The demonstrations are chaotic and the messages muddled. However, it would be false to write the New York protesters off as nutcases because they are quite rightly directing attention to America’s deep division. At present Wall Street is collecting everything, and the rest of the society receives nothing — and that must change as quickly as possible.
They have no leader and no set goals; just the feeling of being in the majority. “We are the 99 percent,” chant the young Americans who have taken to the streets of New York under the motto “Occupy Wall Street” for the past two weeks. Their protest is chaotic, and many of their messages are muddled; nevertheless, it would be wrong to write the protesters off as nutcases. They are directing attention to America’s deep division. For that alone they are due respect.
“We are the 99 percent:” With that, the protesters mean those who cannot pay their mortgages, those who fear for their jobs and those who must plunge themselves into debt just to get a college degree. The remaining 1 percent doesn’t know these worries. 90 percent of the national wealth is allotted to the sparse class of the super-rich; the gulf between them and the rest of the country hasn’t been so large since the days of the railroad barons.
This imbalance is increasingly developing into a heavy burden for American democracy. Wall Street is the feeding ground of the upper class. There, even mediocre bankers rake in millions in bonuses, failed bosses are dismissed with golden handshakes, individual hedge fund managers earn more than some industrial concerns, and when the speculative trading does not pan out, the taxpayers pick up the slack.
Even before the financial crisis, Citigroup analysts Ajay Kapur, Niall Macleod and Narenda Singh characterized the U.S. economy as a “plutonomy.” The upper class generates and consumes economic growth, leaving not much left for the rest.
Since the crisis, the contrasts have sharpened even further. Capital markets have recovered in spite of the recent turbulence, but the situation of most Americans has worsened. Real estate prices find no footing; the unemployment rate stagnates at recession level. The middle class is slipping down, faster and faster, deeper and deeper.
This process of erosion had already begun in the 1980s, when factories in the Midwest closed their doors. The American promise of being able to get ahead under one’s own power, however, has never sounded as hollow as today. Only graduates from elite universities still have advancement opportunities, but they are only open to the highly talented — and the already well-to-do. With that, the glue that holds U.S. society together is lost.
Protests on the Left as Well as the Right
Wall Street profits from all this because growing social division increases the demand for credit. How else can the house, car and the education of the children be paid for? Deep discontent spreads. The feeling creeps up on more and more Americans that their country is no longer governed for the good of the majority, but rather in the interest of a small elite.
That stirs up protests, not only on the left side of the political spectrum. The ultraconservative tea party is also a reaction to the loss of economic security; it just gives the wrong answers. Quite on good terms with the large industrialists who give the activists organizational and financial support, the tea party has prescribed a policy of deregulation. That formula would accelerate the decline of the middle class.
The Wall Street demonstrators oppose that. They move to the street for a more just America, even if they don’t exactly know how they want to achieve that. Some demand tax increases, others divestiture of financial groups. Both would help. What America needs most, however, is educational reform. If the wealth is unequally distributed, then at least advancement opportunities need to be preserved.