Graeber, Wall Street, anarchist, Zuccotti Park, protesters, New York, anthropologist, drum circles, poor job growth, consumer debt, global protest movement, labor market, Yale University, income disparity, David Martinez, Thomas Blom Hansen, Battery Park City, Tompkins Square Park, David Graeber, money and markets, Adam Smith, Roger Lowenstein, barter economy, Direct Action Network, drowning in debt, Wall Graeber, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Bill Clinton, Bloomberg Businessweek, Egypt, ancient Babylon, Joseph Kennedy Sr., Paul A. Volcker, Arthur Levitt Jr., conditions change
Meet David Graeber, the anthropologist, activist, anarchist, and anti-leader who helped transform a hapless rally into a global protest movement By Drake Bennett 64 who's behind the mask
The Guy Fawkes mask--worn by a protester in New York on Oct. 5--has become symbolic of the Occupy Wall Street movement
David Graeber likes to say that he had three goals for the
and modern-day America, he explores the ambivalent attitudes
year: promote his book, learn to drive, and launch a worldwide people have always had about debt: as obligation and sin, engine
revolution. The first is going well, the second has proven chal- of Economic Growth
and tool of oppression. Along the way, he
lenging, and the third is looking up.
tries to answer questions such as why so many people over the
Graeber is a 50-year-old anthropologist--among the bright- course of history have simultaneously believed that it is a matter
est, some argue, of his generation--who made his name with of morality to repay debts and that those who lend money for
innovative theories on exchange and value, exploring phenom- a living are evil.
ena such as Iroquois wampum and the Kwakiutl potlatch. An
Graeber's arguments place him squarely at odds with main-
American, he teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London
. stream economic thought, and the discipline has, for the most
He's also an anarchist and radical organizer, a veteran of many part, ignored him. But his timing couldn't be better to reach a
of the major left-wing demonstrations of the past decade: popular audience. His writing provides an intellectual frame
Quebec City and Genoa, the Republican National Convention and a sort of genealogy for the movement he helped start. The
protests in Philadelphia and New York, the World Economic inchoate anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters tends to
Forum in New York in 2002, the London tuition protests earlier cluster around two things. One is the influence of money in
this year. This summer, Graeber was a key member of a small politics. The other is debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, stu-
66 band of activists who quietly planned, then noisily carried out, dent loans, and the difference in how the debts of large finanthe occupation of Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, providing cial companies and those of individual borrowers have been
the focal point for what has grown into an amorphous global treated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis
movement known as Occupy Wall Street.
"He is a deep thinker. He's been a student of movements
It would be wrong to call Graeber a leader of the protest- and revolutions," says Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters,
ers, since their insistently nonhierarchical philosophy makes the Vancouver-based anticorporate magazine. "He's the sort
such a concept heretical. Nor is he a spokesman, since they of guy who can say, `Is this thing we're going through like 1968
have refused thus far to outline specific demands. Even in Zuc- or is it like the French Revolution
cotti Park, his name isn't widely known. But he has been one
As Graeber explains it, it's all part of a larger story: Through-
of the group's most articulate voices, able to frame the move- out history, debt has served as a way for states to control their
ment's welter of hopes and grievances within a deeper critique subjects and extract resources from them (usually to finance
of the historical moment. "We are watching the beginnings of wars). And when enough people got in enough debt, there was
the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a usually some kind of revolt.
generation who are looking forward to finishing their educa-
tion with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt," Graeber wrote in a Sept. 25 editorial published online by the Guardian. "Is it really surprising they
Graeber is small-framed and fidgety, with a pale boyish
would like to have a word with the financial magnates who face and Blue Eyes
. He dresses like a graduate student and
stole their future?"
speaks fast, in bursts punctuated by long ums, a ragged laugh,
Graeber's politics have been shaped by his experience in or pauses to catch his breath. He doesn't make much eye con-
global justice protests over the years, but they are also fed by tact. When finishing a thought, he has a habit of ducking his
the other half of his life: his work as an anthropologist. Graeber's head and arching his eyebrows, as if he has just heard a faint
latest book, published two months before the start of Occupy but alarming sound.
