Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The New Peasant Class

One of the major questions that has floated around the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is the simple "what do they want?" Obviously, we can answer this in abstract terms: economic justice, easing of burdens on the lower and working classes, and (slightly more concretely) accountability for the people who got us into this mess in the first place (namely, Wall Street). But there has been very little in the way of specific policy proposals. Indeed, even the overall ideology is fuzzy -- supporters range from Ron Paulites (they are everywhere, aren't they) to socialists and communists, to mainstream unions, to some Democratic politicians, to relatively apolitical Americans who are simply overcome with frustration. My friend Matt Cole makes a decent defense of this mode of operation -- not making "demands" of the system but rather expressing itself in a more "aesthetic" or expressivist sense.

But Rorty Bomb has done some interesting work parsing the "We are the 99%" tumblr to try and figure out what the movement wants. And the results are sobering. OWS is not about mid-twentieth century liberalism -- increasing unionization leading to the suburban house and the two-car garage. Nor is it about socialist revolution -- smashing the capitalist state and redistributing power and dignity to the workers. What the 99% want, RB argues, is decidedly pre-modern -- bearing most in common with historical peasant revolts. They want to be free from the burden of crushing debt, have access to enough resources so they're not consistently living hand-to-mouth. That's it.

To people who think OWS is the first step to the opening a new horizon, this is profoundly demoralizing. There is nothing bold about these desires. They are ancient and basic; if anything, they are the result of people too downtrodden to dream of anything more.

But at the same time, the very simplicity of what is being asked for here also gives it greater moral punch. Surely, in a country as rich as ours, with the bounty we possess, we can give them this much.


PG said...

We've established a method for people to get out from under "the burden of crushing debt." It's one of the distinctive aspects of the U.S. system: bankruptcy that allows people to clear the slate and start over, albeit with a poor credit score (but people refusing to lend you money does effectively prevent getting into debt).

However, bankruptcy isn't an option if your debt is in the form of a student loan. But I'm not sure I regard that as the "new peasant class" in a country where the majority of adults don't have a college degree. It's going to be difficult to persuade the majority of Americans that someone who assumed a massive amount of debt to go to a private college (instead of attending her state's public U) and now can't get a job that pays enough for her to repay her loans is particularly deserving of aid. I think this came up on one of the tumblr posts.

A lot of the posts are about student loan debt and make questionable assertions like "I’m scared of even getting a degree in what I love, because it won’t be 'useful.' All this in a country that says everyone has a right to education."

In fact, there's no right to education at a federal level, and even state-level guarantees only extend through high school. (I think this young lady confused the U.S. with Europe.) My parents are well-off enough that I could live with them for the rest of my life without getting a job, but I still felt obligated in college to have at least one major that would be 'useful' in getting a job, and thus even in a recession I got job offers. The offer that was a middle-class income (sufficient to have rented my own place, though I opted to live with roommates instead) was made because I'd studied economics and health care, not because I'd done some epic work on the inter-influences among various pre-WWII American writers and critics. (I know more than is decent about Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Cowley, et al.)

If even *I'm* skeptical that everyone has a God-given right to spend four years in college studying what she loves with taxpayers footing the bill, how the hell does she expect to persuade people who think a liberal education isn't important and regard academia with suspicion?

That's what frustrates me about Occupy Wall Street. Unlike some of America's great previous protest movements, including those dealing with economic concerns (e.g. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers), the OWS folks don't seem to be interested in persuading people who don't already agree with them. It really does seem to be an exercise in aesthetics and self-expression, which is nice but hardly deserving of great attention.

It's possible to gain the majority's sympathy when you're being treated worse than the majority -- when you're being discriminated against because of your race (as with MLK's March on Washington), or when you're being abused and paid a pittance while you do the work that feeds America (as with Chavez's strikes and boycotts). But if the grievances you assert are regarded as luxuries by the majority -- and yeah, I do think most Americans regard a degree in Classical Studies as a luxury -- you're representing the folks at the top of the 99%, not at the middle or bottom.

David said...

PG voices that old refrain for individual responsibility. Sure, there's no right to expensive education. But think about the issue from more than just a moral point of view. We have people who are going to be economically stunted for life just because they happened to graduate with student loan debt in a period of massive unemployment. People can be moralistic if they like, but to specifically think OWS folks deserve to be specific targets, they're just being stupid, and impractical. (Not to mention - when young educated dreamers are cut off from capital, innovation is stifled.)

Moreover, OWS is going to change a whole lot in the next few months, as vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed NYC'ers begin to get involved.

And then when the freelance and part-time economies explode when (and if) AAHCA goes into full effect... whoa. Protests like OWS are going to be with us for some time.

It's been coming. All it took is for a bunch of unemployed college kids to set it off. But it's not about them.

PG said...

