As I listen to the news about the fledgling movement known as “Occupy Wall Street” part of me is delighted. There is a direct, common sense being applied here that is so often missing in the spin of our political world. A glaring problem in our society is that 1% of the people in the United States control 42% of our wealth, according to statistics from 2007 (see charts below), and 5% of us control almost 70% of our wealth. Add to this the near 300% growth in after tax income for those 1% over the past 30 years, and the yearly incomes of the top .01% , so called “war profiteers” which boggle the mind at over twenty million dollars!
I consider going down there for a moment to lend my support and voice my outrage, and then I remember the carrots still needing to be harvested in our garden, the potatoes and apples to be put into our root cellar for winter, and the firewood I need to cut for next winter.
Over thirty years ago now, I chose to remove myself as much as possible from a system that made no sense to me, where corporations control our choices and governments cater to corporations. I saw where it was headed, and today it is no surprise to me that the system is breaking down – with extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, while 80% of us are struggling to make ends meet.
My concern for the courageous few protesters occupying public spaces in our largest cities is that angry outrage is the easy part. We have been here before and seen how protesting against something only goes so far. It is relatively easy to know what we do not want, and this is a good beginning. However, it is much harder to know what we do want and have a real way to get there.
Weeding the Roots of the Problem
My suggestion to this protest movement is to unhook from the system. That means providing for yourself what the corporations and governments provide for you now. This is where a movement like this can get traction. And this, of course, is the hard part.
Few corporations or governments are concerned with real democracy or strengthening the power of the people. Instead, we are blindly caught in a paradigm of competition where most of us are trying merely to secure our own individual survival, and this takes the obvious form of accumulating wealth and power- because it can.
If we each believe in this common assumption that we have to look out for ourselves and live in a world where our individual existence is constantly threatened, of course we will end up exactly where we are now. We can rage against the inequality, greed, and hypocrisy in our system, and change governments if we want. Yet if we do not change our basic assumptions, we will find ourselves here again all too soon.
Undoing Our Own Ego
The power that corporations hold over us is that they have what we want, and often need, for our survival. An obvious solution to this dilemma is for us to provide our needs for ourselves, and separate our basic needs from all the things we think we need or want. Much of our endless wanting comes from an out-of-control ego that tells us we are not enough or we are in danger, and compels us to grab for more. Even as we may decry the obvious greed and selfish behavior of the top one percent, we will find this same impulse within ourselves if we look honestly.
This is not to justify the extreme greed and aggressive behavior displayed by the corporate elite, but simply to acknowledge that most of us would do what they are doing, if we thought that we could. It may be moral restraint, political values, or “sour grapes” that keeps us from lunging for more wealth and power. Or it may be that we have given up, believing that we have no chance to compete for the top. Yet, this is not the same as rooting out our instinct for self-preservation and impulse for competition, which is arguably at the bottom of all this mess.
By suggesting something as radical as undoing our survival impulse, I am not saying that we should not care about ourselves. If we truly care about ourselves, and our long term well- being, it behooves us to recognize that we are part of a larger system that we depend on, and see that our survival depends on the survival of the whole. This is the missing insight in the rampant drive for more wealth that is tearing us apart at the seams.
Each honey bee in my hive knows that it cannot survive alone. When one of them happens to be caught outside the hive for too long, it withers and dies. We humans are like that too. We live in a world today that enables unprecedented personal independence and creates the illusion that we could make it here alone. Yet, if you consider this possibility for a moment, you will see that it is not so.
All of the things you depend on for your basic daily needs, such as food, shelter, warmth, clothing, and water, come mostly from other people. Left to our own devices, few of us could survive for long without the systems that support us now. And this takes me back to my original suggestion that we begin to take control of these systems back into our own hands.
Over the past century we have gradually been lured into total dependence on an industrialized economic system where money is needed to buy even the most basic necessities such as water or food. Without income, industrialized agriculture, corporate grocery chains, or municipal water, we would not last long. An obvious step in securing real freedom and independence is to take these basic systems back into our own hands. This does not mean we have to do everything for ourselves. It does mean that we need systems that are local and on a small enough scale that we can sustain them cooperatively within our own communities.
This is only a starting place. Real freedom comes when we know that we are part of a larger whole and our individual survival is not the “holy grail” worth fighting each other for. Each of us is temporary. Just like each bee and flower, we all eventually die. Where does all our accumulated wealth and power go then? What does it get us after this body is gone?
As we stand up to corporate greed and power, let us do so with wisdom and grace. Let us understand that “they” are “us” and we all share this shadowy ego that makes us do things which in the end do not really serve our best interests. We can say “no” to the greedy insecurity of others with more power and strength when we have effectively said “no” to our own greedy insecurity.
These charts and quotes below are taken from the internet and represent some version of how wealth is distributed in our society. Like any numbers, they can be argued and proven wrong from a different angle. I present them not as “absolute truth” but rather as an indication of where our society is going. Please consider these as a “wake up call” to motivate your own investigation. Even if these statistics are partially true, the situation they highlight is alarming and deserves our attention.
War industry CEOs make tens of millions of dollars a year, putting them in the top 0.01 percent of income earners in the U.S.
- Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush made $22.84 million last year.
- Lockheed Martin CEO Robert Stevens made $21.89 million.
- Boeing CEO James McNerney: $19.4 million.