Galston and Gitlin on Occupy Wall Street
Having warned its liberal readers not to get too close to the crazy radicals of Occupy Wall Street, the New Republic has posted a series of responses on its Web site. Todd Gitlin — who, as a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, knows a thing or two about protest movements — expresses disappointment at TNR’s Beltway scrupulosity:
TNR’s editorial clucking at Occupy Wall Street suffers from weak sociological imagination compounded by wrongheaded stuffiness. Stamping your foot and demanding that the world conform to your standards—cram its demands into the formula you prefer, dress as you prefer, enunciate as you prefer, curb its radicals as you prefer—before you go out to play with it may be, to use the buzzword du jour, “understandable,” but it’s neither adequate to the situation nor helpful. In fact, it’s counterproductive. You do politics in the society you have, not the society you wish you had.
William Galston, a frequent TNR (and Commonweal) contributor, considers it a mistake to focus on the worthiness of Occupy Wall Street as a vehicle for discontent with the financial industry. It is, he argues, the discontent itself we ought to focus on instead — and the possibility that it might be channeled toward useful reform. The OWS protesters remind us of something that Rawlsian liberals and leftist radicals ought to be able to agree on: that the privileges enjoyed by the elite are intolerable if they come at the expense of the general welfare. Of course, radicals would say they usually or always do come at the expense of the general welfare; Rawlsian liberals would insist that they needn’t and often don’t — that the poor may be less poor in a society with some wealth inequality than in a society with none. But both sides agree with a majority of Americans that in the last decade at least the elites have failed the nonelites: for the most part, only the rich have become richer while many of the nonrich have become poorer. It is no longer enough for those at the top to assume that whatever makes them more comfortable will end up helping everyone else, too; they must demonstrate this. Galston puts it better:
Every community of any appreciable size has an elite—often more than one. Elites are tolerated, even respected, if the rest of the population sees them as using their wealth, power, prestige, and talents on behalf of the community’s interests, as well as their own. Elites are not expected to be saintly altruists, but they are expected to care about the rest of society, not just themselves.And that is the nub of today’s populist revolt.
It is very difficult to find anyone outside a couple of Manhattan zip codes who believes that the financial sector has added value to America’s economy and society over the past two decades. Financial “innovations” ended up expanding risk, not opportunity; the Masters of the Universe redivided the pie without noticeably expanding it. While wages stagnated, financial elites became untethered from the real economy and sailed off into the stratosphere of nine and ten-figure wealth. A capitalist economy loses credibility when its results diverge too far from public sentiments about decency and fairness.[...]
In 2009, at a time when one might have expected maximum feasible humility from financial leaders, Lloyd Blankfein opined that Goldman Sachs was doing “God’s work.” While he was limning a previously unnoticed theological equivalence between himself and Mother Theresa, Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International and also chairman of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Fund, was invoking John Rawls’s Difference Principle. In a 2009 discussion at St. Paul’s Cathedral, he had this to say about compensation in the financial sector: “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” And so we would, if it did. But where is the evidence that it does? I’m not even sure that Griffiths’ proposition was intended as a statement of fact. It seems, rather, like a ritual incantation designed to ward off evil spirits. If so, it has lost its protective powers.