Occupy Wall Street; Don’t Attack Grandma: The New Class Struggle

Behind the verbal incoherence, behind the posturing, behind the bad children’s tantrum, behind the trash, behind the grotesque self-regard of those who would borrow $120,000 to earn a degree in “German Studies,” there may be legitimate resentment in the “Occupy” movement. It’s true that it’s difficult to get from the demonstrators an answer to a straight question that does not make you laugh or cry, or both. However, you may not have to await their answer to understand.

To the extent that you can trust television cameras at all, they seem to show largely demonstrators between their mid-twenties and their mid-thirties. That would be people born between 1975 and 1985. Those cohorts had only known ease and prosperity until 2008. They were brought up by easy-going parents who sent them, or allowed them to attend schools that nurtured self-indulgence more than intellectual curiosity. I have two children near the younger edge of these age groups. I am guilty too. When they were playing soccer, they never heard anything from coaches except “Good try.” I remember clearly one little kid ( not one of mine, God forbid!) garnering this very accolade after he had marked a goal against his own team. (Would I make this up?) These American cohorts were not in any way prepared for a world where jobs are difficult to get because companies are not hiring and where the jobs you get don’t pay well because companies don’t have to pay well since they won’t invest in you for the long term because there is no long term they can see.

How about the timing of the “Occupy” movement? This is always a difficult question but one that it’s necessary to try and answer. Here is one thing I know about causation: Constants don’t cause sudden change. “Greed” in Wall Street or elsewhere has not caused the crisis because greed has not surged under Pres. Obama. (It would be really interesting if it had but there is absolutely no evidence in support, and no reason to speculate, I am afraid!) Here is what’s new that might function as a cause. For the first time in my memory, there has been -in the past year – public talk about “entitlements.” There have been discussions about what to do concerning Medicare and the Social Security retirement programs. I repeat, this is the first time in my long memory. A taboo has been lifted. While those generations seem badly informed, some of the discussion of entitlement must have reached some of them and then propagated quickly through the Internet. Here is what some of them may have heard and understood:

When we are employed, even at minimum wage, a percentage of our earnings goes to support old people who don’t work. Some of the geezers bring in $2500 each month thanks to me, more than I am earning working full time. The same idle old people earn more than do those of us who have been employed and are now unemployed for some unknown duration. Many of these old people seem hale, hearty, happy. They look like they will be around, sucking our blood, for a long time. I am going to have to carry them for most of my life. The geezers will go on smoking pot in the house they own while I will never be able to buy a house. And it gets worse: I heard all my youth that when my time comes, there will be nothing left for me of Social Security or only crumbs.

Same thing with Medicare. Those old guys don’t worry about their medical care because I pay for it while I cannot afford any medical insurance myself. My job does not offer it and I cannot afford the premiums. That’s not for me and not for my children.

Medicare too will be long gone by the time I qualify. Either Obamacare will survive and the country will be bled white. Or the Republicans will kill it and conservative forces will put retirement age at 75 or even 80. Either way, I will have gotten screwed.

So, we may be witnessing the beginning of a class struggle, one that Marx never thought about. (Marx was a kind of distracted guy: He missed the importance of both the publicly held corporation and of social security programs, the first of the latter available in Prussia while Marx was still going strong.) This would be a struggle between age classes rather than between economic classes. It would make sense because the former, unlike the latter, can be defined neatly. It’s not clear if a lawyer or a social worker, is a “proletarian” or not today but we know well when the retirement part of Social Security is supposed to run out of money. This provides a neat divide between exploiters and exploited classes. And the idea of “exploitation” makes rather more sense in the context of age class than in the traditional sense of economic class. The ones’ benefits are directly taken from the others, after all. No tortuous reasoning about “surplus value” needed! In fact, for the Baby Boom generation SS retirement benefits were pretty much, or largely, earned, Medicare was partly funded by themselves only, prescription drugs benefits, not at all. (We owe the latter to the munificence of G. W. Bush, I remind you.)

The main defect of this explanation is that it seems that none of the participants seems to invoke it. And, I agree that it’s a problem! But, look: Admitting all this would force one straightforwardly to attack Grandma. The relevant generation of Americans does not have the intestinal fortitude such a move would require. Instead, it’s easier to deflect their collective anger to social actors that seem distant and about which they know nothing: “The Corporations.”

