Irony in the Wall Street Protests

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I am unabashedly Protestant, but I can admit that I haven’t inherited too much of the “protest” part of Protestant. This comes out in my cynical attitude toward the so-called “Wall Street Protests” taking place right now. In fact, it’s hard for me not to see irony in the following picture (originally posted here):

A couple protesters are shown here taking a break in the midst of the protest.

What exactly are they protesting? We’re told “corporate greed.” Ok. I don’t particularly care for many of the greedy practices of multinational corporations and big banks either. But it’s hard for me not to be skeptical about what this particular protest will actually accomplish. (I hear similar protests are being planned in Canadian cities, including Regina and Saskatoon here in Saskatchewan…the fact that this is a different country with significantly different economic practices doesn’t seem to matter–let’s protest anyways!)

Anyways, I simply can’t imagine that some corporate CEO sitting in his lavish Wall Street office tower is sitting there telling his executives, “Hey, guys, look at all those protesters in the street way down there. We better stop being greedy. From now on, it’s Folger’s coffee for everyone–no more triple espresso latte machiatto frappacinos!”

Now look closely at the picture. What are these two doing? Both (one of whom is apparently a “homeless blogger”…?) are enjoying a drag from (presumably) a cigarette produced by some massive corporate tobacco company. Both are catching up on their Facebook accounts (no greed going on at that company, right?) while checking their Gmail, and Twitter accounts, and Googling the latest news of protests in other cities. Thankfully they were able to tap into the public wifi service provided by some such corporate entity like Verizon! Oh, and aren’t we so glad that Facebook and Google and Twitter, at least, are all about doing what they are doing for reasons other than corporate profit? (But I digress…) Of course, this is all accomplished on the latest laptops produced by non-greedy corporate computer manufacturers. (Do a quick count of how many laptops show up in this picture representing no more than 50 square feet…I found 5!) Hmmmm…

Well the good thing is that these two won’t get thirsty. Good ol’ Coca Cola and FIJI bottled water imported direct from Fiji by a US-based company! Ya, the drinks of corporate greed protestors!

Listen, I don’t have a neat answer to how to change corporate greed. It probably has something to do with the propensities of the human heart, one would think, and there’s not many things from a human perspective we can do to change that apart from good ol’ repentance and turning to God. That said, I don’t necessarily want to insist that the Wall Street protests are pointless. Maybe they will have some good effect.

But I do want to insist that I have little hope that these protests can have much effect when they are opposing something as slippery and abstract as “corporate greed.” At least protesters in places like Libya were clear on what they were hitting the streets to protest–the ongoing tyranny of crackpot dictator. It isn’t all that clear, however, in the case of the Wall Street protests exactly what concrete thing is being protested. What is supposed to change, other than some faceless corporate CEO’s and cronies taking a substantial pay cut? Frankly, even if they do take a pay cut, I have significant doubts that the root problem of greed will have been dealt with. Indeed, if the protests actually are able to succeed in concrete reduction of the greed of the corporate leaders, these leaders will likely do so only to retain their customers’ loyalty to their product.

In other words, if  Dell and Coca Cola leaders, for example, made a public announcement that they were going to cut salaries of the top 10% of salaries in their company, wouldn’t it finally be in hopes that the two individuals in the picture noted above would choose a Dell for their next laptop and to drink Coca Cola, in good conscience, at the next protest?

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14 thoughts on “Irony in the Wall Street Protests

  1. RogueMonk

    You cynic, you. Weren’t you young once, trying to find your voice. 🙂

    All kidding aside, insightful post. Thanks.

    Blessings, RogueMonk

  2. I don’t know. I guess I get it, but does a protester have to be totally separated from that which is being criticized in order to be able to protest? Is a Luddite the only one who can speak up about misuses of technology? Is a vegetarian the only one that could protest the inhumane treatment of animals and the use of chemicals in meat-processing plants? Would one have to pull all their money out of the banks and hide it under the mattress before they could protest the corporate bailouts? You could actually look at it the other way and say that those who continue to buy from these corporations show a nuance rather than naivete in their protests. “Hey, we’re users, and we don’t like the way the corporations we buy in to are going about their business.” That kind of thing.

    I realize you are mostly cynical about the ‘effectiveness of these protests, and I share some of that cynicism, but at the end of the day those who feel helpless against the powers that be might first need to rally around a rising ethos of change before they can even begin to propose let alone effect concrete change. I’m all for asking for something constructive, but let’s face it, sometimes (especially with the young), the first thing you need to do is discover that you aren’t alone in your feeling of angst and then you can rally and try to do something about it.