Wall Street, is entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It is an alter-
For several weeks--since the fourth day of Occupy Wall
nate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, er- Street--Graeber has been in Austin, Tex., reuniting with his
udite, provocative work. Looking at societies ranging from the girlfriend, a fellow anthropologist just back from fieldwork inwest Africa
n Tiv people and ancient Sumer to Medieval Ireland Mexico. While there he has been peripherally involved with
Occupy Austin, a small, fractious offshoot of the original Zuc-
cotti Park occupation, one of many around the world.
Graeber began the summer on sabbatical, moving back to
Throughout history, Graeber explains,
New York from London and frequenting an artists' space called
debt has served as a way for states to control
16Beaver. It was an intellectual activist salon, located near Wall
their subjects. When enough people get in enough
Street, the sort of place where people would discuss topics like
debt, there's usually some kind of revolt
semiotics and hacking and the struggles of indigenous peoples
October 31 -- November 6, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek
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Like many other American ac tivists, Graeber had been deeply moved by the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square and by the"Indignados" who had taken over central Madrid; in midJuly, he published a short piece in Adbusters asking what it would take to trigger a similar uprising in the West. For much of the summer, the discussions at 16Beaver revolved around exactly that question. When a local group called Operation Empire State Rebellion called for a June14 occupation of Zuccotti Park, four people showed up. On July 13, Adbusters put out its own call for a Wall Street occupation, to take place two months later, on Sept.17. Setting the date and publicizing it was the extent of the magazine's involvement. A group called New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts-- student activists and community leaders from some of the city's poorer neighborhoods--stepped in to execute the rest. For three weeks in June and July, to protest city budget cuts and layoffs, the group had camped out across the street from City On Aug.14, Graeber tweeted, "I am so exhausted. My first driving lesson ... then had to facilitate an assembly in Tompkins Square Park for like three hours" Hall in a tent city they called Bloombergville. They liked the idea of trying a similar approach on Wall Street. After talking to Adbusters, the group began advertising a "People's General Assembly" to "Oppose Cutbacks And Austerity Of Any Kind" and plan the Sept.17 occupation. The assembly was to be held in Bowling Green, the downtown Manhattan park with its famous statue of a charging bull pawing the cobblestones. Graeber had heard about the meeting at 16Beaver, and the afternoon of Aug.2 he went to Bowling Green with two friends, a Greek artist and anarchist named Georgia Sagri and a Japanese activist named Sabu Kohso (who is also the Japanese translator of Graeber's books). A "general assembly" means something specific and special to an anarchist. In a way, it's the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism, which is premised on the idea that revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies. A "GA" is a carefully facilitated group discussion through which decisions are made--not by a few leaders, or even by majority rule, but by consensus. Unresolved questions are referred to working groups within the assembly, but eventually everyone has to agree, even in assemblies that swell into the thousands. It can be an arduous process. One of the things Occupy Wall Street has done is introduce the GA to a wider audience, along with the distinctive sign language
participants use to raise questions or express support, disapproval, or outright opposition. When Graeber and his friends showed up on Aug.2, however, they found out that the event wasn't, in fact, a general assembly, but a traditional rally, to be followed by a short meeting and a march to Wall Street to deliver a set of predetermined demands ("A massive public-private jobs program" was one, "An end to oppression and war!" was another). In anarchist argot, the event was being run by "verticals"--top-down organizations--rather than "horizontals" such as Graeber and his friends. Sagri and Graeber felt they'd been had, and they were angry. What happened next sounds like an anarchist parable. Along with Kohso, the two recruited several other people dis-
gruntled with the proceedings, then walked to the south end
of the park and began to hold their own GA, getting down to
the business of planning the Sept.17 occupation. The original
dozen or so people gradually swelled, despite the efforts of
the event's planners to bring them back to the rally. The tug
of war lasted until late in the evening, but eventually all of the
50 or so people remaining at Bowling Green had joined the in-
surgent general assembly.
