The so-called “occupy” movement commands a lot of column inches and sound bites, whatever medium one happens to prefer.
Predictably, those smugly comfortable enough to identify with the 1% or nervously civil enough to abhor confrontations of any nature tend to criticize the occupiers. Nevertheless, despite the toilet humor and other slurs, these are not simply “tattooed freaks, hippies, druggies and losers.”
To be fair, some figures from the left of the political spectrum have commented on the courage of the occupiers, comparing the indignation of the occupy protesters to the efforts and ideals of the civil rights marchers and draft card burners of the 1960’s.
Similarities between the two groups are not far-fetched. The protesters are dominantly young (although certainly not exclusively so—96 year-old Pete Seeger, the old folk singer of the Vietnam era, participated in the New York protest just the other day). As such, they have (and had) a greater stake in the future than their elders do.
Both groups exhibit legitimate grievances. Although in the 1960s youth were financially probably better off than any generation before or since, the society they were inheriting was immensely flawed.
Various and vicious forms of racism vividly illustrated a nation’s hypocritical unwillingness to live up to expressed ideals of human rights.
The Vietnam War, including the usual wartime corruption (rigged contracts, vast appropriations to the military-industrial complex, etc.) was just another way to die for your country rather than live for it.
Tied to these were the newly publicized issues of ecocide, made vivid by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, industrial pollution of rivers and streams and irresponsible manufacturing practices highlighted in Ralph Nader’s consumer classics Unsafe at Any Speed and The Chemical Feast.
These were real grievances, and it was the courage and determination of protesters, as well as the analysis and participation of intellectuals like Nader and Martin Luther King Jr. that led to such landmark legislation as America’s Civil Rights Act, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act, as well as a host of similar legislation in industrial countries around the world.
So, what are the grievances of the occupiers? First is the nearly fantastic growth in economic inequality within society, most evident in the United States but also clearly problematic in Canada and Europe. Even conservative think tanks, as well as publications such as The Globe and Mail comment on this trend with concern.
What are we to make of a society in which average income for the top .01% of families is over $27,000,000 per year and the average income for the bottom 90% of families is just over $30,000 per year? How fair is a society in which the richest 10% control 2/3 of the country’s net worth (the top 1% controlling more than the bottom 90%)?
Young people in the US have watched as bankers and corrupted politicians have gamed the system, creating a world in which fraud is rewarded and hard work may lead nowhere but to unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcy.
In Canada, ongoing changes to the tax system continue to generate higher capital income (dividends and capital gains) for those already wealthy, an opportunity less affluent Canadians simply cannot take advantage of. (People tend to pay their rent and eat before buying stocks.)
Housing continues to rise in price at a faster rate than the wages available to buy it. Adjusted for inflation, real average incomes in Canada have risen about 5% since the 1970’s, but housing prices have risen over 75% (nearly 150% here in BC).
Environmentally, politicians throughout North America blithely ignore such ominous warnings as incipient peak oil and ongoing climate change, apparently content to transfer the rising costs of these challenges to the next generation. Few young people in their right minds would not object to “the system” as it now operates.
In large measure, the grifters have created the “system.” No wonder there’s rage against the machine. It will be instructive to see how this plays out.
Al Lehmann is a teacher living in Terrace, BC.