    It is interesting to me that not long ago you were happy with Hallelujah chorus mobs despite the fact that they were uncritically set in the decidedly consumeristic shopping mall setting and yet you are unhappy with protests against corporate greed that are unable to completely divorce themselves from those corporations altogether. I don’t mean to bring up that discussion, I don’t really think I care about it as much as I once did, I just feel like my objection then was similar to your objection now. In the one case it didn’t matter what the theatre of praise unwittingly endorsed but in this case the theatrical protest’s unwitting endorsement of corporations undermines their protest?

  3. I agree with Jon Coutts. Also you say, “Listen, I don’t have a neat answer to how to change corporate greed.” Neither do I. But this is all the more reason tight restrictions on corporate practice are necessary, isn’t it? I, for one, don’t find it hard to imagine ways in which the present state of affairs, esp. in the US, might be improved, for instance, in a more equitable distribution of corporate profits (what’s the figure, that those on top earn 100x those on the bottom?) and a more rigorous system of taxation.

  4. bruce1337

    “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”
    –Eleanor Roosevelt.

  5. Thanks for the comments.
    Jon, I didn’t say that only Luddites can protest corporate greed. I’m saying: Let’s recognize the irony of how it is that we protest against those who have given us the very things to which we cling to so dearly. By pointing out the irony, I hope that we can at least get to the point where we realize just how much we contribute to it. We point out corporate greed because…corporations are at a macro level what we are at a personal level every day. Imagine the outburst of righteous indignation if some dictator came and said that he was taking away our Smartphones and our Facebook and our Internet which we all so enjoy? As for the point on flash mobs–point taken, though should we at least distinguish here between public protest and public proclamation? I may have been uncritical at that point on the context–so I hear you there–but I still don’t think they are the same thing.

    My bigger point is that I think we need to draw a qualitative distinction between a North American version of protest of a vague thing called “corporate greed” and, for example, a protest in Libya over the political practices of a specific crackpot dictator. Barth would say that the former is ethics by abstraction (and unhelpful) and the latter is, at least, a concrete ethical action located in particular historical context. My question isn’t necessarily even about protest per se, but about the belief that just protesting something in the abstract has any ethical import as a public act. Imagine if a large mob decided to protest, in a general and vague sort of way, its dislike for all things coloured green. They could protest all they want, but in the end, its lack of specific concreteness makes it an empty protest. Protesting that the government has made it a criminal offense to own anything green–now we are talking about something specific and perhaps worthy of taking to the streets. In other words, protesting “corporate greed” is like protesting “all things green.”

    Bruce, I’m not sure what you are implying by the Roosevelt quotation, but I actually disagree. I can think of quite a few people who thought purely in terms of ideas who were nothing less than tyrants and enemies to humanity. (Think here of the ideologies of Aryan Nation or Racial Purity–both of which at least some people thought were “great ideas”). I can also think of many who would not be considered “great” in the eyes of the world, but spent their lives in the service of people. That said, perhaps the quotation actually helps get at what I’m saying: Protesters have perhaps unwittingly bought into a social ethic that believes that public denunciation of an “idea” (“corporate greed”) is the best way to deconstruct it. My question is: Is anyone surprised that big business is greedy and that we don’t like it? That’s hardly a revelation.

  6. “Let’s recognize the irony of how it is that we protest against those who have given us the very things to which we cling to so dearly. By pointing out the irony, I hope that we can at least get to the point where we realize just how much we contribute to it.” That’s helpful David, thanks. Indeed I was thinking afterward about how your point might be that a truly effective and more admirable protest might be the one which was willing to boycott rather than raise a stink. Put together with such issues as ecological and dietary concern one of the things I’ve wondered how many people will actually make the personal sacrifices that go along with the change they demand. I think your last couple paragraphs get to that point and that’s where I’m more on board.

    I guess I see your point about the ambiguity of the protest against ‘corporate greed,’ but I think on this point I come back to my original objection, which is to say that ‘corporate greed’ is a stand-in not just for ambiguity but for a many-headed monster the likes of which most of us feel not only helpless against but not even close to fully informed about. In addition to any qualms one might have with the inadequately regulated free market to begin with, one can add a whole host of concrete things like corporate lobbyists, tax-loopholes, advertisement-driven media, hedge funds, bail-outs and you begin to feel like there is no one thing but an ethos which seems to the everyday joe and jane to be as unstoppable as it is inaccessible and incomprehensible. So ‘corporate greed’ stands for something not as general as ‘all things green’ but perhaps as big and hairy as the greed god of mammon as it has manifested itself today. I’m encouraged that there is an eye open to this, and while I take your point that the three fingers are also pointing back, I think there is something to get on board with here, even if getting on board means self-critically trying to find a constructive direction for this angst, let alone whatever debate might be sought.

