Occupy Wall Street and the splinter protests that have appeared as extensions of it have proven to be both effective and ineffective. Their apparent effectiveness lies in the fact that they have successfully seized the attention of the corporate world and society in general. Their ineffectiveness lies in the fact that they do not seem to know what to do with that attention now that they have it. While the disorganization of the movement is understandable considering its general democratized and egalitarian attitude, it still leaves the movement weak and incapable of bringing about any real, lasting change. Although the protests may make corporate executives and hedge fund managers tread lightly for a while, as long as Occupy Wall Street has no identifiable demands, we cannot expect The Man to address those demands. Some may say that the movement’s single demand is a complete overhaul of the system, but that simply will not occur without violent revolution, and without a George Washington to stand as its unequivocal leader and then step down from his position of power as soon as the key transitional period has passed, any such revolution would only result in a different—and probably worse—type of corruption and tyranny. And in the absence of any such revolution, as the most die-hard protestors turn this occupation into their personal occupations, the Fat Cats will simply laugh and continue with the status quo. For these reasons, unless those who identify with this movement can adopt more practicable and focused methods of economic disobedience, the entire affair will amount to nothing more than the butt of jokes from Wall Street dandies for years to come.
The first step of effectively fighting evil corporatism is the acknowledgement that the corporate structure itself is not something intrinsically evil. The idea that the corporation is something diametrically opposed to democracy is ludicrous, because it follows the same basic model as most representative governments. The corporate model is actually much more similar to representative government than what we see from other business structures such as LLCs or LLPs, in which a single party or a small number of people call all of the shots. In a corporation, the shareholders are the registered voters, the board is the legislature, and the CEO is the prime minister or president. If the CEO manages the corporation in a poor fashion, he loses his job. Yes, this usually means the payment of a hefty severance, but we cannot say this is a worse model than what we see in government, as I am sure that the very liberals who complain about paying corporate executives for failure would have been happy to give George W. Bush a $10 million severance check at any point in his administration.
The comparison of the corporate model to the democratic model may appear inaccurate since only a relatively small number of people in this country own stock in any given “evil” corporation such as GE or Wal-Mart, while the decisions made by those corporations affect us all. However, let’s remember how many people in how many countries are affected by what voters in the United States decide. The interconnectedness of corporations and the decisions they make is not far different from the way various countries’ policies affect people in other countries. Thus, given the similarities in the ways corporations and governments run, it is perplexing that so many people think it is a good idea to take power from CEOs and corporate boards and give it to politicians and bureaucrats, essentially replacing the vices and corruption inherent in corporatism with the almost identical vices and corruption inherent in politics. However, while the corporate model is not intrinsically evil, it is true that some corporations, in their quest for profits above all else, do essentially become evil. If this situation persists, though, it is only because the general populace is either evil or apathetic.
Some will argue that the general populace is not responsible for the actions of corporations because corporations are not answerable for their sins in the way that officials in a representative government are. In ways, though, evil corporations can be much more susceptible to the will of the people than even the least corrupt of representative governments. A corporation is a beast that lives on profit. Unlike our federal government, it cannot continue accruing debt indefinitely: when the profit stops, it dies. While the critics of corporatism present this as the root of all problems in the corporate world, they should remember that it is also a fundamental weakness of any corporation that can result in its complete destruction. While a tyrant can rely on military and police forces to stay in power regardless of how poorly he manages national affairs, a CEO who does not deliver profit will invariably get fired. Since every corporation relies on the general population for its profits at some point down the line, this means that the ultimate power of any corporation lies not in the hands of the CEO, board, or shareholders, but in the hands of the people—regardless of how much the government regulates it. Thus, if the Occupy Wall Street protestors and those who identify with them want to bring about any real change, they must do two things: First, they must focus their efforts on specific corporations or executives that are actually evil rather than spouting generalized statements about the evils of corporatism. Second, they must learn to fight those evil corporations and unseat evil executives by becoming active consumer-voters and encouraging others to do the same.
While casting one’s vote in the private sector is not as straightforward or as simple as casting a vote in public elections, it can still be quite effective. For instance, if we were to say, hypothetically, that both Apple and Microsoft were evil corporations, we could all decide to cast our consumer votes by buying products preloaded with Linux. (Yes, they do exist.) This might mean using an operating system with certain limitations or an unfamiliar interface, but if we really believed that Apple and Microsoft were both evil organizations intent on the subjugation of all humanity, we would do it. The end result would invariably be a more versatile Linux operating system and two corporations that must either become more socially conscious or disappear. Regardless of how little corporations care about the people they step on in turning a profit, if consumers are truly willing to go on the offensive against evil corporations’ profits, evil corporations will act as if they do in fact care. For this reason, no amount of sign-waving or angry chanting will ever change the practices of any evil corporation unless it results in a drop in profits. Rather than trying to change corporations, those who oppose corporate evil should be trying to change consumers.