"The groups that were organizing the rally, they also came
along," recalls Kohso. "Then everyone stayed very, very late to
organize what committees we needed."
While there were weeks of planning yet to go, the important
battle had been won. The show would be run by horizontals,
and the choices that would follow--the decision not to have
leaders or even designated police liaisons, the daily GAs and
myriad working-group meetings that still form the heart of the
protests in Zuccotti Park--all flowed from that.
For Graeber the next month and a half was a carousel of
meetings. There were the weekly GAs, the first held near the
Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, the rest in Tomp-
kins Square Park in the East Village. He facilitated some of them
and spent much of the rest of his time in working group meet-
ings in people's apartments. (On Aug.14 he tweeted, "I am so
exhausted. My first driving lesson ... then had to facilitate an as-
sembly in Tompkins Square Park for like three hours.") He orga-
nized legal and medical training and classes on nonviolent resis-
tance. The group endlessly discussed what demands to make,
or whether to have demands at all--a question that months later
In the Sept.10 general assembly the group picked the target 67 for their occupation: One Chase Manhattan Plaza. They also
picked several backups. So when the police fenced off Chase
Plaza the night before the occupation was scheduled to start, the
occupiers were prepared. On Sept.17, barely an hour before the
scheduled 3p.m. start time, the word went out to go to Zuccotti
Park instead, and 2,000 people converged on the now famous
patch of stone flooring, low benches, and trees. It was a for-
tunate choice: Zuccotti is a privately owned park, so the city
doesn't have the right to remove the protesters. Graeber helped
facilitate the GA that night in which they decided to camp out in
the park rather than immediately march on Wall Street. Three
days later, when he flew to Austin, the little more than a local New York story.
OWS has introduced the idea of a "general assembly" (pictured here in New York) to a wider audience
At GAs, participants signal their approval or dissent using sign language, like this gesture for "off topic"
October 31 -- November 6, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek
Protesters have used videos of
Graeber has been an anarchist since the age of 16. He grew up in New York, in a trade-union-sponsored cooperative apartment building in Chelsea suffused with radical politics. A
arrests, such as these in New York on Oct. 14, to increase support online
precocious child, he became obsessed at 11 with Mayan hiero-
glyphics. (The writing had then been only partially deciphered.) He sent some of his original translations to a leading scholar in the field, who was so impressed that he arranged for Graeber to get a scholarship to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
A Brooklyn software developer released an "I've Been Arrested"
Graeber's parents were in their 40s when they had him and
had come of age in the political left of the 1930s, self-taught
to help protesters
working-class intellectuals. Graeber's mother had been a gar-
alert family to
ment worker and, briefly, a celebrity--the female lead in a musi-
cal comedy revue put on by the International Ladies' Garment
Workers' Union that managed to become a Broadway hit. His tract before he had a chance to come up for tenure. Graeber ap-
father worked as a plate stripper on offset printers. Originally pealed, and his case became a cause at Yale and in the broader
from Kansas, he had fought for the Republicans in the Spanish community of academic anthropology. He maintains he was
Civil War. Anarchists made up one part of the fragile Republi- targeted at least in part because of his political activism. Others
can coalition, and for a brief period they controlled Barcelona. saw evidence that the modern university was exactly the sort
"Most people don't think anarchism is a bad idea. They think of hierarchical organization that Graeber was philosophically
it's insane," says Graeber. "Yeah, sure it would be great not to opposed to and temperamentally unsuited for.