Technical note: I can testify that five years ago, no sophomore in an expensive university where I taught near Silicone Valley knew what a publicly held corporation was. That’s zero. I taught in the business school and I made it my task to explain. There was not resistance. Students were quite interested. They had never been told anything except that corporations were evil. Students would sometimes spontaneously express their surprise at how “fair” the corporate stocks system seemed to be once you understood it. There is no reason to believe the situation has improved since I retired.

Students in the school of Arts and Sciences I believe never received even an elementary explanation. There is worse. If I had a chance to take money off my former colleagues from that school (except those in Economics), I would plunge without hesitation into a bet with them involving a simple definition of the word “corporation.” If I were allowed to bet with all of them, at once, I am certain I would make easy money overall. Reflect on this: I am willing to risk my hard-earned Social Security retirement benefit on the proposition that the average English professor does not know what corporations are. He just knows he hates them and he transmits his hatred to his semi-educated brood, many of whom are “occupying “ something or other right now.

About jacquesdelacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
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9 Responses to Occupy Wall Street; Don’t Attack Grandma: The New Class Struggle

  1. gary says:

    Great subject Jacques!
    I am actually surprised that given the loudness of the Que. given by both the Obama admin. and press that this has not turned into a bloody hate fest. But there is still plenty more time. I will actually be surprised if there is not a major event between now and election day that will distract from obvious.
    This may not be “it” but then again it might.
    These kids have also had great teachers outside of the classroom where “more is caught more than taught” and it would be interesting to know what each one would say if asked to interpret the word “accountability”, because, from both the political and from mom and dad, and post modern non-denominational churches, the correctness has superseded reality and facts and absolutes are seen as repulsive and opinions give every situation an ethic all of its own. . Add to this what is actually taught inside the classroom?! oh my, then we have the makings for
    an enormous clash in perspectives that I believe is being carefully nurtured to be unleashed at just the correct moment.
    Accounting is something that comfort dispels and hunger will soon be the best seasoning and soon the rhetoric will be crushed under the weight of the economic tsunami that is the debt ceiling.
    Funny how much we hear the word sustainability in every context but the most pressing one like, “just how sustainable is the debt ceiling?” And now given the context of this “jobs bill” we are going to put the weight of the whole nation up there? We have all been hooked on the air money at the hands of people who ‘s goal it is to distract us with left and right while they disparage the very meaning of right and wrong so we wont even see or care about what is coming. In many ways we are all sitting ducks, not just those that are unoccupied by common sense. Some are aware, and or even accountable but have no means to do a thing about it.
    GaryK

  2. Martin Anding says:

    Jacques, as long as some of your posts are they still seem to end early. Can you give us your definition and description of a Corporation?

    I think it would be very difficult for the OWS crowd to shift to a generational conflict. For a start everyone has parents. Blaming your own parents for the problem of Social Security and Medicare would be tough. It wasn’t Grandma’s idea that those government confiscated funds were either spent immediately or invested so badly. Imagine if those surplus funds were put to use buying corporate stock. By this late date Social Security might own half of the corporations in the U.S. and have a huge income stream from dividends.

    Pet peave: Silicone and Silicon are much different substances. One makes integrated circuits. The other is a organic compound with many uses.

    • gary says:

      Martin do you really see parents in the way of conflict? This generation is spoiled beyond belief and entertained into thinking that
      that is what parents are actually for. The less maturity into the late twenties and thirties means parents will be easily targeted because that is in fact what immature children do, especially in a nanny state where they have been taught to think that money comes from the air, the same place they have both feet firmly planted. Immaturity is not responsive to facts that matter even when it is your own grandma. Gary K

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Martin: I keep getting confused about silicon(e). Sorry. I agree that it would be difficult to take the next step and blame grandma. This by way of predicting that that grass-root movement is at a dead end. You are observant,. I often leave essays dangling hoping to send readers to original sources where they will learn more than they would by reading me. So. there is no Jacques’ definition of what is a “corporation.” It’s a technical term with a fixed meaning that has not varied in about one hundred years.

  3. jacquesdelacroix says:

    Here is an exchange I had with my friend Peter Miller on email (for some reason). Peter is a sociologist like me but also an accomplished artists. He lives in Japan. There a direct link; “kamprint” to some of hsisart on the front page of this blog.

