Occupy Wall Street: a moral challenge to conservative values

On Saturday, October 15, I attended the Occupy St. Louis protest, one of the many demonstrations around the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. My first reaction was a kind of sadness, or déjà vu. How many demonstrations had I, and others on the Left, been to over the years for progressive causes too numerous to mention? Despite all that effort, we have ended up in the dire economic, social and political crisis we are in today, the worst since the Great Depression.

Was all that political activism pointless? Short answer, no. We can look back on solid achievements in civil rights, the peace movement, worker rights, and environmental and other social and economic causes. What happened? The Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations unleashed the floodgates of corporate money into government, which led to the Great Recession we are now experiencing. Corporate Democrats and Republicans gained ascendency, overwhelmed the forces of democracy by deregulating the financial industry, and managed to shred the social contract, all in the name of free market capitalism.

Upon arrival at the Occupy St. Louis demonstration, I was disappointed at the turnout, maybe 1,000 at most. (The previous demonstration against corporate greed last spring had at least 4,000). The usual political types were present with their signs and literature, along with union leaders and groups of young college students. The split was interesting—older aging hippies, veterans of more left political demonstrations than they care to remember, and the young who are more anarchistic in nature and feel comfortable with the spontaneous, leaderless, egalitarian quality of Occupy Wall Street. My friends and I spoke to some of the college kids who happened to be social work students. They were connecting the dots between the social problems they were training to address and the economic and political system that often creates them.

Although the actual demonstrations around the country may be small, something is happening to the national psyche. The term “99%” is catching on, even among those who wouldn’t be caught dead at a left leaning political protest. So, I think it is a mistake to measure the effectiveness of Occupy Wall Street by the numbers of protestors. They represent the tip of the iceberg, as did the much larger spontaneous demonstrations in Madison Wisconsin against the right wing takeover of the State by Governor Walker and his sponsors the Koch Brothers.

Despite right wing efforts to label Occupy Wall Street (and the public sector union demonstrations in Madison) as dangerous and anti-American, the country is slowly awakening to the fact that the top 1% has hijacked our economy, our democracy and most importantly, our values. Collectively, we are awakening from the free market “American dream,” that has turned into a national nightmare. There is no denying that we have been witnessing our economic and political system destroying itself thanks to the ascendency of conservative values in the past decades. George Lakoff defines conservative values as:

The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government.

Occupy Wall Street offers the most hopeful and coherent argument against the conservative view to date, by directly challenging those on Wall Street who most embody the ideas and values that have led us to the Great Recession. It is especially hopeful because it represents a national, grassroots political awakening outside the mostly corrupt political party structure.

The official statement of Occupy Wall Street is eloquent and a truthful summary of the state we find ourselves in—that corporations, not the citizens of the United States, are running our governments.

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

The list of grievances can be read here.

This is an important step, to name what has happened—that the top 1% now control 40% of the wealth. Occupy Wall Street is helping to shine a light on the 1% who hide in their gated communities having been greatly enriched by our taxpayer bailouts. But to be effective the focus has to avoid the tendency to want revenge. Instead, it must frame the movement as a moral argument against the conservative ideas and values that have had such a destructive effect on the rest of us. These values, and the myths they depend on, are reinforced every day through media outlets such as Fox News and right wing talk radio.

Conservatives and corporate Democrats have wrongly elevated the private sector and individual responsibility while demonizing the public sector and social responsibility. Occupy Wall Street is in a unique position to articulate an alternative vision of America, one based on the values of cooperation and caring for one another.