have prisons and police and hierarchical structure
s of authority,
"There was an issue about his personal style, whether he was
but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn't respectful enough to various senior people both in the depart-
work, right?" Graeber's father, however, had seen it work. "So ment and at the university. He's not someone who is known to
it wasn't insane. I was never brought up to think it was insane." be very pliable," recalls Thomas Blom Hansen, an anthropolo-
Years later, Graeber was a graduate student at the University gy professor at Stanford who was a friend and Yale colleague of
of Chicago, and his field research brought him into contact with Graeber's at the time. "I don't think anyone doubts that he's a
another, albeit very different, anarchic community. His disserta- major figure in his field," he adds. "But he's not really interested
tion was on Betafo, a rural community in Madagascar made up in the humdrum daily life of administration that constitutes an
68 of the descendants of nobles and their slaves. Because of spend- increasing part of our life in the academic world." ing cuts mandated by the International Monetary Fund
of structural-adjustment policies Graeber would later protest-- the central government had abandoned the area, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. They did, creating an egalitar-
Everyone involved in the creation of Occupy Wall Street,
ian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by from Graeber to the editors of Adbusters to New Yorkers Against
consensus. When necessary, Criminal Justice
was carried out by Budget Cuts, has been astonished by its success. The world of
a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a American left-wing activism, populated as it is by a unwieldy
lynching required permission from the accused's parents.
mix of progressives and pacifists, civil libertarians and Marxists,
Graeber didn't become an activist until after the massive 1999 idealists and pragmatists, is often riven by disputes and mutualWorld Trade Organization
protests in Seattle. At the time an as- misunderstanding. What's notable about Occupy Wall Street is
sociate professor at Yale, he realized that the sort of movement that it was born not in spite of that tendency but because of it.
he had always wanted to join had come into being while he was For his part, Graeber doesn't attribute the success of the occupa-
concentrating on his academic career. "If you're really dedicat- tion to its planners but to luck, timing, and the pervasive mood
ed to this stuff, things can happen very quickly," he says. "The of anger and disillusionment in the country: There are few jobs,
FROM TOP: GARY DWIGHT MILLER/ZUMA PRESS; JULIE DERMANSKY/CORBIS
first action you go to, you're just a total outsider. You don't know the political process
has ground to a halt, and as individuals and
what's going on. The second one, you know everything. By the as a nation, we're drowning in debt.
third, you're effectively part of the leadership if you want to be.
Graeber's problem with debt is not just that having too much
Anybody can be if you're willing to put in the time and energy." of it is bad. More fundamental, he writes in his book, is debt's
It was a particularly happy period for Graeber. In New Haven perversion of the natural instinct for humans to help each other.
he was a scholar, and in New York, where he spent much of Economics textbooks tell a story in which money and markets
his time, he was an anarchist--he had found a new community arise out of the human tendency to "truck and barter," as Adam
among the loose coalition of activists, artists, and pranksters Smith put it. Before there was money, Smith argued, people
who called themselves the Direct Action Network. There were would trade seven chickens for a goat, or a bag of grain for a pair
protests but also elaborately choreographed festivities--"reclaim of sandals. Then some enterprising m erchant realized it would
the streets" parties, or nights when everyone converged on a be easier to just price all of them in a common medium of ex-
particular subway train and rode it through the city carousing. change, like silver or wampum. The problem with this story, an-
It came to an end in 2005, when Yale terminated his con- thropologists have been arguing for decades, is that it doesn't
seem ever to have happened. "No example of a barter economy,
pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emer-
Graeber makes one policy recommendation: a
gence from it of money," writes anthropologist Caroline Hum-
Biblical-style "jubilee," forgiving all international and
phrey, in a passage Graeber quotes.
