Limitless Greed + Inequality + Market Volatility + Unemployment = An Occupied Wall Street.

There’s a telling moment in Hollywood blockbuster ‘limitless’ that recently caught my attention. Through the powers of some unknown, untested drug, the handsome lead, played by Bradley Cooper, is able to substantially increase his brain capacity. In a bid to make money quickly, he turns to the stock market – but after a time buying shares based on press releases and balance sheets, he soon realises that share prices are really driven by rumour, speculation and gossip.

This is the stock market we have today. One that’s driven by speculation. Where risk taking combined with single-minded cattle-like behaviour results in a volatile market. A market plunging one day and jumping the next – although recently there’s been a lot more plunging. The skittish market is making it harder for the average investor (and there’s a lot of us) but is very lucrative for the traders and investment banks of the world. The Australian dollar, for example, recently crashed 12% from highs of US$1.10 to a 10 month low of US$0.95. This occurred over one month! A day few days has passed and it’s now at US$0.97. A huge jump. And the similarly volatile share market has collapsed to levels not seen since the ’08 GFC.

The fact is that this market is terrible for the average investor who has seen the value of their stock portfolio (or superannuation) plummet. But it is making a very small number of people money. A lot of money. Alessio Rastani, for example, now famously stated last week that he dreams of depressions and our current market conditions because the volatility means that money can be made (or for most people, lost) very, very quickly. He argued that it’s actually in traders’ best interests to keep the market this way. To keep the market volatile and unpredictable.

At the same time, the United States has never been so inequitable. Income for the average American has dropped to 1996 levels. Similarly, a report recently stated that 1 in every 6 Americans now live in poverty. An insane statistic.
Now contrast this grim picture with the ever growing wealth of the top 1%. Senator Bernie Sanders made an excellent speech to congress at the end of 2010 that detailed some of this appalling inequality. He says that in 2007 – as the middle class collapses – the top 1% of all income earners in the US made 23.5% of all income – more than the entire bottom 50% combined.

He goes on to say that the top 1/10th of that 1% (that’s the top 0.1%) earns about 12 cents of every dollar earned in America. Crazy. For a much better idea, watch the video below. It’s a bit long, but excellent.

But the greed that has brought on this latest crisis hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two related movements are finally starting to generate publicity and support. Hundreds of people are uploading their stories of middle class struggle to We are the 99%. The other is Occupy Wall Street, which is finally starting to get international media attention.

If you don’t know much about it, Occupy Wall Street is a very, very loose coalition of the frustrated, angry and disappointed. While it may have began life as a protest involving an angry motley of disempowered, disenfranchised, jobless students with Apple laptops and huge education debts, it has become a movement with national – and even international – support, participation and significance.

Initial Adbusters call to action.

It was initially organised by anti-advertising, anti-consumerist group adbusters who have been culture jamming since the late 1980’s. They sent out the call for an occuped Wall Street all the way back in July. Internet activists Anonymous and a US Day Of Rage also have played some part in the movements formation. According to the Occupied Wall Street Journal, most of the planning on the New York side has been done by the NYC General Assembly: a collection of activists, artists and students who were also involved in New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts.

The latest issue of The Occupied Wall Street Journal

The question is, with so many groups involved, who is making the decisions? And what are the movement’s demands?

In terms of decisions, it appears to have fallen to ‘the General Assembly’ which in their words is “a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought, and akin to the assemblies that have been driving recent social movements around the world in places like Argentina, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Soland so on. Working toward consensus is really hard, frustrating and slow.”

Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

This lack of clear leadership means that there isn’t a clear list of demands. The main gripes, however, are summed up by The Atlantic reporter Linda Hirshman. She compares the current WS occupation to the hugely successful 1987 Wall Street demonstrations that were in response to the growing AIDS epidemic. The 1987 ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) movement targeted Wall Street as the symbol of drug profiteering and other social evils:

The protestors now occupying Wall Street inveigh against other wrongs — economic inequality, corrupt government, stultifying loads of student debt. Like ACT UP, they benefit from being at the media center of the United States, New York City. Like ACT UP, they are propelled by a media-savvy strategy of leveraging police efforts to remove them into camera-ready images for the news. If they are half as successful as their predecessors in ACT UP, in five years, America will be transformed.

(in her article, she explains why this movement won’t be as successful as the last)

And while the it started out slowly, the movement has grown considerably since its humble September 17 beginnings. While it hasn’t quite attracted the 90 000 participants Adbusters hoped it would, it has very successfully garnered international media attention – especially after more than 700 protesters were arrested during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge last week. And one could argue that the movement has not yet peaked – in some respects, it appears to be growing. Sympathy protests are springing up around the US – in Boston, San Francisco and more – and internationally, even so far as Melbourne and Sydney. While it’s difficult to get any single number, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that numbers reached their peak during a protest through Lower Manhattan and that they continue to grow…

The fact that the group’s motivations and leadership are ambiguous does mean that it has the potential to appeal to a wide array of people, but in my opinion, this is its biggest problem. It’s hard to justify a protest that doesn’t offer any suggestions for change. Similarly, the lack of leadership allows for ‘policy hijacking’ and the proliferation of misleading information. An example of this occurred last week when the Occupy Wall Street’s supposed  ‘demands‘ – which were badly written and bordered on the ridiculous – were posted on the website. It turns out that they were only the suggestions of a single poster and not a representation of the movement’s ideals (as was widely reported). It only takes a few radicals to undermine the whole protest.

We are the 99%.

The media response itself is varied but I thought the following paragraph interesting and typical of the changing attitudes towards the movement. Personally, I found the initial coverage generally condescending, it’s beginning to change as more and more people get involved. This paragraph was taken from an article posted on CNN by Roland Martin:

Conservatives call this an assault on capitalism. No, Occupy Wall Street is about trying to bring some decency and honesty back to an industry that used to have some. Instead, what we have today are literal financial pirates trying to take the largest booty they can find. They don’t care about the long-term health of this country. It’s all about the next quarterly earnings reports and their massive year-end bonuses.

This fight that Occupy Wall Street is engaged in is nothing short of a battle for the soul of this nation. Are we going to continue to allow ourselves to be held hostage by the big banks? Will we continue to allow them to trample over us with their “too big to fail” attitude?

A key question is whether this movement has the momentum to stick around and generate some tangible policy changes. The Tea Party movement has been an undeniable success as it consistently energised supporters and had a real impact on republican and national policy. One of the reasons it was so successful is because it had very clear goals and aims – reducing government debt, smaller government, lower taxes, no public healthcare etc – and also had clear leaders and supporters – like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. The Occupy Wall Street movement clearly doesn’t yet have all these factors and whether it can generate the same long term support is yet to be seen.

In my opinion, however, it has a very good chance. All the key ingredients – greed, inequality, market volatility, unemployment – are there.

(by the way, if you couldn’t be bothered reading this whole post, you might as well watch this excellent video)