Occupy Purchasing Power

The pepper spraying incident at UC Davis brought me into the ring on the Occupy Wall Street (and everywhere else) controversy. I’ve only been half paying attention so far, to be honest. I’ve heard a lot of bad things about the protestors. I took all the negativity with a grain of salt because the people saying the most insulting things about the protestors are the people who would. They are the people who always say as many negative things as they can about anything they even suspect might be a tad bit liberal in nature.

No particularly reasoned responses were being thrown into my line of vision, just the standard political vitriol — They’re a bunch of thugs and losers and druggies. They’re selfish and lazy and disrespectful and too spoiled to just go out and get a job.

Forget that the lack of jobs is precisely what’s being protested, these guys should still just go get a job. That line has been used and overused and abused. It’s the “let them eat cake” of our day. Still, this is mainly what I knew about OWS until a few days ago. I knew that at least half my acquaintances thought the protestors were nothing more than a bunch of spoiled, attention-seeking miscreants.

Then I watched the pepper spraying video.

I watched this, and I thought, “Those aren’t thugs. They’re English majors.”

Now everything in me that wants to protect my own students is up in arms. I feel incapable of watching this without screaming at someone to stop.

I’ve already said that, though. Stop, stop, stop. This is not the way a university ought to have handled this situation.

I have said that, and I am sure I will have much more to say about it before this is over, but I also want to talk about the larger picture of what is happening in our country right now, and I want to talk it out piece-by-piece, one angle at a time.

So today I want to say to the students out there participating in protests that I am proud to see you fighting for your rights, that someone needs to do exactly what you are doing in calling attention to the problems at hand, and that no matter what anyone says or does, you have a right to be heard. At the same time, however, if you aren’t putting just as much energy into finding solutions as you are into bringing attention to problems, you are not making full use of your talents and intelligence.

This is something I want to see students and schools working on. The jobs that we lament today are gone forever. They are not coming back. In part we are looking at corporate opportunism, at greedy companies that rake in extra profits while getting rid of workers, but that’s just one way to look at this. The truth is this has been coming on for some time. The rapid leaps in technology in the past 15 years or so have enabled companies to streamline so that they don’t need as many people to accomplish the same tasks. Call it greed. Call it opportunism. Call it exploitation. It is all of those things and more, but it is also reality. The big companies that are now boasting record profits and smaller work forces are not going to recreate the jobs they cut during the first wave of the economic crash. They aren’t going to because they don’t have to. We can tax them, and we can shame them, and we can call them all manner of dirty names, but none of that will change the reality of the situation. Big businesses have cut a lot of workers, and they aren’t hiring them back. Welcome to the digital revolution.

Human history has entered a new phase. We once had an economy based on agriculture. Later, we had an economy based on industry. Now, we no longer have an economy based on industry, and we no longer have the option to return to farming as the mainstay of our existence. We also don’t yet have a solid foundation built for what survival of the middle classes might mean in a post-industrial world.

This is what OWS is really about. We are not just experiencing another economic slump. We are experiencing a fundamental reconfiguration of our whole economy, and in the process the middle class is diminishing.

Okay, so that’s that. That’s not just the whining of a bunch of spoiled wannabe hippie children. That’s the reality everyone is facing. Now what do we do? This is the question that seems to be missing in so many of the conversations I’ve seen surrounding OWS. We know we have an enormous problem, but what do we do?

I don’t know what we do. I just know we’d better be figuring it out.

For myself, for a start, I’m going to advocate supporting more local businesses and more small business. Buy locally produced food and goods where possible. Think twice before handing money over to large corporations.

We all have political power in these three ways if in no other way — through our voices, through our votes, and through our business. Be heard, yes. Be heard through what you say and do, and be heard through where you spend.

Right now, I believe small businesses are the great hope of the middle class. Spending money with small, locally owned businesses keeps money in the community, and puts more people to work. Big companies can charge less because they don’t need as many employees to do the same jobs. I, for one, would like to cut down on the number of things I purchase in order to spend a little more on local businesses. Alone, I may not make much difference in this effort, but as a movement, channeling more money into small businesses would have a great deal of power. It would also create more jobs.

This is not THE answer to the economic crisis, but it is one thing I can do. It is one place where I can have my say.

Does this mean that I will not stand in line at some point in the near future for a new iPhone because I am boycotting big businesses on principle? Probably not. Does it mean that I will make an effort to order online less often and visit local shops more often? Yes.

You gotta start somewhere.