consumer debt. In ancient Babylon, Assyria, and
People in societies without money don't barter, not unless
Egypt, jubilees were a regular occurrence
they're dealing with a total stranger or an enemy. Instead they
October 31 -- November 6, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek
give things to each other, sometimes as a form of tribute, sometimes to get something later in return, and sometimes as an outright gift. Money, therefore, wasn't created by traders trying to make it easier to barter, it was created by states like ancient
Egypt or massive temple bureaucracies in Sumer so that people had a more efficient way of paying taxes, or simply to measure property holdings. In the process, they introduced the concept
of price and of an impersonal market, and that ate away at all
those organic webs of mutual support that had existed before. That's ancient history, literally. So why does it matter? Be- cause money, Graeber argues, turns obligations and respon-
sibilities, which are social things, into debt, which is purely financial. The sense we have that it's important to repay debts corrupts the impulse to take care of each other: Debts are not sacred, human relationships are. If we understand the social origins of debt, Graeber says, we
Don't be fooled by the drum circles. Today's protests have more in common with the anti-Hoover 1930s than the antiwar '60s and '70s. By Roger Lowenstein
become much more willing to renegotiate debts when conditions change, whether those are mortgages, credit-card debts, student loans, or the debts of entire nations. And if the des-
For all its social snootiness, Wall Street has suffered far more
perate response to the ongoing financial crisis has shown any- from the meddling of members of its own class than from intru-
thing, he argues, it's that we're willing to forgive debts if the sions by those outside it. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, an aris-
institution that has them is important.
tocrat, who held the lords of finance responsible for the Great
"Sovereignty does ultimately belong to the people, at least Depression--securing legislation to establish the Securities
in theory. You gave the bank the right to make up money that and Exchange Commission, asserting federal authority over
is then lent to you," he argues. "We collectively create this stuff, the stock exchange, and appointing a wealthy stock trader,
and so we could do it differently."
Joseph Kennedy Sr., to ride herd. Not much better, from Wall
Graeber's book is getting glowing praise from his fellow an- Street's perspective, was FDR's Cousin Teddy, who as President
thropologists, and it has gotten attention beyond that world prosecuted trusts as illegal monopolies. Or Louis Brandeis, a
as well. (Though according to Mandy Henk, a librarian from Harvard-trained corporate attorney turned crusader against
Indiana minding the library that has sprung up in Zuccotti the concentration of wealth and power.
Park, copies of his work there aren't seeing a lot of use.) Few
These men changed the system from within, as have the
mainstream economists are familiar with his ideas. Professor ablest regulators in recent times. Arthur Levitt Jr., a vigorous
Tyler Cowen of George Mason University
, who happens to be a SEC chairman under President Bill Clinton
, was first the pres-
widely read blogger, is one of them. "He whacks a bit of sense ident of Shearson Hayden Stone. (Levitt is a member of the
into people, and I think he's right and Adam Smith
was wrong," board of Bloomberg L.P., owner of Bloomberg Businessweek.)
he says. Yet Cowen, himself a libertarian, isn't won over to Paul A. Volcker cut his teeth at Chase Manhattan before run-
Graeber's politics. He sees little alternative to the modern state. ning the Federal Reserve and becoming the gruff animating
"Look at Somalia. If there's a vacuum, something has to fill it." voice behind the Volcker Rule, which bans commercial bank
He might also point to the drummers of Zuccotti Park. The from engaging in proprietary trading. It's hard to imagine
constant beat from drum circles there has provided the occupa- any of these "opponents" of Wall Street mounting a barri-
tion's soundtrack, but it has also elicited a steady flow of noise cade. They didn't need to storm the castle to know where the
complaints, trying the patience of an otherwise supportive com- secrets were hidden.
munity board and elected officials. Through weeks of mediation
In its very amateurism, Occupy Wall Street represents
and discussion in the general assembly, a few drummers have something new. Although it's attracted some celebrities and
steadfastly defied any limits on when they can play, though or- well-heeled supporters, participants come chiefly from out-
ganizers are hopeful an agreement hashed out on Oct. 25 will side Wall Street. Many are unemployed or poorly employed.
finally solve the problem.
