In a recent New York Times column titled, “Something’s Happening Here,” Thomas Friedman suggests “two unified theories” clear up questions about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Why only two? In the Buffalo Springfield song “Something’s Happening Here,” the next line reads: “what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Friedman seems pretty clear that OWS is evidence of “The Great Disruption” or “The Big Shift.”1 Paul Gilding is the Australian environmentalist and author of the book The Great Disruption. He argues that demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits. “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation—I see our system in the painful process of breaking down,” which is what he means by the Great Disruption. Gilding makes good points but then goes awry.
“Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes.” Not really. The kid in the story wasn’t saying what everyone knew—he saw what everyone else refused to see. OWS isn’t a “broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up,” as Gilding claims. It’s an entitled generation that refuses to wake up and confront brutal reality.
This became apparent when Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen sent a researcher to Zuccotti Park last week to interview nearly 200 protesters. His company characterized the majority of protesters—mostly college graduates—as opposed to free-market capitalism and for government redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas. “Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement—no matter the cost.” This is hardly Hooverville, however. The protesters can afford Starbucks lattes and iPhones. They have no qualms about calling on friends to give money so that they can order copious amounts of pizza from capitalist pizza companies. On closer inspection, Occupy Wall Street has a decidedly Marxist take on capitalism.
Most Americans recognize this. That’s why they aren’t paying much attention to OWS. Those who know a bit of history would say the kid in the fairy story would say the emperor is naked—but the emperor is OSW’s take on capitalism. It’s essentially Marxist. “Karl Marx gave capitalism—the system he hated fiercely—its now-classic definition,” writes Novak in Business as a Calling. Marx reframed it as merely a system of market exchange, private property, and private accumulation of profit. “Knowing Marx’s animosity against capitalism, why should we accept that definition?” Novak counters that capitalism was historically “an economic system, dependent on an appropriate political system and a supportive moral-cultural system [italics mine]. Rodney Stark concurs. In The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, he writes that Christianity was the supportive moral-cultural system that made capitalism flourish. Gilding doesn’t include this in his analysis.
Friedman’s second theory is “The Big Shift,” part of John Hagel III and John Seely Brown’s book, The Power of Pull. They suggest that we’re in the early stages of a “Big Shift,” precipitated by the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution. Friedman claims the Big Shift “unleashes a huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities. This flow is disruptive at first, explaining OWS. But it taps “the global flow” to “productivity, growth and prosperity.” Friedman gets positively frothy about how “flow will prevail and topple any obstacles in its way.” The problem is, when you blow off the froth, there’s very little beer left in Friedman’s glass.
My wife and I recently had a couple from Burundi spend the night with us. Burundi is a dirt-poor African country. Corruption is rife, the court system is broken down, Internet is sporadic, roads hardly exist, and poverty is entrenched. This couple would be considered upper middle class in Burundi, yet their home lacks running water. When Friedman writes “that individuals—individuals—anywhere can now access the flow to take online courses at Stanford from a village in Africa, to start a new company with customers everywhere or to collaborate with people anywhere,” he’s overlooking the reality that this requires overlapping networks. Individuals may be able to access more information than ever before but assembling networks requires institutions such as good government, a competent and efficient court system, honest police, an effective educational system, honest bankers, and a reliable transportation system. In a word, infrastructure. Burundi doesn’t have it. There is little “flow.”
In his book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter writes: “It is sometimes true that economic revolts and social movements (such as environmentalism) occur from the “bottom up;“ that is, through the mobilization of ordinary people. And while they can have tremendous influence, on their own terms, the specific ends are often limited and/or short-lived.” He notes how “the deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occurs from the “top down.” OWS is essentially agitation—and that has a place. Hunter however notes the impetus for change from popular agitation “does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.”
Friedman’s column closes with a dichotomy and calls for a decision: “So there you have it: Two master narratives. You decide.” It’s not that simple. Simplistic frames present a problem. They tend to overplay their hand. New frameworks become problematic when they claim to be predictive of everything. If Friedman feels something’s happening in Occupy Wall Street, he’d be wise to include the historic contributions of Christianity to capitalism, or else he ain’t exactly clear on what’s happening here.
1 Thomas L. Friedman, “Something’s Happening Here” New York Times, October 11, 2011.