In outrage at the suffering of the overwhelming majority and the government’s preferential treatment of a small elite of banks and corporations, protesters shout: “We are the 99%!” – meaning that the vast majority has no say, while a tiny minority sets the direction of the nation. That is certainly true, but what do the occupiers conclude from this? That it can’t possibly be true! They have published a thick catalog of grievances, and the official protest website chronicles hundreds of individual stories of misery and desperation. They assume all this results from a violation of “our system,” in which the task of government is to ensure the well-being of the people. But doesn’t the poverty of the masses indicate that the occupiers’ assumptions might be misguided, that the task of power in a democracy is something else entirely? Doesn’t the very fact that in order to get their voices heard the protesters have to camp out in the streets, and only as long as the authorities permit, suggest “this is what democracy looks like”?
Evidently, life in capitalism gives people a lot of reasons to protest. But the protesters are scandalized and can’t believe that restoring the economy means impoverishing the people, so they blame the greed of the 1%, best symbolized by Wall Street. According to the occupiers, the sins of the “corporate forces of the world” go far beyond accepting bailout money: “they” foreclose on homes, ruin the environment, knowingly pollute the food supply, undermine collective bargaining rights, relocate jobs overseas, cut wages, etc., etc. But what are we supposed to conclude from all these bad experiences? The occupiers answer: “profit over people.” Do they mean that the well-being of the vast majority is simply incompatible with the current economic system, in which the purpose is to turn money into more money? Or do they mean that the special interest of a tiny minority is screwing up an otherwise indivisible national community? The protestors, obviously, think the latter: The greed of a rich and powerful criminal minority has ruined their American dream in which the rich and powerful might be rich and powerful, but ultimately the people rule.
That is one reason why, for all the mainstream suspicion about a new generation of “hippies” and other undesirables, this profession of faith in the American dream has earned the protests a remarkable amount of sympathy. Although politicians certainly are not pleased to see masses out on the streets, this is just the kind of unshakeable faith in “the system” they rely on when they preach the “systemic relevance” of the banks and the “unfortunate necessity” of sacrifices from the rest of the citizenry. Of course, it is a cruel joke when the government portrays the rescue of the banks as a mere necessity that ultimately benefits the very people who need to put up with a healthy dose of austerity. But the thing is, this joke has more than a grain of truth. The government is not rescuing the banks and imposing austerity on the people because politicians want to do their cronies a favor. It is because profit is far more than the special interest of the rich and powerful. It is nothing less than the wealth of capitalist nations. That is the wealth people work for when they march into factories and offices every morning. That is how “our system” and “our economy” works: no jobs, no livelihood, no future, unless businesses can turn their money into more money. In “our system,” profit-making might ruin the people, but people cannot live unless capitalists make a profit.
So it is true that when politicians restore the financial power of the banks while slashing the budget to preserve the financial power of the government, they are not serving the interests of “the 99%.” What is not true, however, is that this is somehow a contradiction to democracy. After all, each individual, rich or poor, has an equal right to elect and empower politicians, who do everything they can to promote the harmful kind of wealth upon which “our system” is founded. That is what democracy looks like.