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We’ve been at war for decades now—not just in Afghanistan or Iraq but right here at home. Domestically, it’s been a war against the poor, but if you hadn’t noticed, that’s not surprising. You wouldn’t often have found the casualty figures from this particular conflict in your local newspaper or on the nightly TV news. Devastating as it’s been, the war against the poor has gone largely unnoticed—until now.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has already made the concentration of wealth at the top of this society a central issue in American politics. Now it promises to do something similar when it comes to the realities of poverty in this country.
By making Wall Street its symbolic target, and branding itself as a movement of the 99 percent, OWS has redirected public attention to the issue of extreme inequality, which it has recast as, essentially, a moral problem. Only a short time ago, the “morals” issue in politics meant the propriety of sexual preferences, reproductive behavior or the personal behavior of presidents. Economic policy, including tax cuts for the rich, subsidies and government protection for insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and financial deregulation, was shrouded in clouds of propaganda or simply considered too complex for ordinary Americans to grasp.
Now, in what seems like no time at all, the fog has lifted and the topic on the table everywhere seems to be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism. The protesters have accomplished this mainly through the symbolic power of their actions: by naming Wall Street, the heartland of financial capitalism, as the enemy, and by welcoming the homeless and the down-and-out to their occupation sites. And of course, the slogan “We are the 99 percent” reiterated the message that almost all of us are suffering from the reckless profiteering of a tiny handful. (In fact, they aren’t far off: the increase in income of the top 1 percent over the past three decades about equals the losses of the bottom 80 percent.)
The movement’s moral call is reminiscent of earlier historical moments when popular uprisings invoked ideas of a “moral economy” to justify demands for bread or grain or wages—for, that is, a measure of economic justice. Historians usually attribute popular ideas of a moral economy to custom and tradition, as when the British historian E.P. Thompson traced the idea of a “just price” for basic foodstuffs invoked by eighteenth-century English food rioters to then already centuries-old Elizabethan statutes. But the rebellious poor have never simply been traditionalists. In the face of violations of what they considered to be their customary rights, they did not wait for the magistrates to act but often took it upon themselves to enforce what they considered to be the foundation of a just moral economy.
Being Poor by the Numbers
A moral economy for our own time would certainly take on the unbridled accumulation of wealth at the expense of the majority (and the planet). It would also single out for special condemnation the creation of an ever-larger stratum of people we call “the poor” who struggle to survive in the shadow of the overconsumption and waste of that top 1 percent.