Wednesday, June 27, 2012


I went to a workshop on the Occupy Movement here at UU Ministry Days, led by some colleagues who have been very active in New York City, Portland and elsewhere.  About 40 ministers attended, almost all of which had some level of participation in the movement.

I was surprised that my colleagues seemed to think its radical process was most important about Occupy: its ambition to be a 'leaderless' movement that worked by consensus and direct democracy.  There was talk of Occupy as a foretaste of Beloved Community.  And as has come up again and again in UU circles, there were reminders that the 1% must also be redeemed.

The radical process of Occupy is an old fantasy.  We UU's know that better than any one else.  After all, we have learned the hard way that consensus based ultra-democracy is code for the covert veto power of tiny minorities.

What was radical, and  a challenge to Unitarian Universalists is the class analysis implicit in the naming of the 99%.

A class analysis is both a description of material reality and a strategic program. Change is a struggle between and among contending groups, each with their own ideas, narratives and interests.  A class analysis defines what those groups are, and describes who are allies, and who are adversaries.

As a description of reality, the 99% analysis is a little fuzzy, but provocative. The problems we face in the world all stem from the power that finance capital (or popularly "Wall Street") has over the wealth of the world.  Finance Capital is actually controlled by a small group of people, much less than 1% of the population, and through the operational control of the wealth of the world, they have amassed an unbelievable amount of wealth.

Consider the power of finance capital in today's world.  Finance Capital directs how the world's wealth is used.  The world's wealth is understood to be money that is invested by great financial institutions.  An increasing amount of the world's wealth is controlled and invested for the profit by those financial institutions.  It is most of our money.

I have a retirement account.  I have a piece of paper that tells me how much it is worth.  But in actuality, I have given that money to a number of financial institutions to invest for me.  I presume that they have the good intention of allowing me to have my money (my wages that I have given to them, rather than spend myself) back when I need it when retired.  Of course, there are no guarantees.

The same is true of the endowment of my church.

Financial Institutions control the vast amounts of the wealth of the nation, and control how it is be invested.  Their decisions are the basic decisions that our society makes.  They have determined that there is money for Hollywood studios to make sequels of movies based on comic books, but not enough money to fix bridges and highways.  That there is money for new suburban McMansions, but not for home renovations in the inner city.  That there is money to be invested in private prison companies rather than schools.

The only other source of wealth to invested is the government, and the political program of Finance Capital is to minimize the amount of money that the government to invest and maximize the amount of money that Finance Capital controls, through lower taxes.

Isn't it odd that the state sector is broke, but that American businesses have $2 Trillion "in cash" -- actually on deposit in various financial institutions, awaiting what looks to them to be profitable investment opportunities.  This is the power of finance capital -- that even at this most macro of levels, the uses to which the wealth of our country is put to use is under the control of a set of institutions that are, in the end, controlled by a tiny segment of the population, and purposed primarily for their own profit.

That is the materialism of what is wrong with our country and our world.  And while many other problems and social issues do not originate in these economic arrangements, all efforts to address them are shaped and limited by this materialism.  For example, people become addicts for a whole host of reasons, but it is the dominance of finance capital over the wealth of our society that means that free addiction treatment is not available on demand for every addict that wants it.   People get cancer through mysterious unknown processes, but the reason why some die without treatment is due to the power of finance capital.

The materialism of the situation means that 99% of the people in the United States, and more around the world, have a common interest in ending the dominance of finance capital.  99% plus.  99% plus of the world's population are common allies in the struggle.

This is a stunning development, and one that challenges the implicit analysis of liberals and radicals who are of the types that go into the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

Most strategists for the Democratic Party understand the balance of forces, not as 99 to 1, but 50 to 50.  They assume that perhaps 45% are solidly with the Party and the goal is reach 50% plus one.

In terms of religion, UU's are in a .01% to 99.99%.  We would be insanely successful if we got to 1 to 99, that is, if 3 million UU's existed in the USA.

Culturally sophisticated liberals actually seem to assume that the balances of forces are 5 to 95 up to 25 to 75.    That 5 to 25% of the population share our values: they are cosmopolitan, open-minded, creative, progressive etc.  What percentage of our fellow citizens would we consider to be "anti-racist?"

The point is that class analysis proceeds from an analysis of the materialism of a situation.  An analysis of consciousness and perception is a different thing.

It is an absurd statement to say, as I have heard some say, that the 1% are oppressed as well under this system.  No, the system is defined by the 1%'s unchecked power.  The very definition of the system is the oppressive monopoly of real power by those who control finance capital.  It may be that their human potential is diminished by the mental contortions required to justify their unchecked power, but that is not oppression.

The class analysis of the 99% vs the 1% is a sharp challenge to the liberal and progressive movements to date.  It radically expands the category of the potential coalition.  Nothing makes this more clear than the consistent statement that the police are separated from the Occupiers by one city budget cut.  

We whose progressive politics is intertwined with progressive cultural and spiritual values have to learn to separate those two things.  Our task is not to help the Occupy movement succeed at being a formless, leaderless, horizontal, consensus-based movement.  Our task is to engage in the work of concrete coalition building -- applying universalism from below, as it were, by identifying the reality of a common interest of almost all in democratizing the decision making over the wealth of world.

1 comment:

Bill Baar said...

It's a slogan, not analysis. It's a sign of unthoughtfullness... to put it mildly.