(this is a draft of a paper I’ve recently submitted for publication)
Where did the Occupy Wall Street movement gather its strength, and where might it be going? Starting from a handful of people, it has captured worldwide attention in a very short time, and has had remarkably rapid effects on the political scene. While it took both the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s and the movement against the Viet-Nam war in the 60‘s and 70‘s years to garner political support at the highest levels, OWS has done the same in mere weeks. For instance, the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, though only recently opposed to extending the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” has now changed his tune entirely, proposing and having passed new and long-lasting tax increases for the wealthy. President Obama has also adopted at least the rhetoric of inequality in a way he was loathe to do for the first years of his Presidency. In both cases this may be more a matter of political expediency rather than a deep change of heart, but the question remains how this supposedly radical and raggedy movement has been able so quickly to have such an impact.
One aspect of the the success of the movement is certainly in its slogan, “We are the 99%.” Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s fable who sees and yells out that the Emperor is naked, the line reveals what has to be blindingly obvious once it has been said. There’s no going back. We will never be able to look at the 1% (or measures in their interest) as we might have before, with a mixture of respect, admiration and even celebration. Instead we won’t be able to avoid the clear sense that they are stealing the oxygen in the room (as well as the money, etc.) from the rest of us. The naked emperor revealed himself to be delusional, and the 1% also reveals itself now to be delusional if it argues that its actions as a group have been its hard work for the greater public’s greater benefit.
From now on whenever one choice might even offer the appearance of being more in favor of the 1% than some other possibility, unreasonable inequality will inevitably come to mind. The 1% and their agents will be able to act with less self confidence, while whoever opposes them will have more. From credit card charges to bank loans to property development to tax reductions or increases, as in many another matter, nothing can be done in the foreseeable future either in the US or in much of the rest of the world without this thought coming up.
But why is this simple slogan so powerful now? At one level it simply points to the fact that in the “great recession” most in the 1% have retained or raised their monetary wealth, often with tremendous government or central-bank help, while the fortunes of many of the rest have sunk. Further, much of the financial calamity that caused the downturn was caused by the reckless self-aggrandizing actions of that same 1%. The 1%’s repeated claims that their effort legitimizes their vast incomes simply does not bear scrutiny any more. Likewise the gigantic self-interested lobbying efforts and campaign contributions of the 1% have so obviously bought off politicians that none can doubt its illegitimacy once pointed out. One explanation is that by sheer greed this small group have simply overreached. On that view their eventual downfall was fore-ordained. It had to come and they may even be lucky that the OWS movement approached the task of taking them down with a commitment, for the most part, to non-violence. The pitchforks and guillotines have not yet shown up.
The End of the New “Ancienne Régime”?
Pitchforks and guillotines? I allude, obviously, to the French Revolution. It took place when the members of the “old regime,” the hereditary nobility and royalty, kept clinging ruthlessly to power when their actual value to the broader French society had ended. I suggest something similar is taking place now. There is no longer much of value to society in having a monied class. In fact the basic idea of an economy based on money is no longer viable. Let me try to explain.
Some background to begin with: every mode of value or ranking of human activity begins in human minds. Money, whether gold coins, paper bills, or electronic blips is no different. Nothing has intrinsic value other than what is imparted to it by humans. The monetary system owed its dominance to its exchangeability for standardized goods or routine work. Automation and other developments have lessened the proportion of populations who engage in such routine. At the same time standardized, industrially produced goods and services, despite their continued proliferation in both numbers and kinds, no longer dominate our felt needs in comparison with other needs I will discuss in a moment. Absent standardization and routine, money no longer really fits, and the money system becomes vulnerable, open to replacement by something new.
Now, as to those other needs; they are the ones that relate to what I have termed the “Attention Economy,” 1— though bear in mind that I mean the term differently from what is meant by most of the others2 who have borrowed my phrase. In this new kind of economy people compete for attention from others, and when successful are able to prosper by means of that. To do this they mostly rely on increasing number of technological channels open to them: from print to TV to movies to CD’s to all the modes of audience seeking advanced by the Internet and the endless series of innovations connected to it. They compete because human attention is both intrinsically scarce and highly desirable. Scarce because each person and therefore all of us together can only pay so much attention and no more. Desirable because it is through having others’ attention that you can get them to think or even to do much of what you want. Attention from others sticks in those others’ minds and very often is easy to draw on again and again. Banks are not necessary to store this new kind of wealth safely. Thus in a post-routine age attention can replace money and standardized goods as a means of organizing society.
