Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law and is a professor at Purdue University.
Viscerally, Occupy Wall Street targets the structural corruption of certain American and global institutions, both economic and political. To be sure, economics and politics remain starkly interpenetrating. Usually, whatever happens in either one of these seemingly discrete realms, more or less substantially impacts the other.
Still, if Occupy supporters were to look meaningfully behind the news, beyond the ritualized economic and political orthodoxies, they could uncover something vitally important and under-examined. The genuinely core problem of economic weakness and inequality, they would discover, is not fiscal, but human.
Retail sales comprise an overwhelmingly large fraction of GDP. This is not newsworthy. But, by simple deduction, Wall Street's volatility and fragility are ultimately the product of a society that most desperately requires hyper-consumption. Below the tangible surface of timeless and ubiquitous manipulations, our underlying market difficulties are rooted in utter dependence upon Main Street's craving for goods. From the expert standpoint of any needed economic recovery, the more insistent this choreographed craving, the "better."
We are what we buy. There is nothing controversial about this assertion. Adam Smith and Thorstein Veblen, among others, made it an integral part of their respective economic theories.
Nor is it in any way a uniquely American condition. The true and unacknowledged generic or universal problem is that in any society where one's perceived value as a person is determined by observable consumption, the derivative economy is necessarily built upon sand.
This is not what we hear from the experts, least of all from the learned economists, the bankers, or the quick-thinking corporate chiefs. After all, it is assuredly not their task to inquire beyond pleasingly hard, measurable, and quotable fiscal calculations. Still, if we should look more closely, it would become plain that we and the Occupy Wall Street movement have as much to learn about market crises and asymmetries from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.
Until we can finally get a handle on the insatiable public need for more and more things, on the unceasing search for shiny goods that can seemingly validate us as persons of merit, our economic problems will not go away. And even if we could somehow "fix" these current problems by further encouraging contrived consumption, exactly what sort of society would we be sustaining?
What kind of economy and society must rely on crude coaxing and engineered purchasing to sustain its life-saving buoyancy? In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke prophetically of "self-reliance." Already, long ago, the American transcendentalist thinker had fully understood that a foolish "reliance upon property" was actually the result of "a want of self-reliance."
Today, living insecurely amid a humiliating barrage of advertising jingles, delirious collectivism, and embarrassingly empty witticisms, the apprehensive American and counterparts elsewhere sorely want to project a "correct" image.
In the end, each tentative claim to self-worth must be founded upon having the "right stuff." In the end, it is always about possessing an enviable cornucopia of all the "right things." In the end, hyper-consumption is never really about greed; rather, it is about the enhanced image of personal importance that can presumably be conferred by glamorous houses, cars, and electronic toys.
The demeaning consumer message of our mass society is everywhere, even in the universities. Here, where the Western canon has been supplanted by reality shows, mimicry and repetition now define academic "excellence." Today, almost all higher education in America has become fiercely-commercial, proudly anti-intellectual, and openly vocational, obsequiously dumbed-down by faculties who are running scared from no-longer literate university administrations.
In America, we ceremoniously graduate newly minted Ph.D.s, MDs, JDs and MBAs who know only how to progress in their own chosen fields. They may, of course, turn out to be perfectly good teachers, doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but they shall always remain trained. Through no fault of their own, they will never have been educated.
Do we want a genuinely robust and fair economy and stock market? Then we must first reorient our American and other societies from their corrupted ambience of mass taste, toward a more distinctly cultivated environment of thought and feeling. Indisputably, there is still great beauty in the world, but it would be best not to search for it at the bank, the brokerage, the classroom, or the shopping mall.
Adam Smith had argued, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), that a system of "perfect liberty" could never be based upon "mean rapacity," and "needless" consumption. On the contrary, said Smith, who remains a fashionable mainstay of conservatives, the laws of the market, driven by competition and a consequent "self-regulation" (including his famous "invisible hand"), demand a principled disdain for all vanity-driven consumption.
For Adam Smith, "conspicuous consumption," a phrase that would be used far more devastatingly later by Thorsten Veblen, could never be a proper motor of economic or social improvement.
In America, even in that part of Main Street that intentionally knows little of Wall Street, there is widening anxiety and palpable unhappiness. Taught that respect and success lie in high salaries, and corollary patterns of consumption, the American dutifully worships the commonplace. Why should it be otherwise? Galvanized by mostly patronizing and shamelessly vulgar entertainments, a lonely American crowd unhesitatingly follows a flamboyant but impotent ringmaster.
This "ringmaster," and the surrounding circus of public life, are most conspicuous in politics. Soon, Americans will turn yet again to another presidential election. Ironically, this falsely reassuring ritual will have no adequate effect upon what we have already become as a people, or even upon the essential durability of our financial markets.
Wall Street remains wholly dependent upon the self-destructive imitations of mass society. Such a mutually corrosive dependence or "synergy" can never succeed. Instead, we must first create conditions whereby each of us can feel important and alive without somehow surrendering to manufactured images of power and status. Without such altered conditions, millions of Americans and Europeans will continue to seek refuge from the excruciating emptiness of daily life in mind-numbing music, mountains of drugs, and oceans of alcohol. Insidiously, without impediments, the resultant brew will effortlessly overflow and drown entire epochs of art, literature, and sacred poetry.
Despite the endless noise and bravado, America is now generally an unhappy society, one where citizens can rarely find authentic meaning or satisfaction within themselves. Only this distinctly human problem of a socially crushed individualism can become the promising starting point for repairing what is fundamentally wrong with our broad economy and financial markets. All else is "epiphenomenal," or merely what philosophers since Plato have recognized as "shadows" of reality.
Were he alive today, Plato would call our economic problems a "sickness of the soul." Before Occupy Wall Street protestors continue to direct their anger at just the "usual suspects," a predictably futile exercise, they should first understand very basic logical distinctions between cause and effect. In matters of structural economic corruption, what now needs to be differentiated are underlying pathologies, and their visible symptoms.
"Pathologies" of engineered hyper-consumption are critical. In themselves, however, the "symptoms" of resultant unfairness and inequality, are never genuinely significant.
- Read Louis René Beres: Founding Fathers Would Not Approve of Occupy Wall Street
- See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street
- Read about 7 groups with reason to protest.
Corrected 02/16/2012: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Thorstein Veblen.