04 December 2011

Political Theorists on OWS (1) - Bill Connolly

Theory & Event

Volume 14, Number 4, 2011 Supplement

What Is To Be Done?

William E. Connolly

Occupy Wall Street, or better described, the 99% movement, represents a delayed reaction to the political economy of inequality, crisis, military adventurism, and corporate authoritarianism of the last 30 years. It carries the potential to energize the democratic left, to pull Obama and Blue Dog Democrats toward the left, to mobilize local energies, and to awaken a yet larger section of the American populace. Its immediate adversaries are Wall Street, the volatility of unregulated capitalism, Republican blockage of corporate regulation, jobs programs and existing tax policies, the right edge of the evangelical movement, the lack of labor and consumer representation on governing boards of most firms, the diffidence of the democratic party, campaign laws that flood the air waves with right wing disinformation, the right wing majority on the Supreme Court, and a 24-hours news media that uses distraction and scandal mongering to draw attention from the plight of the urban poor. The dynamics of this critical movement deserve much closer attention, but that will not be my focus today.

One question the media poses, now that it can no longer simply ignore this movement, is, "What do these people want?" "What do they stand for, anyway?" Below are a few interim answers to such questions. The interim answers are definitely at odds with the pure market fantasies of neoliberal capitalism. But they are compatible with capitalism per se, understood as production for profit, contractual labor, the primacy of the commodity form, a significant degree of competition between firms, and a large role for the state. A large state? In actual fact, every advanced capitalist country has a large state; they vary in the extent to which they support egalitarianism, unemployment benefits, health care, and sustainable modes of consumption over huge prison expenditures, intensive crime control policies, and gargantuan military budgets on the other. Capitalism per se has serious problems, dangers and limits, but that is not the focus now. Some policy responses, then:

1. A minimal objective is to transform the tax code so that capital gains taxes, now set at 15%, are equalized with other taxes. If you earn, say, over $300,000 in income, your capital gains will be taxed at the same adjusted rates as your income tax. This reform means that incomes gained from work and investment are treated equally. A much more progressive tax system is also required. And a transaction tax on derivatives is required that could bring in a few hundred billion over a decade, even as the myth that low taxes for the rich generate high productivity must be exposed. And the indispensability of the state must be acknowledged by the shape of a progressive tax system.

2. Banks must be required to set aside much bigger deposits for the loans they make, to reduce the chances of another bank induced world collapse. Investment and savings banks must be separated once again, prohibiting the casino approach to investment by banks. Housing foreclosures, most of which have been created by a crisis started at the top, can be stopped by renegotiating loans. Unemployment insurance must be extended.

3. State policies must be introduced to press banks and corporations to invest the huge amount of capital they have on hand. How? One approach would be to reward institutions that invest their funds in productive ways with modest tax breaks while hitting those which curtail growth with tax increases. As this is done, it is essential to publicize to the broader populace how the most immediate barrier to job growth today is the current unwillingness of private institutions to invest their capital.

4. A general jobs program, alone, is not sufficiently focused. State action must aim at reconstituting the general infrastructure of consumption that now sets the frame of possibility in which everyday consumption is set. By building fast transit systems, trolleys, trains, and bike paths you shift a large portion of current state expenditures and subsidies from roads, highways and airports toward more egalitarian alternatives; you open up new possibilities of production; and you introduce less expensive consumer choices for travel. By creating a state health care system you increase the competitive position of America in the world (in which most advanced countries have such systems); you relieve these burdens from consumers and businesses; and you improve the long term health of the populace. By subsidizing and publicizing food production that is healthy you provide new jobs for many as you reduce the medical costs and health burdens of the populace. By providing incentives for sustainable and efficient energy production you increase the independence of the country, decrease pressure for military expenditures, speak to the desires of innumerable consumers, and take important steps to forestall climate warming. Such a list can be extended indefinitely, with each item to be judged by its capacity to equalize the ability of citizens to participate in the larger

5. What else besides tax policy and significant shifts in the established infrastructure of consumption can be done to reduce the extreme inequality we now have? Well, one answer is to set up competition between firms in each large sector-- including health care, automobile production, banks, universities, schools, police forces, and so on, so that the firms in each sector that make the most progress in reducing the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers receive tax credits. Then, as the most successful firms in each domain demonstrate the possibilities available, other firms in that zone can be given penalties and incentives to meet it. Think of this as policies aimed at the income distribution system that replicates some of those applied now, with so much fanfare, to welfare recipients. Given the examples of other countries, such as Denmark, Canada, Germany and Japan, there is ample room in the States to promote both a highly productive economy and a much less unequal one. In fact, the two go together, no matter what Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Mitt Romney keep saying everyday.

This, of course, is merely a preliminary set of programs. And the 800-pound gorilla of global warming has not even been mentioned. But even it will take a broad based, highly energized movement to push it through. It, of course, sounds outrageous to those who pretend that they favor a small state while in fact supporting a huge, punitive, military state system tethered to the fantasy of unregulated capitalism. But an unregulated economy and a small state is in fact discernible nowhere; the fantasy of it keeps getting punctured by each new crisis. And, increasingly, it has lost its power to convince. New experiments and adventures are required.

We have not noted here a series of small and local initiatives and movements that are also critical to the success of the 99% movement. They are at least as important, generating the initiatives and energies needed to keep this movement alive. It is when local initiatives, larger social movements, church assemblies, blog activity, university teach-ins, and state policies amplify each other that things will start moving.


William E. Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches political theory. His recent books include Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008); and A World of Becoming (2011). In Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, he argued that the "evangelical-capitalist resonance machine" is carrying us to a probable crisis, and addressed a militant politics to respond to it. He is currently working on a book entitled The Fragility of Things, the first chapter of which will appear in Theory & Event in early 2012, under the title "Steps toward an Ecology of Late Capitalism." Connolly can be reached at pluma@jhu.edu

Copyright © 2011 William E. Connolly and The Johns Hopkins University Press

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