The Other I

October 23, 2011

My problem with the tents on Wall Street

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 3:05 pm

One of the reasons I entered a convent with the expectation that I would be working with the world’s poor was I thought that there was a system which would guarantee equality and justice to everyone in the world.  I even think I assumed that I could be a major influence in establishing this utopia.  I left the convent after nine years and joined the generation of the 1960’s and 70’s fighting for racial equality and against the Vietnam War.  I thought again that we had the answers.

If I had reflected on history just a little more, my naiveté may have been somewhat moderated.  I am now absolutely convinced that there is no system – political, religious, or economic – that can impose justice from above despite the limitations, expectations, and desires of the individuals involved.

It’s been tried before.  It was not just the Hippies, or the Communists who thought they knew how to make the world more just.  The Islamists believe they can do it, and Roman Catholicism is based on the beliefs that it cannot be done without following their principles.  Protestants and Buddhists, pagans and Taoists have all tried.  At great cost, the Shining Path in Peru, Castro in Cuba, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia have tried.  Not all have failed miserably.  But none have succeeded with such sterling effectiveness as to be convincing.

Yes, some systems are better than others and I believe we have an obligation to study them.  I think democracy in the modern world is usually better than dictatorship.  And unregulated capitalism has no better record than dogmatic socialism.  But there isn’t a ready-made system out there that will eliminate greed and inequality or poverty if we would just  stop being so self-centered and selfish.

The distressing truth is that we just aren’t that smart.   We really don’t know how to do it on a global level.  Yes, we can share our loaf of bread and our i-pads with our neighbor.  Yes, we can make charitable donations and participate in marches.  None of this is to be disparaged.  But it won’t solve our problems all by itself.

And that’s what makes me worried about the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins which have now spread to London.  I understand and fully agree with the anger over the bankers who brought the global economy to the brink of  disaster (a danger which has not yet been fully conquered).  Having done this, they were paid obscene salaries for achieving such historic failures, and then paid even more to walk away from the wreckage they engineered.  It is infuriating that it is the taxpayers who are being forced to pick up the shards, the innocent citizens who are losing their jobs and their homes.

Yes, banks and insurance companies and any institution where these almost inconceivable amounts of money are gained and lost must be made to be more transparent and regulated so that they cannot do this again.

But this naive simplicity that assumes that we can destroy capitalism and force every one to live in equality would create, in my opinion, a suffocating hell on earth.  It would destroy individuality and a great deal of creativity.  And it would not reduce global poverty.

I understand that globalization has destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of workers.  I think governments have failed, sometimes catastrophically, to care for those who are destroyed by the free trade treaties into which they have entered.

But let us remember that globalization has done more than any other process – including foreign aid – to reduce global poverty in the last forty years.  The number of people in India, China, Brazil, and Russia alone who have been lifted out of poverty during this time reaches into the millions.

Pope Benedict is publishing an encyclical tomorrow in which he is arguing that our economic systems must be changed to insure greater equality.  Fine.

But pulling the world out of poverty and injustice takes more than sharing your last loaf of bread with your neighbour.   How to achieve this is a far more difficult and complex task than he seems to acknowledge.



  1. I think the Occupy movement in Britain is explicitly anti-capitalist (the BBC uses that word to describe it) in a way the Wall Street version, which is pretty inchoate by choice, is not. This has been described variously as OWS’s strength and its flaw. I subscribe to the former view.

    I agree with you about top-down salvation, whatever form it takes. Human institutions all seem plagued by the same very human failings–or maybe they’re hard-wired behaviors–that end up stifling individuality and creativity, not to mention affording opportunities for those in authority to prey upon the faithful.

    Speaking of which, I just read an obituary for Anita Caspary (95), the nun who broke with the Church over her bishop’s unwillingness to allow the basic human rights for her order mandated by Vatican II. The community she founded, originally, I think, 200, is down to 160, but its very survival is a victory, I’d say.


    Comment by pianomusicman — October 23, 2011 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the insights into the OWS’s. Yes, the press here is explicitly called the London sit-ins anti-capitalist. From what I have read about the US versions, they do see quite various, though all left-leaning and I’m not clear how well informed. You say you consider it a strength, but I fear it could destroy more than it builds. Rather like the degradation of City University in NYC in the 1970’s. I watched it happen. I didn’t participate in the anti-City sit-ins — being a graduate student at the time at the New School for Social Research — but I didn’t realize what was happening even as I listened to the demands for open admissions.

      I have come across an interesting analysis of the history of protests and sit-ins in the latest Economist, and plan to blog on it tomorrow.

      Yes, most nuns these days who have ventured out of their cloisters and especially wearing street clothes are getting a lot of grief from the Vatican these days. I am beginning to understand why there is talk of schism. I’m afraid I’m too old and cynical to think that the institution can be reformed.


      Comment by theotheri — October 24, 2011 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

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