    The flash mobs point was simply illustrative and I certainly don’t mean they are the same thing. Although I wouldn’t want to draw too fine a line between praise and the prophetic either. ; )

  7. with all due respect, David, I’m a little dumbfounded that you can erect this straw man (some nebulous “corporate greed”) and that the specific sins of corporate America escape your attention.

  8. Nick, I don’t deny or seek to underplay the corporate sins of America–there’s plenty of those to go around. I’m simply questioning what it means to protest an abstraction rather than particular concrete policies or practices. By the way, I’m not the only one who has noted how “nebulous” the protest has become. I’ve seen various news outlets on left and right in past days indicate just how unclear it is what the protests are really about. I don’t think I have erected a straw man as much as I’m trying to point out that many (most?) protesters have fallen for an abstract straw man called “corporate greed.”

    Protesters would do well to study some history and see how, for example, someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. was involved in protest. MLK and supporters had identifiable, concrete things which they were protesting, all of which cumulatively was seeking racial equality. They didn’t simply protest “racial inequality” but protested at a local level the very concrete practices which were the manifestation of racial inequality. In Birmingham, for example, the protest included boycotts to draw attention to unfair employment practices in BIRMINGHAM. Their protest, in other word, was strategic, local, concrete, and had as a goal, to open negotiations with Birmingham business leaders. Wall Street Protesters, I think, would have done better to identify particular culprits as representative of “corporate greed” and focus on a couple “big offenders” rather than some ambiguous general protest.

    Nick, would you believe enough in the cause to participate personally in the protest? I think that’s a question anyone should have to answer. I, for one, wouldn’t, not because I don’t believe that corporate America is full of greed and corruption (who didn’t know that?), but because I believe the aims of the protest are misguided.

  9. David, I definitely agree with you that these protests will be better served by more particularity. At the same time, one of the things that I am wrestling with here might be illustrated by wondering out loud whether protestation is bound to start out seeming rather ‘ambiguous’ when the opponent is not so much a clearly defined totalitarianism as it is a far-reaching and deep-seeded cultural hegemony. Jon Stewart made a decent point the other night when he pointed out how ironic it was to charge the protesters with a lack of clear and constructive aims when the government and the media experts have themselves been nothing but muddled and ineffective in their attempt to tackle and communicate their own proposals in that regard. I don’t mean to counter your call for particularity and self-criticism, but to query whether this protest is the manifest rallying point for the expression of angst that might best be properly once the social-network-enabled groundswell has surfaced enough to be noticed by the hegemonic powers that be.

  10. properly *clarified*, that is.

    (by the way, I really hope this stuff stays non-violent and gets constructive. I hope the rhetoric of class “warfare” and the corresponding “occupation” language does not escalate into actions that fit the talk)

  11. Good post Dave. Haven’t read the comment thread but I agree with your post. The occupiers may or may not be idiots but their message is incoherent to the point of being non-existent. Whatever it is that they’re trying to accomplish, they’ll fail for inability to articulate a cogent thought. Moreover, it’s all too facile. It’s easy to be against something vaguely negative. I’ll start paying attn when someone speaks up to propose an idea that doesn’t invoke Marx.

  12. I liked Nicholas Kristof’s comment (“Wall Street Rebels with Nearly a Cause”) in the Star Tribune here: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/otherviews/131017143.html

    He even goes on to give some advice to the protesters on how to make the protest more meaningful! But I liked how he ended, and perhaps this is what Jon is getting at:

    “Much of the sloganeering at ‘Occupy Wall Street’ is pretty silly — but so is the self-righteous sloganeering of Wall Street itself. And if a ragtag band of youthful protesters can help bring a dose of accountability and equity to our financial system, more power to them.”

    Yup. But I’m not holding my breath just yet…

  13. David: It seems to me the points you are now making are rather different than those that your post made. I don’t want to defend these protests in particular. But I do want to defend the idea that there is something to protest! For me, “corporate greed” is shorthand for any number specific grievances. Your post ignores those grievances, and pretends that these people are protesting a mere abstraction. If your complaint was initially about a lack of strategy, then why didn’t you say so? Your post, instead of stressing that there are very significant and particular points of grievance (which are not, in your opinion, being strategically addressed), set its target on these protesters, made them out to look silly, and implied that there is in fact nothing surprising, extreme, or excessive about corporate America after all–of course corporations are greedy; humans are greedy! (duh!). I hope these thoughts clarify my earlier comments.
    Peace.

  14. Nick, you’re right that my comments extended beyond the original argument. That’s the good part of conversation! So thanks for the push-back.

    I still do stand, however, by the original point, even if I went beyond it. I think that it IS ironic that these protesters are protesting the capital success of corporate America while enjoying many of its benefits. That seems to me to be qualitatively different than a protester who, in another context, is protesting the lack of bread or jobs.

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