These are not bankers or reform-minded professors; these are
At the end of his book, Graeber does make one policy rec- also-rans in the capitalist race, upset with the system itself.
ommendation: a Biblical-style "jubilee," a forgiveness of all in- Their chief weapon is neither eloquence nor argument, but
ternational and consumer debt. Jubilees are rare in the modern their physical presence.
world, but in ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt under the
As critics have noted, the protesters are not in complete
Ptolemies they were a regular occurrence. The alternative, agreement with each other, but the overall message is reason-
rulers learned, was rioting and chaos in years when poor crop ably coherent. They want more and better jobs, more equal
yields left lots of peasants in debt. The very first use in a politi- distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks,
cal document of the word freedom was in a Sumerian king's lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on
debt-cancellation edict. "It would be salutary," Graeber writes, banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as
"not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suf- mortgages and debit cards. They also want to reduce the in-
fering, but also because it would be our way of reminding our- fluence that corporations--financial firms in particular--wield
selves that money is not ineffable, that paying one's debts is in politics, and they want a more populist set of government
not the essence of morality, that all these things are human priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders,
arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything it is not just for banks.
the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way." ----With reporting by Karen Weise
In its grassroots and leftist character, Occupy Wall Street bears a superficial resemblance to protests from
October 31 -- November 6, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek
Capitalism may have triumphed in China-- even in Vietnam--but in America it's in a
quagmire. This is what has brought the
the '60s and early '70s. But the Woodstock Era was different
protesters to Wall Street
in ways that tell us important things about the current siege.
Then, radical students preached an affinity with the "work-
ing class," but it was rare that the students and any members
of the working class actually joined arms.
Consider the morning of May8, 1970, when 1,000 young
people, mostly students, converged on the New York Stock was a political struggle as much as an economic one. There was
Exchange to demonstrate against the killing four days earlier no solidarity with the teamsters.
of four antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio.
Although neither side would have believed it then, it's the
I'd been at many such affairs (though not this one) in which hard hats who were the forefathers of today's protesters. They
"capitalism" and "corporations" were casually excoriated. were the vulnerable ones, and the next few decades would
Socialism, to many of my peers, was appealing; making a prove just how endangered their livelihoods would become.
profit was not.
On that morning, the protesters demanded an end to the war and a cessation of military research on university campuses. Several hours into the demonstration, about 200 construc-
Economically, the U.S. is a different country than it was in
tion workers--wearing their hard hats for emphasis--began a 1970--and it will remain so regardless of how long the Occupy
counter, pro-war demonstration organized by Peter J. Bren- Wall Street protests endure. In the America of the early post-
nan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Coun- war decades, economic progress and a plenitude of jobs were
cil of Greater New York. Around noon, the hard hats broke axiomatic. Today they are not. Then, blue-collar jobs in steel,
through a thin line of police, charged the students, and beat autos, machinery, and similar industries lifted families into
up scores of long-hairs, 70 of whom were hospitalized. Sev- the middle class; today, new workers at General Motors are
eral Wall Street bankers and lawyers, in an apparent gesture hired at $29,000 a year, and even people with college degrees
of solidarity--the kids, after all, could have been their kids-- are hurting. Median household income, adjusted for inflation,
tried to shelter protesters and were themselves beaten. Only is no higher today than it was in 1989. During the just-ended
six people were arrested.
economic cycle (ending before the bust), median income ac-
The Hard Hat Riot epitomized the battle lines of the era: tually fell. Capitalism may have triumphed in China--even in
protesters and workers on opposite sides. The former didn't Vietnam--but in America it's in a quagmire. This is what has
empathize with workers because the latter were judged to be brought the protesters to Wall Street.
