Last night I was at 16 Beaver Street (just off Broadway, two blocks south of Wall St) on the 5th floor of a 19th -century building, introducing myself to the people who plan the street theater that is OWS. There were about 60, maybe more people in the room, a loft-like place with wavy wooden floors, and I guess it was an audition, because at around 5:00 the press team guy who had asked me to speak—Mark Bray, see OWS IV—sent me to the front of the room, having explained that I should tell everybody who I am and what I planned to say the next morning, when the march to Goldman Sachs would start from across the Big Red Cube in the Harry Helmsley Square below the Brown Brothers Harriman building that towers over Zucchotti Park.
That was quick, I passed the test, and then it got fun, talking about and even rehearsing the Vampire Squid metaphor inherited from the brilliant Matt Taibbi, he of inimitable Rolling Stone hyperbole. The plan was to march to Goldman the next day at 7:30 (!) and there stage a pseudo-press conference with the head Squid staffed by translators and fake members of the Press.
This morning I roll out of bed at 5:30 to make sure I get a shower and a subway, also breakfast, and I’m on the train by 7:00, gloves on because it’s that cold, and I get there in plenty of time having come just from 14th Street, and I realize that my remarks are supposed to start these pretty festive proceedings so I get a little nervous, but I calm myself by counting uniformed cops (last count: 46 just in Helmsley Square, about a third of the crowd’s number, we could factor in the 11 police vehicles within 50 yards and the 4 security guards manning the barricades of Zucchotti Park, who kindly explained that you enter at only two openings), eating a glazed donut, and watching the people, who all seem quite happy to be here. I have to be uptown at 9:00 for a radio interview, so I get a little more nervous nonetheless.
The drums start at about 7:45, banners get unfurled, and people start dancing for god’s sake. The seriousness of my remarks will surely go unnoticed. And now the ontological question dawns on me: mic-check or no, lecture or discussion, here’s the thing or this is the thing you already know and I’m just putting it into words we can use hereafter? Mic-check, of course, because now I’m thinking, this call and response is what the ancients meant by rhetoric, what Walter J. Ong conjured as orality, what Christpher Small named musicking, and what musicians call the blues. No choice in the matter.
Here’s more or less what I said, in five words at a time that were not just reproduced but distorted, improved, amplified, and made surreal by the sound of many voices. It took maybe four minutes.
“We all know why we’re here. We got three big problems. And two solutions.
Here are the problems. First, surplus capital, superfluous profits. Too much money in too few hands. Meaning too much profit turned over to the bankers, who don’t know what to do with it except inflate the next bubble, or sit on it, to the tune of 2 trillion bucks. They’re not criminals, they’re not fools, they just don’t know what to do with all this unnecessary income.
Where does it come from, this surplus? The redistribution of income from labor to capital, wages to profits, over the last 30 years. By the tax code. By the reduction of taxes on high-end incomes and corporate profits.
But also because profits as such are superfluous, they’re unnecessary for investment. They don’t create jobs, they don’t cause growth. The profit motive is what Keynes said it was: “a somewhat disgusting morbidity.”
Second, we’re subject to the boom and bust cycle of the last 30 years as a result. Economic crisis keeps happening, and the 99%, that would be us, keep paying for it.
Third, our economic future is in the hands of a tiny elite, an oligarchy—as if we lived in Eastern Europe in the 1980—with no goddamn clue about what to do with the excess profits at their disposal.
Two solutions, you already know them.
First, redistribute income toward wages, labor, consumption. That’s a start.
Second, socialize investment. That means re-regulation (reinstatement of Glass Steagall), to be sure. But well beyond this, we need to redefine profitability. To include social goals like incomes, jobs, and human capital. Will this investment create the kind of jobs we want? And what kind of individuals do we want to be?
It’s that simple.”