Occupy Wall Street has thrust the issue of extreme inequality into the spotlight. The movement has spread so quickly and alarmed politicians not because of its rather small encampments but because its message resonates. Most people know, or at least half-know, that our problem is growing inequality, and they also know that government is complicit in the financially driven capitalism that is in the driver’s seat. The slogan “We are the 99 percent” stresses our commonality and lays the basis for a movement ethic of democracy, inclusion and solidarity. This is a big and welcome step. After all, we need an ethic that goes beyond the incessant liberal (and union) talk of “the middle class.”
Still, the movement has to respond to the police sweeps of its encampments by becoming broader and more hard-hitting. It has to firmly include the vast number of people who have been marginalized by the rhetoric of American politics and by the realities of the American economy. In many places the homeless have joined the encampments. That is a beginning. But it’s not enough. To fully realize an ethic of inclusion, the poorest and most benighted Americans should become part of our protest movement. We need to increase their numbers at our demonstrations, and we need to undertake the protest actions that deal with their most urgent needs—including the attacks on the social safety net that hit them hardest.
To contemplate the possibility of a broad movement that embraces the tens of millions of the poorest Americans immediately raises the question of why the people who have been hurt the most by the trends of the past several decades have so far remained quiescent. I think the answer to that question is in the force of the blows levied on poorer people by our culture of insult, and the deliberate escalation of that insult over the past forty years. Of course, much about American life constitutes an insult to people who are poor, from religious doctrines that treat good fortune as a sign of heavenly favor and poverty as the reverse, to the insult implicit in the inability of people living on the edge to share in the obsessive shopping and consumption that constitute so much of our daily life. The politics of the past forty years has deeply aggravated the insult of poverty.
For a time in the 1960s, the upheaval in American politics caused by the rise of the black freedom movement softened the treatment of the poor by directing attention to what were called the “institutional” causes of poverty. Social scientists began to examine the roots of low wages and unemployment in labor markets, for example, or in patterns of educational or residential exclusion and discrimination. And political leaders called for new government interventions that would alleviate poverty by changing the practices of these institutions. Of course, any radical intervention in labor markets or schools or residential patterns promised to provoke fierce resistance, as experience soon showed. An easier way to intervene was by expanding safety net programs. The result was that in a few short years, from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, our programs for income support, housing assistance, nutritional supplementation and assistance to the aged and disabled all expanded. However, the moment of (limited) enlightenment did not last. The black freedom movement and the sister movements it inspired subsided, and once they did, the poor became the foil in the efforts of an increasingly determined Republican-business coalition to gain uncontested state power.