If you are in a mood to pay attention — perhaps because you are unable at the moment to get the kind of actual attention you might crave more — you encounter the near infinite variety of blogs, TV channels, YouTube videos, Twitters, Facebook updates, images, sounds, etc. Others have put these forth in the hopes of gaining some attention for themselves or — what amounts to the same thing — for their thoughts, feelings, loyalties, discoveries, creations, inventions, certainties or ambivalences. It is precisely the thirst for such variable and unpredictable fare that replaces the older need for standardized goods. (We may still want — say a Diet Coke — but we increasingly find ourselves tempted towards a more personalized alternative — some deli chef’s special drink — and we find our minds less occupied with such predictable stuff.)
Why then does money still seem so important, so dominant, in the sense that a personal lack of money or income is a serious problem and the government’s present inability either to raise taxes or engage in debt now squeeze out all sorts of what were previously considered essential services, such as education at all levels, park, libraries, courts, police and fire departments, and on and on?
For one thing, the centrality of money is still a deeply ingrained idea, an idea constantly reinforced by a continual drumbeat of inconsistent and even self-contradictory admonitions that come from the beneficiaries of the old system, who, like the nobility before the French Revolution, have the most to lose. Since the 1970’s or so we have constantly been reminded of “the American work ethic,” of the benefits of meritocracy (whatever that means ) of the pleasures and necessities of consuming goods of all sorts as endorsed by ads and in many other ways, of the average citizen’s worrisome “unwillingness to save,” of the promises of compound interest, of “personal responsibility,” of the benefit of lifelong investments, of the “parasitical, un-constructive” role of unions efforts, of the promises of pension plans, IRAs, 401Ks, of credit cards and credit ratings, the supposedly ever- increasing value of real estate, of the danger of taxing “job creators,” as well as of government or personal debt, of the benefits of “free trade” and the need for endless growth, along with numerous other half truths if not outright scams that constantly emphasize the importance of money beyond all else.
And of course, what goes along with the exaltation of money is that of capitalism, which we are endlessly reminded is the source of all that is good, even though one of the things capitalists absolutely “must” do is fire workers whenever they can more cheaply be replaced, while seeing to it that top people are amply rewarded. One reason the rise of top incomes seems justified is in fact its similarity to one of the effects of the attention economy thus far. Major stars in every field — those who garner a great deal of public attention — usually can convert that into high monetary incomes if they so choose, even though they may have little need of it. Corporate executives and financial players come to believe they deserve just as much.
These actions have in fact increased the pace of automation, and also the focus on money pure and simple, as if capturing money all by itself were a worthwhile social goal. Thus the rise of the financial sector, and with it rising inequality (in money terms especially). The new rich and the wizards of Wall Street further try to attract attention for their new and outsize wealth, something that the sensible old rich were less wont to do. (In the nineteenth-century “gilded age,” some did flaunt what they could buy with their wealth, such as opulent mansions on Fifth Avenue, but not the sheer quantity of their monetary worth itself. The “four hundred” were not identical in kind to the “Forbes 400” of today, listed in decreasing order of putative net worth. ) Finance becomes a sort of sport, with the champions those who collect the highest bonuses. Or are they just a new sort of criminal?
As for crime, Rick Perry, the Texas Governor running for the 2112 GOP Presidential nod, has likened Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, meaning a racket in which the earlier investors receive a payout taken from the input of later ones, so the last to pay in will receive nothing. He’s right in the limited sense that retirees will only be able to collect the benefits they are owed if enough members of the new generation can continue to pay into the system. What is left out of that analysis is that every other supposedly guaranteed sort of future payment is likewise a Ponzi scheme, for instance the stock market. Only if future buyers of shares are going to turn up, willing and able to pay high enough prices, does it make any sense to invest for the long term in stocks today. The same goes for real estate, bonds, art, and even precious metals such as gold. No form of monetary wealth accumulation is not ultimately a Ponzi scheme. In addition, the wizards of Wall Street constantly invent new and mostly legal ways to strip money from others’ accounts and add it to theirs or sometimes to their investors’. Everything from high credit card interest, high mortgage payments, interest on government debt, to supposedly individual 401 Ks, pension and insurance funds seeking good investments become sources of added payoffs through endless ingenious methods of electronically skimming off the cream, rather as the money shavers of old used to cut thin slices from the rims of the coins that passed through their hands.
