True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Delivered 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City
King made that remark in a speech entitled Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence. And now, 44 years later, we have arrived at a point in our history where we have finally been forced to confront that edifice. The month-long Occupy Wall Street movement has already achieved more than we could hope, simply by raising the point. The point that government has failed us, big business has abandoned us, and that for the majority of people in this world, life is a narrow straightjacket of economic slavery. King was right, of course; we don’t need coins flung at us. Rather, the system where 400 people in the United States have wealth equal to the bottom 150,000,000 needs to change. Change because it is grotesquely unfair. Change because it is unsustainable.
The dynamic of capitalism is relentless growth, an ever-expanding pool of consumers. For a finite resource such as our planet, this is obviously impossible. We have long past reached the point of diminishing returns. No matter how cheaply you can make them, once everyone has a cell phone or a TV, you can’t sell anymore. The robber barons of Wall Street knew this long before the man in the street, that’s why they came up with default credit swaps and derivatives. They cost nothing but fictional money to produce, deliver vast returns when they work- and even more when they fail. Of course, only the 1% get anything from them. They are the ones who reap the rewards, adding more and more fictional money to their coffers, without producing a thing. The only time the entire arrangement is brought to the attention of the rest of us is when their irresponsible gambling has gone woefully sour and we have to bail them out. At this moment instead of watching Bank of America fail and their management team in jail, we’re about to pay up another 75 trillion because their 3 Card Monte scheme in Europe went belly up. No one but the 1% got anything out of this. Not one job (other than hedge fund managers) got created, not one factory was made, no bridges got repaired.
We have no idea how the OWS movement will end up- I suspect it won’t be pretty- but its a beginning. When people take their money out of the behemoth “too big to fail” banks- at the point of getting arrested– and put their savings in a local credit union, its a beginning. When people who can’t occupy Wall Street instead beginning addressed their concerns via Occupy the Boardroom and cause panic among the plutocracy, its a beginning. When the grotesque imbalance in the pay of CEOs versus the workers in this county results in the public shaming of these leeches instead of flattering reach-arounds on CNBC and Fox, its a beginning.
This is a discussion I never thought I would see in our country. When people are awaken to the truth they can do one of two things. They can ignore it and live their days in a comforting fog of unreality, or they become energized to make a change. I believe we are witnessing the dawn of some sort of evolution in our way of thinking, one that looks past short term gains for long term results. One that values school teachers more than the Chairman of the Board. Where people are not just wage slaves and consumers, but equals. I don’t expect this discussion to be done in my lifetime. And I suspect it will get messy- as Gandhi said First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you,… and we’ve seen the inklings of that already, with the fraudulent “We Are the 53%” movement– but remember how the quote ends:
Then you win.
It’s taken 44 years for America to “see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”. How long will it take to find the answer? Who knows. But finally, we’re having the discussion.