Sunday, October 16, 2011

Thoreau and the "Occupy Wall Street" Movement

What would Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) make of the “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement now sweeping America and the world?


Based on how he lived and what he wrote, it is likely that the author of Civil Disobedience (1849), whose words inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, would throw his full support behind it.


Thoreau defended John Brown when the abolitionist seized a federal armory in 1859 to arm slaves to rise against the South. He built his own cabin by Walden Pond without borrowing a cent from the bank. He had observed how the crushing burden of mortgages robbed his neighbors of their economic freedom. “When the farmer has got his house,” he wrote in Walden, “he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.


If Thoreau were to review the “State of the Union,” these are some of the grim statistics he would encounter in America today:


- The richest 1 percent (the One Percenters) take home almost 25% of the national income, which represents a more unequal wealth distribution than most of the world’s banana republics.


- From 1980 to 2005, more than 80% of the total increase in incomes went to the One Percenters. They now have more net worth (34%) than the bottom 90 percent (29%), according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.


- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 14 million Americans (9.1%) are unemployed as of September 2011. (This does not include the significant number of Americans who have given up looking for jobs, particularly those over 50). About as many Americans are working only part-time because they are unable to find full-time work.


- 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty, the most in more than 50 years. Foreclosures and bankruptcies are at an all-time high. Over 50 million Americans do not have any medical insurance.


- The CEOs of the largest American companies earn an average of more than 500 times as much as the average worker.


In New York, the epicenter of the OWS protest, the wealth of the One Percenters derives almost entirely from the sector known primarily for its “financial innovation.” These “innovators” work in Wall Street, commercial and investment banks, hedge funds and credit card and insurance companies. They create nothing. Instead, they claim to create “value” by speculating with others’ money, be it in mortgages, car loans, credit card debt, gas and food prices, always hedging the bets so that they end up with piles of cash whether society wins (rarely) or loses (almost always).


Thoreau would find that in the America of today, the One Percenters control the rest of the population, the Ninetynine Percenters, through economic and political hegemony. He would find that our government has become a government of the One Percenters, by the One Percenters, and for the One Percenters. He would be deeply disappointed with President Obama who promised to clean up the economic disaster he inherited from George Bush. Obama vowed to be an agent of change, a beacon of hope. Instead, he coddled those responsible for the meltdown - bankers, hedge fund operators, reckless speculators and other assorted wealthy sociopaths - and bailed them out with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, while turning a blind eye to their uninterrupted multi-million dollar quarterly bonuses.


But Thoreau would also be heartened by the sight of his moral descendants taking a stand. What began as a small gathering by a handful of New Yorkers on September 17 has spread not only coast to coast but beyond, including cities like Rome, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid, Sydney and Tokyo. Like the Arab Spring, this grassroots movement has no leaders, heroes or ideologues, only ordinary citizens bound by a fierce desire to right the terrifying inequity that threatens that most fundamental of rights, our freedom.


Seeing the resolve of protesters growing by the day, Thoreau would reconsider deleting from Walden, circa 2011, his biting observation that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Occupy Wall Street movement is drawing the “mass of men” into an ever-widening circle of passionate activism. Yes, the movement grew from the desperation of intolerable injustice but now it has acquired a momentum that transcends desperation, charging the national and international discourse with timeless ideas of equality, fairness and justice.


“We are the 99” is a banner that Henry David Thoreau would have been proud to unfurl on Main Street, America, for the world to behold and act upon.

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