Even the wealthy who first earned their riches by more industrial forms of capitalism mostly try to safeguard it or enlarge it through the “services” of Wall Street and it’s ilk. They can convert some of it into goods ranging from designer handbags to destroyer-size yachts, of value mostly to impress their peers, but they usually hold the majority of this loot in various kinds of accounts and “investments,” all of which have some more-or-less definite monetary equivalent or “market value.” Such wealth is in the end purely notional, of value only through comparison with the much smaller numbers the average person can claim, and only as long as this notional framework continues to be honored. That also holds, of course, for the wealth of the financial elite themselves. If it stops being honored it will simply cease to exist.
It is precisely because of the ultimately ephemeral nature of monetary riches that it must be so carefully undergirded with the sorts of ideology mentioned above as well as through the ever-heavier-handed and ever-more direct lobbying of all governments to help preserve, reinforce and unchain all the efforts to add to it. The more obvious this becomes however, the more difficult it is to sustain. Popular movements against it are clearly inevitable.
Version 1.0 of this opposition, though misdirected, was part of the Tea Party movement. If and when there’s a 3.0, who knows what it will be like, but it will probably even more sharply dismember the now useless moneyed elite. That’s assuming OWS isn’t sufficient in itself, but it well may be. Superficially, OWS and its main slogan seem to honor the notion that the 1% do have a huge slice of actual wealth, but at the same time they delegitimize that idea.
Mistakenly, some observers and even some supporters of OWS believe it fundamental impulse is envy of the superrich. Most people in this country probably do feel squeezed, but that doesn’t mean they want the yachts or even the fancy togs and watches. The occupiers are tired of being invisible, however. They want their needs given the attention a vast majority deserves.
Thus the occupy movement is not simply about the money economy but also deeply about the attention economy. Up until now, movies, TV, etc., have ensured that a select few stars have gotten the lion’s share of attention, leaving often piddling amounts for ordinary people. The Internet with its social sites, its blogs, easily uploaded videos and so forth have changed that to some degree. Ordinary people can now capture more attention than formerly. The Movement takes that democratization and equalizing of attention to new levels, especially with it emphasis on consensus-based democracy and giving everyone a chance to speak.
Democratization through the Internet and smart phones is one main reason the Occupy Movement was able to attain wide public attention in the first place. From very early on, its Internet presence was far greater than its effect on the ground. The movement gained much wider notice still through the intemperate actions of police forces strangely unused to being documented in their more vicious actions. Like hundreds of Rodney Kings, and more precisely like the Arab Spring activists, the occupiers both elicited fury and had the records of it online in no time,which forced mainstream media to pay the movement enough attention so that its central message got out. But the Occupy movement has linked high tech to no tech in a way that still further amplified democratic tendencies. The “authorities,” in trying to impose every sort of plausible legal restraint on the movement, forbade electronic amplification of speakers, so the movement came up with “human mics” repeating in unison what was said by nearby speakers, and then outwards until all could hear, and then “mic checks” to stop speakers who went on too long, or said too much that seemed rebuttable.
It simply doesn’t matter that the occupiers have no detailed plans or programs to put forth, no particular politicians to endorse, or even no agreed upon sense of what they are about. And after a certain point it probably won’t even matter whether they continue to occupy any particular piece of ground. For quite some time to come they will continue to attract people who will want to identify, somehow or other, with what they do, which is fundamentally to stand together in opposition to the “1%” and all their putative power. And simply by so doing they will dilute and limit that power.
By simultaneously forging new tools and experiences of democratized attention, they will very likely further the transformation to the new kind of economic system, the attention economy.