Pop Culture Under a Microscope

Occupy Wall Street: Demanding What They’ve Earned

There is a theme I’ve been noticing in much of the criticism of Occupy Wall Street. It is something along these lines: protesting economic inequality is just outspoken jealousy; the protesters are demanding something they haven’t earned. This theme underlies Herman Cain’s famous comment, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself”(1) ; it’s the basis of Dave Ramsey’s contention that those who believe in “spread[ing] the money around” are thieves (2). And it is also behind hundreds of misguided comments on Facebook and elsewhere, like this one made by an acquaintance of mine from high school: “Occupy People, Go home. Protesting greed while you want what you haven’t earned. Life is not fair, those with the intelegence [sic] and capacity for making money make it. Banging on bongo drums and not showering just shows what kind of low life freeloaders you all are.” Even aside from the gross generalizations, I think this reasoning is pretty bizarre, and I’d like to try to unpack it a bit.

Defining wealth as a simple issue of who has earned it and who has not obviously overlooks those who don’t fall easily into either category—those who inherited their wealth, as well as those who have acquired it through criminal behavior or other forms of exploitation. I doubt most vocal critics of Occupy Wall Street would publicly defend criminal activity as a way to “earn” one’s wealth, but they tend to ignore this group as a primary target of the protests (which it certainly is). Ramsey, for example, claims that “When someone takes my money and gives me no say in the matter, that’s called theft—whether they’re using a gun or the government,” but for some reason he applies this logic only to the protesters, not to the powerful few who “used the government” (among other things) to create the profound economic inequality we now face. One might expect conservatives to try to distance themselves from the worst offenders, but in order to characterize a diverse group of protesters as uniformly lazy and envious, the country must be divided into two mutually exclusive categories: those who work hard and succeed, and those who do not and fail. It is easier to pretend that the protesters simply hate all rich people than to acknowledge that they have a point.

The idea they are clinging to is that our society is a meritocracy: those who succeed have done so because of their “merits”—typically intelligence, education, perhaps ingenuity (and perhaps also, though not necessarily, outstanding work ethic and dedication). It is furthermore assumed, I guess, that if someone has not succeeded, they either do not possess the necessary merits or they have just not persisted long enough yet. (Lots of long-suffering people believe their hard work will pay off eventually, despite all evidence to the contrary.) I think this is also wildly wrong, but I want to hold off on that point for now to consider whether even a well-functioning meritocracy is fair. Now, at the micro level, everyone is in favor of meritocracy. It is hardly controversial that any given job, for example, should go to the most qualified candidate. But Michael Young, who coined the term in 1958, meant it as a bad thing, and I too would argue that it is an unsustainable model for an entire society.

The problem is that this idea of “earning” your wealth obscures the fact that a meritocracy is not really an open system, no matter how hard one works at it. Millions of people work extremely hard every day and still barely get by (or don’t). It is not simply hard work that determines monetary rewards, or our economic demographics would look considerably different. There is a hint of acknowledgement of this in the comment of my Facebook friend, above. He says that the Occupy movement is guilty of “Protesting greed while you want what you haven’t earned,” and then says, “Life is not fair, those with the intelegence and capacity for making money make it.” These two adjacent sentences perfectly highlight the tension in this idea of wealth as necessarily earned: the protesters haven’t earned it, and the way they have failed to do so is by lacking “intelligence” and “capacity for making money.” But intelligence and aptitude are not earned or learned qualities. Many people simply don’t have them, and there is nothing they can do to change that.

Even to the extent that you can increase your intelligence or capacity—through schooling, for example—the ability to do this is greatly determined by the economic status you were born into. If you’re really poor, you likely won’t make it to college at all; if you are middle class, a state university might be within reach, but not Harvard Business school and the connections and prestige that comes with it. Sure, the Harvard Business school graduate must do certain things to get accepted in the first place and to earn his success once he gets there—it doesn’t just happen automatically. But it is false to imply his success is simply, entirely earned. Most of us could jump through all the same hoops he did, and we would not end up a senator or the CEO of Merryl Lynch. Even when a meritocracy works, it leaves a lot of people out.

So why should we care about this? As my Facebook friend says, life isn’t fair; “meritocracy” implies that not everyone can succeed. The problem is that we’ve become an all-or-nothing sort of system. Lately, if your hard work doesn’t make you successful, not only will you never be wealthy, but you may not be able to find a job at all, or if you do, you may not make enough money to get by. The only people who can succeed are those who possess certain merits——and we KNOW not everyone is able to possess those merits. In other words, if you have the misfortune to be born stupid, you may just have to die. If you were born poor, have no connections, or simply lack the willingness to exploit others, you may be in the same boat. There are no viable alternatives for many of those who don’t have the “capacity” for making lots of money–you have not “earned” the right to be rich, and therefore (in our current system) you have earned no rights at all.

Now, stupidity may be one of the few natural attributes it’s still accepted to make fun of, but are we really comfortable saying that stupid people (or disabled people, or idealistic people, or yes, even lazy people) actually deserve to starve? Or to watch their families become homeless?

This is what the protest is about: despite the fact that millions of Americans work their asses off every day, for most of them there is no possibility to get ahead. They are losing their jobs; they are losing their homes and their savings even if they still have jobs. Meanwhile, our government gave away money—our money, taxpayer money—to “bail out” the big banks and reckless investors who caused the economy to tank in the first place. Not only is there no such thing as a “bailout” for struggling Americans, there’s not even a such thing as a living wage for many: people are working long hours at difficult jobs, and their work is creating profit—but instead of passing this prosperity along in the form of decent wages, companies choose to pay more and more to their top executives. It’s not someone else’s money the protesters want, it’s THEIR money, and it’s already been “redistributed” to the wealthy.

This is where the logic of the Occupy critics completely breaks down. Negotiating for a bigger share, for a better life, isn’t the same thing as begging for a handout. It’s a form of working within the “market,” of using their strategic acumen to maneuver for what they need. The factory worker who demands a larger salary isn’t thieving someone else’s money, he is a business partner negotiating: his labor helped create that profit. The 1% used their influence and intelligence to get what they wanted for themselves; the protestors have finally found their own way to do the same. And they only want what’s fair. They’ve earned it.


[1]”Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Cain said. “It is not a person’s fault because they succeeded, it is a person’s fault if they failed. And so this is why I don’t understand these demonstrations and what is it that they’re looking for.” Bingham, Amy.  “Herman Cain Tells Occupy Wall Street Protesters to ‘Blame Yourself.'” 5 Oct 2011.

[2] Ramsey, Dave.  “Dear Occupy Wall Street …A Message From Dave Ramsey.”  19 Oct 2011.

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  1. This may interest you, Frank Miller, the creator of Sin City etc.: Kind of makes Cain sound like a moderate 🙂

  2. And on a serious note, anyone who still believes we live in a meritocracy has never seen something like Hoop Dreams, a movie that is not at all about basketball.

  3. Why does it not surprise me that Frank Miller is so reactionary?

    You don’t think we live in a meritocracy at all? I was thinking of it as a place where certain “merits” are definitely still rewarded, just not ones we necessarily want to acknowledge.

  4. I mean the general idea that anyone can become a CEO if they just work hard enough is flawed (like you said). Of course on some levels the idea is sound (though it gets into a dangerous Randian elitism that doesn’t seem to work well with human nature), it’s just not nearly as simple as most of its supporters would like to pretend.

  5. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that while there were “bad actors” that needed to be “found and plucked out”, he believes that targeting one industry or region of America is a mistake and views encouraging the Occupy Wall Street protests as “dangerous” and inciting “class warfare”.

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