    PM So the ‘Occupy’ movement does not surprise me. I only
    wondered why it took so long to develop. But it never occurred to me that
    Americans would take their cue from events in Cairo and Damascus. The younger participants are finally looking up from their iPads and iPhones and realizing– finally! — that THEY are the ones who will have to pay off the $14 trillion or more of debt that the nation has incurred. They haven’t figured out what caused that, but they know they’re being stuck with the tab. They’re just at the stage of saying ‘What the f**k? Hey man, this can’t be right. Too many zeroes in that number. How are we going to come up with that kind of stash?’ From there,
    the next logical thought is ‘Let’s take it away from the people who stole it
    from us in the first place.’ Having grown up in the nanny state, the only means they can think of for doing that is taxation and redistribution, not realizing that that merely makes Government more powerful and intrusive and does not alter the Gini coefficient one whit. (JD note: a measure of inequality.)

    PM Short answer: The sole express purpose of the banksters’ financial schemes was to grab Fed funds. Once the CRA was enacted in 1998, forcing banks to make unrepayable loans, and encouraging them to offload the worst of these to F&GNMA, national bankrutpcy was assured. It took 10 years. If the OWS movement breaks uthis unholy alliance between Wall St & Govt, it will have performed a useful service

    JD Interesting speculation but it dos not answer my question, which was a strictly sociological question: Do you think even one in thousand of the “Occupy” demonstrators would be able to articulate anything close to your sophisticated reasoning? One in ten thousand?

    JD What people do not know cannot motivate their actions. I know it’s tempting to impute semi-conscious analytical wisdom to groups. I come close to do it myself in my most recent posting on the topic (“…Don’t attack grandma…”) We have to kill this tendency in ourselves. In fact, by now, the media have interviewed thousands of demonstrators. What surfaces id old-fashioned vulgar Marxism: “The rich and the poor,” ” inequality,” with a touch of fascist anti-plutocratism: “the banks,” and, increasingly, expressions of anti-Semitism.

    More effective solutions involve technicalities like re-instituting
    Glass-Steagall, repealing the CRA, auditing the Fed and clawing back as much as possible of the $trillions that it has misappropriated and disbursed. Similar to what Picard is doing with the Madoff money, but on a far larger scale. That’s where prosecution comes in. Bernanke in Congressional testimony refused to disclose where all the money went. (You can see a YouTube video of this with Rep
    Alan Grayson quizzing him, where he flat-out arrogantly refuses to provide the same information any other private bank is required to disclose.) If he and his bankster cronies were to take one look, not at a country-club prison, but at the inside of a typical butt-f**k motel, that might induce them to talk. More broadly, dismantling the whole structure of affirmative-action quotas and preferences that has grown up over the past 40 years is now an economic necessity, else the nation will continue lurching from crisis to crisis, unable lto pay for this crippling encumbrance, but philosophically unable to throw it
    off. Of course the protestors are very far from that realization, but they
    understand that business-as-usual doesn’t favor them, and those preferences arevery much part of business-as-usual.

    JD Interesting speculation but it dos not answer my question, which was a strictly sociological question: Do you think even one in thousand of the
    > “Occupy” demonstrators would be able to articulate anything close to your sophisticated reasoning? One in ten thousand?

    PM Probably not one in a thousand. Maybe one in ten thousand. Together with the Tea Party crowd, which is really reacting to the same phenomena, albeit from a different perspective, and add-in organized labor, they could all constitute a larger proportion of the electorate than the Democrats/Republicans.

    JD What people do not know cannot motivate their actions.

    PM Their motivations now are they don’t like what’s been done to them and they are emitting a collective cri de coeur.

    JD I know it’s tempting to impute semi-conscious analytical wisdom to groups.

    PM I don’t attribute any analytical wisdom to them at the moment. I merely said they could perform a useful service. Indeed they already have changed the political landscape considerably.

    JD What surfaces id old-fashioned vulgar Marxism:

    PM That is the perennial language of discontent. It is to be expected. But there is some sophistication in their grasp of the fact that they’re not going to accomplish anything through the existing political system. There is also implicit recognition of the fact that Keynesian policies have not worked, or have only worked to the detriment of 99.9 percent of the people. Even if the protestors have no idea who Keynes was, they can do enough math to figure out that spending $14 trillion more than you have is not the way to prosperity.

    These developments enable the obvious to be discussed openly. That is progress.

  4. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street; Don’t Attack Grandma: The New Class Struggle « Notes On Liberty

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