70 pro-war, pro-Establishment, pro-U.S. government. And factory
Zuccotti Park sits in the shadow of One Liberty Plaza, a soar-
workers had little use for Janis Joplin or free love. The move- ing black skyscraper that's home to Nasdaq, Goldman Sachs,
ment wasted little effort on corporate villains--and none on and other financial tenants. In the '80s, I used to play chess
banks. The enemy was the government, the Defense Dept., in the park with a dark-suited employee of Merrill Lynch who,
and the select corporate contractors who did its bidding, such when advancing one of the small pieces in the second row,
as Dow Chemical.
would knowingly proclaim, "Pawns are people too." Today, it's
White suburban protesters were free to indulge their in- the people who are pawns--or such is the rhetoric in Zuccotti
dignation because they were largely unperturbed by financial Park. Merrill, then, was the people's broker; today, as a result
issues. Most were affluent, or at least middle-class, and upward of its reckless speculation in mortgage securities, Merrill is a
mobility was a birthright. People feared the cops, the draft, ward of Bank of America, which is staggering under the weight
authority figures in general--we didn't fear unemployment. At of its own mortgage miscues and is cited as a villain by many
16 my peers and I discussed politics always; the stock market of those who are occupying Wall Street.
never. Young people expressed solidarity with nonunion mi-
Although jammed with tarps, tents, a "Mobile library" con-
FROM TOP: ED FORD/AP PHOTO; FRANK CASTORAL/NY DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES
nority workers such as migrant farm workers because theirs sisting of hundreds of books in plastic bins, the inevitable food
station, and hundreds of people, Zuccotti Park has a similar
feel to Speakers' Corner, the open-air site for public orations
in London's Hyde Park. The run of opinions ranges from in-
The 1970 Hard Hat Riot saw construction workers disrupting protesters with a pro-war rally of their own...
formed and specific--one morning a man in his 20s, recently laid off from teaching at a charter school, was holding forth against the tax break for "carried interest"--to rambling and unsophisticated. "It's unfair how investment banks can print money and use it for what they want," said Ryan Vener, before correcting himself and substituting the Fed for banks. Stan Rogouski, outfitted in a red and black lumber jacket, held a sign
saying, "America Be No.1 Again by Getting Rid of the 1%." Ro-
gouski said he hoped to put the corporate media, including
me, out of a job.
...and turned into a melee of blue-collars beating up long-hairs, whom some Wall Street types stepped
Far from battling unions, Occupy Wall Street has their
active support. David Martinez, a shop steward for Team-
sters Local 814, has been shuttling between Zuccotti Park and
Sotheby's, the Upper East Side auction house that's in a labor
dispute with its art handlers. Martinez, in a green Jets cap,
says the workers have been locked out and replaced by temporary staff since their contract expired in July.
in to protect
October 31 -- November 6, 2011 Bloomberg Businessweek
Going global: A protester
According to the union, Sotheby's has offered 1percent annual increases on the hourly wage, increased health-care premiums (which will match rising benefit costs), and continued contributions to the 401(k) program, but wants to
cheers a police van going up in flames on Oct.15...
cut back on hours, tighten overtime, and gain flexibility to
hire nonunion workers. "The most evil part is that they want
future workers to be temporary, not union," Martinez says.
Sotheby's spokesperson Diana Phillips says, "We offered a
fair contract with wage increases in every year. We very much want our union colleagues to come back to work." Martinez, the son of a fireman, will turn 50 in November. He graduated from Pomona College, an elite school in southern California, got a master's in religious studies from Yale, and started work on a PhD. He dreamed of being an artist while teaching religious studies; the closest he came was handling art
...while in London on the same day, an Occupy-like throng crowds St. Paul's
for Sotheby's, and now even that job is on the ropes. Martinez
was vague about why his career plan didn't work out, but he's
still a serviceable metaphor for the downward path of the coun- bail out banks. Still, bank trading is down, bank risk-taking is
try's economy: fireman's son to Yale University to "locked out," down, and profits are down. This is not a happy time for banks.
all in one generation.