No, it's not just a matter of individual responsibility. It's a matter of class privilege. If your big complaint is that you have debt from getting a college degree, and the majority of adults don't have such a degree -- especially not a BA from a private college or major public U -- then many of them will perceive you not as failing in individual responsibility, but as a privileged whiner. And I would have thought the left, given fondness for "calling out privilege," would have noticed this by now.

when young educated dreamers are cut off from capital, innovation is stifled.

Which is a good argument for things like Peter Thiel's $100K grants, not for taxpayers footing the bill for me to study American literature. The standard viewpoint even at liberal publications like the NYT is not that anyone who gets into NYU should go for free to study whatever she likes, but that NYU and other expensive schools have failed in their responsibility to inform students and parents about the improbability that a religious/women's studies major will make enough money after graduation to pay back the loan easily. (And this faulting of schools and the educational loan industry for letting people borrow more than they can afford is something with which I wholeheartedly agree.)

A liberal education is a luxury, not just in the eyes of many Americans but from an international perspective. In most other countries, for example, both law and medicine are undergraduate degrees. My dad was a practicing physician in India by the time he was 23. My sister is 27 and just started her residency, which I think will be the beginning of her making enough money to support herself. Personally, I'd prefer that we give more financial support to people going into health care because we need a lot more of them but also need them to work at lower wages. But that's a preference based on, uh oh, usefulness.

Matt said...

Actually, English majors usually do well in the job market because their communications skills are very much useful. We might also argue that, from the standpoint of promoting a healthy democratic society with lessening rather than growing inequality and the stability (perhaps even prosperity) that engenders, "usefulness" isn't such a useful criteria.

PG said...

What do you base that on? The jobs I was offered after college that had the best salary and benefits were made because I had studied economics and/or healthcare. No one looked at my study of literature and said "this is why we want to hire you," whereas my Economics of Welfare Reform got me the interview for the job I ended up taking. This was at the tail end of the last recession. Yes, lots of people at top schools who were English majors ended up getting good jobs -- I've been told by people who graduated from Ivys prior to 2007 that I-banking recruiters would interview people regardless of major -- but that's because the undergrad admission process had already produced schools of people who would work hard and could think analytically. Having to do more hard work and analytical thinking and successful communication in college no doubt honed those skills, but I have no reason to think a Harvard English major had better prospects than a Harvard history or sociology major.

I don't think usefulness promotes inequality. It promotes stability. Not to get too Tiger Mom here, but the stereotypical Asian parent pushes her kid to study business, math and science subjects because they lead to relatively stable, UMC lives. Some subgroups prefer professional careers (this is the tendency for people where my family's from), others promote owning your own business (hence the Patel-hotel correlation -- the NYT noted several years ago that about 1/3 of all hotels and motels in the US were owned by a Patel). In neither case does the parent claim that this path will lead to great riches, because generally it doesn't. People who make lots of money took big risks and that goes against stability. But being an engineer or a doctor or owner of a couple gas stations will pay the mortgage, put money in a college fund and allow you take in your parents (just as your kids have been raised to think that they owe you and have an obligation to care for you in old age).

This all sounds horribly dreary relative to the Steve Jobs ethos that you must follow your heart and change direction if you have more than a few days in a row of not enjoying what you're doing. But it's an ethos of survival, of minimizing the likelihood you'll ever be sitting on $100k of debt and no job and no assets. It's collectively bad for America, because our main exports are of intellectual property, and IP relies heavily on people who take risks -- who make music, film and TV, or innovate new products -- but it's good for the self preservation of individuals. Yes, we need people to be musicians and writers and actors, but there are 100 starving artists for every success. It's risk that creates inequality, not a preference for usefulness.

David said...

PG -

That you've appropriated an academic-left language to make a tired point doesn't make the point any less tired.

I work with a lot of tradespeople. They don't begrudge the protesters. Quite a lot of them worked hard for years to put their kids in a position of relative privilege. Anger at the failure of that dream doesn't offend, it saddens.

BTW, my (peak) $30,000 student loan debt will be paid off in 5 months. I don't have a dog in this fight.

PG said...

Sure, at the moment OWS polls a majority or near-majority of support among people who have heard of it. Angry at Wall Street? Sure, who isn't? But at the point that OWS articulates actual policy preferences like "I should get a free college education," I doubt that will continue. (just as the Tea Party had decent approval ratings before their ideas got clarified and publicized)
Even The Daily Show, which is broadly sympathetic to its own audience (disaffected college-educated young liberals) ran a segment on how the business owners around the protest were frustrated by the protesters using the bathrooms, making a mess by trying to wash themselves or their clothes in the sinks, and not having the common courtesy to buy something from the business. If even that minority of entitled protesters is seen as not being checked or shamed by the larger group, then that behavior will be seen as typical (like the marginal-but-tolerated-until-noticed-by-media racism in the Tea Party).
There's also the level of self righteousness that motivates some OWS supporters to tell anyone who's skeptical to sit down and shut up, but hopefully that too is a minority tendency.