The single greatest challenge a consumer-voter faces is when he must deal with a monopoly or oligopoly, as such circumstances seemingly leave consumers without any options. In the case of monopolies, however, little disagreement exists between the views of the “right” and the “left”: Monopolies are detrimental to everyone except the monopolists, and the disarmament of monopolies is something that governments are responsible for. As for oligopolies, while they are not as susceptible to regulation, history has shown that they are much more difficult to maintain, as an oligopoly can fall apart as soon as one member decides to depart from the collective agreement due to individual interests. Consumer-voters can thus attack an oligopoly by focusing on one member of it, forcing that member to engage in more market-friendly practices for the sake of self-preservation. As soon as that member breaks from the ranks in this way, the oligopoly collapses.
Even when monopolies and oligopolies do exist, though, the power of the private consumer usually remains. For instance, even if the entire U.S. market relied on a single evil corporation to import all of its coffee, consumer voters could unite to take down this corporation—or cause it to drastically alter its socially irresponsible practices—almost overnight. This is because, believe it or not, coffee is not a necessity of life. In fact, some of us have never even tasted coffee. The same could be said for virtually any product originating from an evil corporation: we can resort to substitutes, pay higher prices to a small-time producer, or do without. If we really believed in building a better world by taking power away from mindless profit-gobbling monsters, we would find that there are actually few things that we truly “need” anyway.
While social developments over the past few decades have managed to empower profit- and power-hungry opportunists, we must realize that various developments have empowered the average consumer or voter as well. A recent example of this can be seen in the events surrounding the Arab Spring, in which protestors used technologies—most of them provided by corporations—to organize and execute anti-government movements. Social networking and other Internet-based technologies have made it relatively easy for us to circumvent the establishment, get the word out, and get people moving. Ironically enough, due to the corporate structure under which it largely exists, this establishment is actually much more democratized than ever before. For instance, if we all really cared about protecting our privacy from the prying digital eyes of the Facebook advertising system, we could use Facebook itself to organize and execute a mass migration to Unthink. The argument that there are too few people on Unthink for us to bother with it is identical to the argument that we should not waste our votes on “unelectable” non-establishment candidates for public office. Nothing will change unless people cast their votes—so cast your vote, either with your ballot or with your cash.
Despite their many legitimate concerns, the Occupy protestors hurt their case by harboring a number of ridiculous notions, such as the idea that 99% of us are disenfranchised serfs or that we would be better off under a communist system. A corporate employee with a $25,000 salary and health insurance has a higher standard of living and much more social clout than any serf ever did, and Germany, Korea, and China (with Taiwan) have proven—as clearly as anything can be proven in the study of economics—that capitalism always works better than the alternative, regardless of what you want to call the alternative. If specific problems exist in our current free-market system, rather than adopting a different system that has proven time and again to be less effective, we should utilize the tools already available to us to fix those specific problems. Instead of relying on donations to help them keep feeding corporatism even while they protest it, the Occupy protestors should be identifying the clearest examples of corporate evil and attacking them with the full force of public consumption. In the words of Cake, “Excess ain’t rebellion. / You’re drinkin’ what they’re sellin’. / Your self-destruction doesn’t hurt them. / Your chaos won’t convert them.” If we prove incapable of bringing about the necessary changes to our current system, this will occur not because the system is broken, but because we are broken, as we already possess all of the tools for change—we simply need to use those tools and convince others to do so as well. In simple terms, here are the essential practices and qualities that Occupy protestors and affiliates must adopt to become effective consumer-voters:
- Socially responsible consumption. Put your money where your mouth is—even if it means buying an expensive or inferior product. Or do without said product entirely. We cannot demand socially responsible production so long as we are socially irresponsible consumers.
- Thorough research. Use evidence from legal proceedings, consumer reports, activist groups, and legitimate university studies to identify evils in the corporate world and make your case. Verify all accusations made by other parties before proceeding. Do not rely on rumors or baseless conspiracy theories.
- Focus. Do not categorically condemn all corporations. It is much more effective to mount a successful offensive against the profits of a particularly heinous corporation than to hurl thin accusations in every direction. Even if the number of evil corporations seems daunting, such success on your part will cause other corporations to self-regulate anyway.
- Realism. Do not make ridiculous demands. While you may be able to convince a corporation to adopt more environmentally friendly production processes or create safer work environments, you will never convince the entire system to dismantle itself. Making such demands only wastes time, hurts the people you are trying to help, and destroys legitimacy.
- Organization. Network with others. While you may do this in a number of ways, the most effective method would be the Internet and social media.
- Follow-up. Report on any successes achieved. Such reports testify of the power of the consumer-voter.
Despite certain imbalances that exist, ours is not a system in which the average person is powerless. As consumers and as voters, we are largely to blame for the situation that exists, and we have the ability to change it in the ways that it needs to change without turning the whole world upside-down. First and foremost, as Gandhi advised, we must be the change that we want to see in the world. If we hate corporate greed, we must practice and advocate charity. If we hate corporate corruption and apathy, we must forsake personal corruption and apathy. If we expect others to act with us in fighting evil corporations, we must first help to instill these same values into their hearts. No amount of top-down restructuring of the system can create a perfect society out of imperfect people. That is because, like it or not, if we are the 99%, we are the system. Without any kind of fundamental change in the people, we are merely swapping one corrupt figurehead for another and creating another incarnation of the same beast.