Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Social Justice versus Capitalism

Several weeks ago, on November 16, 2011 (the day after NYC cops in riot gear evicted a peaceful protest in Zuccotti Park), I took part in a panel at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY, on Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. The panel was sponsored by Molloy's Center for Social and Ethical Concerns (CSEC) and hosted by Molloy's VP for Advancement Ed Thompson. I was joined on the panel by Dr. Michael Russo, Professor of Philosophy and Director of CSEC, and Thomas J. MacNamara, adjunct Instructor in Molloy's Business program and Partner-in-Charge of the Litigation Practice Group at Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, LLP.

I'm going to try to describe as objectively as possible the evening's discussion.

The evening began with a video by Mike Russo (AKA "Udo Capelli"), "Why We Protest: Voices from Occupy Wall Street." Michael then gave a little background on the video, the protesters, and his experiences at Zuccotti Park. (running time: 30:47)

I followed Mike Russo's video and talk with a presentation I called "The Inevitability of the Occupy Movement in a Global Context." I put forward what I believed to be a rational argument directed at a fairly conservative Catholic audience. I quoted from four Papal Encyclicals (Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, John XXIII's Mater et Magistra, Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, and John Paul II's Solicitudo Rei Socialis), all of which called some dimension of Capitalism into question and urged that self interest -- while a legitimate human drive -- not overpower and destroy the idea of "the common good." Listening to the quotes I selected, one could easily imagine I was reading Marx to an audience of Catholics. But this was part of my point: I wanted this Catholic, Christian audience to hear what the Church teaches about economics and social justice.

I also proposed that, since Christians have been warned by the Church for a century about the dangers of economic injustice but have largely ignored the warnings, there is a certain inevitability to the Occupy movement. One of the scholars whose work I referenced to support my proposition was Jacques Ellul. I've been struck by the fact that we are in a situation at the moment that runs counter to Ellul's description of the several necessary prerequisite social factors for effective propaganda, most notably a broadly shared average level of education and a broadly shared average level of income. In the last thirty years -- with supply-side economics at work and growing emphasis on the privatization of everything, including schools -- we've seen our national educational performance falter and a chasm grow between the country's richest and poorest, with the middle class the most threatened of all. And so the homgenizing effects of mass propaganda will, naturally, decrease under these circumstances making dissent and protest all the more inevitable. A logical argument, it seems to me: income inequality is not just unjust, it is dangerous to the stability of a society. (running time: 22:54)

Finally, Wall Street had its say in Thomas J. MacNamara's presentation, "Capitalism as the Solution, Not the Problem." Here's where I must actually try to be objective. Let's start with the title. Capitalism as solution? Sure. No problem. But the problem we're facing right now is not a problem with Capitalism? Wow. That's a tough one for me and suggests that only a true believer can rationalize such a statement.

I'll let you listen to Thom's argument (part of me is itching to call it a diatribe) and come to your own conclusions, but there are a small number of points I want to make: 1] no economic system is perfect. When we pretend that one system is perfect and cannot be regulated or treated with flexibility or is immune to change, we're not dealing with an economic theory anymore. We're dealing with an ideology. And ideology is the death of critical reason. Ideology is philosophy on artificial life support. Ideology -- any ideology -- is the dessicated corpse of reason embalmed with the fluid of self-justification. 2] There is no "invisible hand." Even when Adam Smith was talking about the so-called "invisible hand of the market" he wasn't anthropomorphizing markets; he was referring to the hand of God that guides the enlightened participants in a market who deal with one another not only out of self interest, but of "fellow feeling." 3] Ayn Rand was not a philosopher, nor is "objectivism" a "philosophy." Let's get this straight: philosophers don't answer questions, they ask them. And when someone proposes the one, true answer (whether we're talking about Communism or Capitalism or Objectivism or any of the other -isms floating around out there) he or she is not philosophizing, he or she is pushing an ideology. 4] Parts of Thom's argument sound as though they came directly from Frank Luntz's plenary presentation to the Republican Governors Association (even though that presentation came a couple of weeks after the panel at Molloy). It's all Washington's fault. Don't take money from "hard working taxpayers." They're "job creators" who believe in "economic freedom." Blah, blah, blah. 5] A fairer distribution of income will not make us Cuba.

I'm done being objective now. Watch for yourself. I report, you decide. Fair and balanced. Et cetera. (running time: 26:37)


Brian Warren said...

Peter - One great thing about this country is that we all have freedom to express our opinions and beliefs (at least for now). So with that in mind I totally respect your recent post of the Ron Paul Facebook page. However, you have disabled the comment function on that post which makes it very difficult for others to interact with you. If you truly want to encourage others to adopt your opinions you should really consider opening it up for a two way conversation rather than just spewing your side of the story and running away.

Brian Warren said...

My apologies Peter...I see the comment feature is available on your Facebook page.

Peter K Fallon, Ph.D. said...

LOL. Don't jump to hasty conclusions, Brian. When I have something to say I dig in.