternative at all. Others lack the energy or the health or the self-discipline. I don’t mean to minimize these realities. But a great many people—probably most people—are simply not very good at conceiving of alternatives in the first place. It is probably axiomatic that those of ordinary competence in the United States who remain unemployed for long periods of time typically lack this ability. An economic system which revolves around rapid change puts such persons at a disadvantage. They depend on “being hired” to do something they are already capable of doing. This is one of the major perils of the widespread freedom characteristic of successful modern economies.
In any rural society, the vast majority of people know what they will do and how they will do it. They will be farmers. They will live and die with the yield of the land. The Middle Ages showed us this kind of economy, which included serfs, but so did American history before the twentieth century, in which the vast majority were small farmers. A farmer can be very poor indeed, but he is never out of work, and he always knows, for better or worse, who he is and what he is expected to do. But in a modern economy, based primarily on technology, commerce and trade, nobody really knows today what he will be doing tomorrow. We are all just a financial blip away from having to find alternative ways to occupy our time and talents, whatever these may be.
Small farmers can, in many ways, maintain a sturdy independence, but in a modern business economy this is not possible. While some policy changes can probably help (if we could only figure out what they are), the fundamental solution lies not in policy but in solidarity. The virtue of solidarity—the concern on the part of all for all—is necessary to create the bonds of trust which hold society together and even make fruitful business possible. What alienates those who are unemployed is not economic hardship, which is sometimes inevitable, but the growing sense that nobody who is successful really cares about those who are not, that there is no force or motive at the heart of human economic activity which tends to take their needs into account—indeed, that they are merely unlamented cast-offs of some great economic machine, ignored for being of no particular current use.
This is what Pope Benedict XVI was trying to teach in his great social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The Pope argued that the “market” works well only in a climate of mutual trust:
In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss. (35)
Moreover, he taught, that “solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or ‘after’ it.” We must demonstrate, he wrote, not only transparency, honesty and responsibility but also that the “principle of gratuitousness and the logic of the gift” can be part of commercial relationships, finding their place “within normal economic activity.” This, he said is “demanded by economic logic” as well as by charity and truth. (36) It is in this context that the Pope emphasized solidarity:
Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State. While in the past it was possible to argue that justice had to come first and gratuitousness could follow afterwards, as a complement, today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place. … Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself. (38)
Benedict emphasizes that in business activity, management “cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference.” (40)
A renewed commitment to solidarity will not eliminate all economic hardship, but it will change the way people think about it, and how they deal with it. Above all it will break down the isolation of those who experience it, especially the unemployed. Nothing restores a person’s hope like the simple trust that others—many others—will take him into account in their plans and solutions as much as they can. There is, after all, a big difference in every facet of community life between being included in the business and, as the popular expression goes, being “given the business.” The very freedom and shifting possibilities of today’s economies make authentic, built-in solidarity more important now than ever before.
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