Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the Stumbles of Left Democracy

In this excellent column Anne Applebaum makes two important points about the recent wave of protests in both America and Europe. First, the protesters everywhere feel alienated from the normal course of democratic politics.
In New York, marchers chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” but actually, this isn’t what democracy looks like. This is what freedom of speech looks like. Democracy looks a lot more boring. Democracy requires institutions, elections, political parties, rules, laws, a judiciary and many unglamorous, time-consuming activities, none of which are nearly as much fun as camping out or chanting slogans.
As she notes, there is actually at least one good reason why the protesters are not interested in the rigamarole of democracy:
Yet in one sense, the international Occupy movement’s failure to produce sound legislative proposals is understandable: Both the sources of the global economic crisis and the solutions to it lie, by definition, outside the competence of local and national politicians. . . . The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is therefore not an accident: It reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution. Democracy is based on the rule of law. Democracy works only within distinct borders and among people who feel themselves to be part of the same nation. A “global community” cannot be a national democracy. And a national democracy cannot command the allegiance of a billion-dollar global hedge fund, with its headquarters in a tax haven and its employees scattered around the world.
Globalization increases the sense that much of what matters in our lives is not under our control. As studies of stress show, feeling out of control is very bad for us. So if whether we get to keep our jobs depends, not on how hard we work or on how well our own organization performs, but on decisions made in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Brussels -- if we have no chance of influencing those outcomes, even through the government that is supposed to represent us -- that pretty much sucks.

I think that for Americans, at least, the fear of globalization is overblown. The United States is big enough to have a huge impact on how global trade is conducted and similar issues. But if you ask what we ought to do with that power, you enter a political war zone. And not only do the two parties slug it out over this in every election, only one side knows what it wants. American conservatives believe in the free market. What do American liberals believe in? I cannot think of an answer that would fit into a long paragraph, let alone into a slogan. Speaking just for myself, I think that capitalism is dynamic but inherently unfair and we should use the power of the government to smooth out the unfairness and make sure that everyone gets a fair deal. Yet I am deeply suspicious of regulation as a way of accomplishing anything, and I think our government is bloated and in important ways insane. So I waver back and forth between supporting schemes to rein in capitalism (e.g., regulation of Wall Street) and feeling like we are drowning in bureaucracy. If you have never seen the amount of paperwork Sarbanes-Oxley (our post Enron law) requires for two publicly traded companies to form a joint venture, you probably would not believe it. I think we ought to use taxation instead of regulation in many cases (e.g., tax carbon emissions instead of regulating them) but Americans as a group are so fed up with paying taxes that they can easily be whipped up to vote out anyone who even proposes raising their taxes (as opposed to those on other people).

I do not believe that anyone knows how to create an economy that is both dynamic and fair. At Occupy Wall Street they oppose the huge bonuses of Wall Street firms, but what can anyone do about it? Schemes to limit what companies pay in compensation strike me as unworkable and doomed to fail. I think we can do better at creating a more just world, starting with a real national health insurance scheme. But I don't think anyone knows how to go about building the sort of world I and most other liberals would like to see. Hence the frustration.

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