be realistic, demand the impossible

Another note for Occupy Wall Street.
One of the problems with the rhetoric of populism is that it has a tendency to lead one to the individual malfactor - which has its uses, but often masks the larger structure that normalized malfeasance. And so it is with the charge that the bankers are greedy. Well, they are. However, it has two bad side effects: it can be used to trivialize the protest, and it displaces the real focus, which should be on the banks themselves. I don't really care whether individual bankers are greedy - I care that the system in which they operate doesn't constrain their greed, as it should. Thus, greed becomes not a personal trait, but a standard operating procedure incorporated impersonally into the way business has to be conducted.

Long ago, at the very beginning of the capitalist mentality, Mandeville wrote about the fact that private vices can be public virtues. Greed and envy can very well motivate moneymaking as well as the sense of justice among individual players. But their effects are secondary to the systems in which these passions are allowed to operate. Or, in less muckity muck wording, greed and envy can operate for the general good, as long as constraints are in place to keep them from becoming perverse incentives. It is the general good that counts, and that fills the charge of greed with a political content.

It is the systematic will to power of the investor class - however motivated - that needs to be counter-acted. It is impossible to predict whether a protest movement will actually generate a real and successful antidote to our general ills. Most protests do fail. Some succeed. I doubt that the roots of success or failure can be predicted outside of the particular situation of the protest. But one of the things we can do is use the protest and the attention space it takes up to propose the most radical changes to the system possible.
There as a slogan in 1968, be realistic, demand the impossible. I think that slogan may once again come into play in the current situation.


Leland Olds said…
I actually think that the "Be realistic, demand the impossible" slogan should be inverted; i.e., we should be unrealistic and demand the possible. The current structure has made widely popular reforms impossible. We have to think in the long term (5 to 10 years). My fear is that after a few months the occupiers will become disillusioned (like the "alter globalization" movement) and recede into the background. While the lack of clear demands probably help ignite the kindling, something a little more concrete has to emerge to keep the movement moving.
P said…

Roger, maybe the lecture by Henry Kaufman on Civility on Wall Street is for you!!
roger said…
I think we aren't so far apart. I don't think we should be stuck on finding one thing to emerge - I think a lot of things, some incompatible, can emerge from this moment. One thing I do know - whether OWS succeeds or not, the system - the neo-liberalism dominant in the developed economies - is evidently in full decay. It can no longer deliver prosperity to the majority, or perhaps I should say - the margins who are shut out from prosperity are starting to show up in the gated communities.
The wealthy are paddling about just above the abyss. Another program of short trillion plus loans at less than one percent may be difficult to engineer so soon after the last one - we will see, though.
Surely a financial system that has to be recharged with free, or practically free, money every three years is going to provoke resistance.
The bipartisan consensus has, I think, been broken enough by the Republicans, who have come out into the open and are now presenting themselves as the real and only true establishment party, that it might be hard for the Dems to continue to stage the charade that there are two parties. Obama's strategy of surrender now, surrender tomorrow, surrender forever seems to have brought to the surface what used to be hidden by Democratic rhetoric.
roger said…
P, a talk by a man who has the honor to jostle shoulders with Orrin Hatch and Vice President Cheney, two well known champions of civility! I'd like to sit at this man's feet - or is it that I'd like somebody to sit on this man's face? But I suppose the latter wouldn't be civil.