This should please the protesters, but reforming the 1per-
Martinez's cohorts in the park speak a dialect (or dialec- cent will do little to fix what ails the 99percent. High bonus-
tic) unrecognizable to the financiers who work in the neigh- es aren't the cause of poor job growth or of steadily flatten-
borhood. Capitalism teaches that personal ambition is a social ing wages. What contributes most to income disparity in the
good; it does the work of the invisible hand, achieving gains for bottom and the middle of the scale are technology and global-
the one and growth for society. People in the park do not be- ization. People in San Diego and New Delhi now compete in the
lieve this. They have not seen the gains, and they do not think same labor market, and the connectivity created by high tech
the top 1percent should earn a fifth or so of the total income means that more Americans--even educated Americans--work
while others go without. They resent that corporations are or- in jobs that can be shipped overseas. According to research
ganized for profit; indeed, they see "profits" not as the return conducted by Matthew Slaughter, an economist at the Tuck
72 on capital invested well, but as evidence that companies are School of Business at Dartmouth, incomes are falling even for overcharging their customers. At an emotional level they nos- people with college degrees. David Martinez has one of the few
talgically yearn for a less "financialized" country--one in which jobs that cannot be outsourced (handling art), but he's com-
markets are more regulated and with fewer opportunities for peting in a labor market in which millions of other people are
speculating on financial assets. Most bankers--probably even vulnerable--and Sotheby's knows it.
most people who regulate banks--think it's good for the econ-
Globalization and technology do boost incomes at the
omy that banks have the ability to package mortgages into se- upper end, since each allows economic winners to reach a
curities and trade them. The protesters do not.
wider market. But these gains are fairly earned. If Amazon.com
To the extent that the movement offers remedies, most are is able to sell books in China--and the Chinese can sell comput-
unresponsive to the problems that inspired it. Wall Street suf- ers in the U.S.--it's unclear how, or why, the government should
fers from two essential flaws. Most obvious is compensation: try to stop it. This is the great dilemma of the 99percent.
It's simply too high. Not only does that create a sense of injus-
The easy political responses--starting a trade war with
tice, it incentivizes recklessness. (A related issue is that bank- China, or rounding up all the people who might be undocu-
ers are systemically unaccountable. Most firms are public, thus mented immigrants--won't accomplish anything. Improving
FROM TOP: GIORGIIO COSULICH/GETTY IMAGES; MAX NASH/ABACAUSA/POLARIS
the risk-takers tend to lose neither compensation nor capital the educational system, investing in infrastructure, and incen-
when risks go bad.) Secondly, the Street is increasingly indis- tivizing corporate investment would, but such steps will take
tinguishable from a casino. There's far too much trading--a ze- decades, not weeks. If Occupy Wall Street plans on hanging
ro-sum game that rewards only traders and renders markets in for real change, the protesters will need to start trading in
more volatile. And some trading, including in many derivative their tents for drywall.
products, serves no economic purpose.
There are now protests flourishing around the country, in-
Those problems could be addressed by regulation--for in- cluding my hometown. Occupy Boston is at the foot of the fi-
stance, a Tobin-type tax on financial transactions, especially nancial district in Dewey Square, which is given over to scores
short-term trades. And to some extent, unnoticed on the bar- of closely packed, brightly colored camping tents. On the same
ricades, they are being addressed. Dodd-Frank has raised the day I toured the site, Ben S. Bernanke visited the Federal Re-
requirements for bank capital, thereby diminishing risk. The serve Bank of Boston, right across the street, though no one on
Volcker Rule will limit trading. Compensation hasn't been fixed, the square seemed to know it. Nor did Bernanke wander over.
nor has the perception that the government, if need be, will
The message in Boston is the same as in New York, but with
a more desperate edge. Stan Malcolm told me he had been
working in flooring--an industry hit hard by the real estate
slump--until 18 months ago, when his employer shut down.
Reforming the 1 percent will do little to fix
"There ain't no work anywhere," he said. Since then he has
what ails the 99 percent. High bonuses
been doing day labor and eating at soup kitchens. I asked what
aren't the cause of poor job growth or of
he will do when the cold weather comes. Wasting not a sylla-
steadily flattening wages
ble, he replied: "Bundle up."