In Occupations, an echo of Reformation

A shoe shine chair is exposed to rain as the Occupy Wall Street protesters take shelter at their Zuccotti Park encampment on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. The protests, which started on Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators , who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange, has grown into a nationwide and international movement. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
A shoe shine chair is exposed to rain as the Occupy Wall Street protesters take shelter at their Zuccotti Park encampment on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. The protests, which started on Sept. 17 with a few dozen demonstrators , who tried to pitch tents in front of the New York Stock Exchange, has grown into a nationwide and international movement. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Posted: October 28, 2011

Occupy Wall Street continues to sprout branches across America and the rest of the developed world. It does so without clear leadership and despite its amorphous aims because it's not a movement so much as a vigil.

At the root of the phenomenon is a frustration and even revulsion at the measurement of people according to their financial worth alone - at the rise of what might be called "economic man." The vigils await a reformation and transformation of our society into a more compassionate and humane one - a process that can't be quantified by the calculus of profit.

In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is akin to Martin Luther's nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses to a cathedral door on a Halloween nearly 500 years ago. The Occupiers could probably list 950 theses - so many and varied are their voices and causes - but the common denominator is a protest against the economic pollution of a system.

Luther preached against the buying and selling of indulgences, which were supposed to shorten Catholics' penance and time in purgatory. Today's protests, meanwhile, are against a system that quantifies individuals largely in terms of their ability to spend. After a great recession, credit panics, and bursting bubbles, we have become consumers unable to afford our personal indulgences. Occupy Wall Street, first proposed by the anti-consumerist online magazine Adbusters, will force us - willingly and unwillingly - to contemplate a cultural reformation.

From this process, movements will grow, new national leadership will emerge, and new courses will be charted. The conversation must have a beginning, and, as a humble college teacher, I suggest not quite 95 theses, but a few points of discussion.

Markets: Today's equities are bought and sold as indulgences once were - as a way to safety and salvation. Every kind of myth is invented to force participation in this game, whose real winners are the investment banks and brokers who make daily profits using the capital supplied by Americans.

Stocks can be as difficult to comprehend as the theology behind indulgences. Remember Lucent, the widely held market darling? Where did its underlying value go? Americans must stop being encouraged to pour money into this casino.

Pensions: Of course, IRAs, Keoghs, and employer-sponsored retirement plans are the perfect vehicles for continually resupplying the stock market. In our unstable times, the defined-benefit pension - which guarantees a certain income for one's postretirement life - has been gutted and posted on balance sheets as savings for shareholders. To counter these trends, in addition to Social Security, we need government-protected retirement savings plans that citizens can fund themselves, with reasonable interest rates and cost-of-living adjustments.

Work: When will Americans wake up and see the dignity in all kinds of work? Martin Luther King Jr. died in Memphis while attempting to help dignify the work of garbage collectors through respectable wages. It might be contrary to conventional economic wisdom to do the same for landscapers, nannies, and other service workers, but consider the benefits of putting Americans to work in jobs that are now outsourced or held by illegal immigrants.

We will keep the vigil, for we are human, and in the course of human events, governments are established to promote the general welfare. I don't want to be merely an economic man. I am and want to remain an American. This is my thesis, and I'll nail it anywhere.


Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology. He can be reached at slaccett@stevens.edu.

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