It may become an important historical phenomenon, or become a discard on the scrapheap of history. There are people gathering all over the Western world to protest economic inequality. The media tends to focus on the lack of clarity and singular purpose in their message. Conservative media outlets portray the protesters as borderline communists. Liberal media outlets portray the protesters as noble iconoclasts. Neither interpretation is very accurate.
Corporate and institutional greed is painted as a particular sickness of our time, but it is hardly a new phenomenon. Let us consider corporations and institutions to be private and governmental bodies (respectively) that initially fulfill the desire of a particular group. Both institutions and corporations attempt to fulfill a particular social need; be it health, spirituality, security, shelter, food, et cetera. As an institution ages, it increasingly fulfills the needs of its directors, at the expense of those it was designed to serve. Institutions that begin their life in transparency become opaque with age; increasingly insular and jealous of their privileges. Compare the Catholic church at the first ecumenical council in AD 325 with the what the church had become by the time of the inquisition(s)-twelve hundred years later. Compare the French nation at the time of Charlemagne with French government by the time of Louis the fourteenth-fifteen hundred years later.
With an increase in population there is an automatic decrease in the personal control enjoyed by individual members. With an increase in population there is a corresponding decrease in personal responsibility of the populace to the institution. With an increase in the geographic distance between members and directors, there is a net decrease of the director’s personal responsibility to those that depend upon them. If there is little chance that a member will have social contact with a director, the director will automatically have greater freedom to impose unpopular rules on the members. Perhaps this is an emergent property of population growth upon the nature of institutions and corporations. Perhaps it is an emergent sociopathic tendency of those who need to control others.
A loss of control tends to increase personal angst. More than one commentator has used the word “angst” to describe the emotional tone of the protesters. There is a palpable fear of the future; an anxiety over their children’s experience of the world. If the current Western socioeconomic systems remain static, parents will fail to maintain the modern social compact with their children. Each generation shall enjoy greater prosperity than the one preceding. It is the largely unspoken social compact between parent and child in much of the Western world. Over the last three years, an awareness of the individual’s lack of power and worth has become all to apparent. People are increasingly confident that the next generation will be less prosperous than the last generation. It is likely that this awareness has fueled the current protests.
Five hundred years ago, Thomas More wrote that “I see nothing but a conspiracy of the rich, who are aiming at their own advantage under the name and title of the commonwealth. They invent and devise all ways and means by which they may keep without fear of losing all they have amassed by evil practices, and next to that may purchase as cheaply as possible and misuse the labour and toil of the poor.” The same could be written a thousand years before in the Western world, and perhaps three thousand years before in the Eastern world. From Socrates to Marx, great thinkers have pondered the sickness of social and economic inequality. Socrates believed slaves and idle thinkers were indispensable to a republic, versus Marx who believed that both were evils unto themselves. If two of the greatest thinkers in Western intellectual history are unable to agree on the ideal society, how can the media criticize a group of people in the park for failing to provide a solution?
The solution is for all public institutions and private corporations to become more transparent and regulated by the members they serve. Lewis Mumford wrote that,”any group that operates in secret…loses touch with reality by the very terms on which it operates. What begins as the suppression of a critical opposition ends with the suppression of truth and the elimination of any alternative to the accepted policy, however patent its errors, however psychotic its plans, however fatal its commitments.” This statement holds true for both the Catholic church during the Reformation and Lehman Brothers during the last financial crisis. The directors of modern society, as in all past societies, have no motivation to change the system by which they profit. It is unfortunate that society does not change with great ideas, rather it changes when the directors become fearful of the members. Any system that does not impose constant scrutiny on its directors will find itself in the present situation. Transparency and accountability are the answer. The present protests are an indicator of frustration, not a process leading to a solution. It can be taken for granted that imposing transparency and accountability will not be accomplished with the cooperation of the directors. The issue is less what must be done, than how it will be done-if it will be done at all. Perhaps Robert Crowley can summarize these thoughts better than the author. He penned these eerily apt lines in the sixteenth century:
And this is a city in name but in deed
It is a pack of people that seek after meed (profit)
For officers and all do seek their own gain
But for the wealth of the Commons not one taketh pain.
And hell without order I may it well call
Where every man is for himself and no man for all.