by G.B. Taylor
Occupy Wall Street has renewed hope for a left political renaissance by challenging economic inequality and the neoliberal discourse that legitimated it, and reintroducing the word capitalism to political debate. The “greed” of the “1%,” counterpoised to the hardworking, rule-abiding 99%, has emerged as the dominant political frame of OWS. Rhetorically powerful, the slogan’s elegant simplicity conceals as much as it reveals. The language of “corruption,” the betrayal of Main Street by parasitic Wall Street bankers, and nationalist appeals to “take America back” all express a deep confusion as to the nature of the current crisis. This often results in a highly personalized moral critique of capitalism rather than a systemic one.
The crisis wracking capitalism today cannot be understood as simply the evil actions of greedy bankers and the 1%. In fact, as Max Weber pointed out, unlike the ostentatious opulence of earlier economic forms like feudalism, capitalism actually has tendencies which check greed – for example how intra-capitalist competition forces firms to save and reinvest. Thus the logic of states wielding coercive external power in human form as armies and police is quite different from that of capitalism, wherein power is more difficult to pinpoint or assign personal agency to. Conflating these two modes of power leads to very different political demands and outcomes. Capitalist power acts not only or even primarily on us from outside, but through us, as worker and capitalist alike are caught up in an impersonal competitive imperative that would quickly bankrupt any turncoat bankers or CEOs who might suddenly take Occupy’s message to heart. Continue reading