Social ethicist Gary Dorrien talked to Century executive editor David Heim after writing his cover story on "the case against Wall Street." Read the article (subscribtion required).
you been a part of any of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations?
I've taken part in several
demonstrations and talked to people at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square. My chief
impression is the one that I highlight in the article: I'm struck by the
ideological, economic, racial and ethnic diversity of the protesters. The group
that sleeps at the park has a higher quotient of anarchists than the crowd that
gathers each day, and there are felt distinctions between the occupiers and the
larger crowds that show up to demonstrate and hang out. But the sheer diversity
of the gatherings makes the point that a great many people from nearly all
walks of life are fed up with the system and with typical liberal attempts to
Occupy Wall Street movement is sometimes compared to the social movements of
the 1960s in its youthfulness and its focus on egalitarian process--it's a
movement without leaders. Is that comparison helpful?
I went to college and graduate school
in the 1970s. The 1960s generation, I thought, made important breakthroughs on
racial justice and building an antimilitarist movement, and I thought the work
of our generation was to fulfill the social revolutions of the 1960s. That
didn't happen. Some Occupy protesters remind me of New Left anarcho-pacifists
of the '60s generation that I knew, and others are less ideologically defined,
in the manner of '60s counterculture movements. In fact, some of the Occupy
protesters were counterculture
radicals in the 1960s.
But the Occupy movement will not have
to live down what is usually said about the social movements of the '60s--that
they set off a backlash that drove American politics to the right. Today
virtually all Republican officials and presidential candidates want to
privatize Medicare and reduce Medicaid to block grants. They want to give
another tax cut to corporations and the rich and to abolish taxes on interest,
dividends, capital gains and inheritance. They want a balanced budget amendment
to the constitution that caps federal spending at 18 percent of the total
economy, a figure last reached in 1966. They have wholly adopted the mentality
of antigovernment activist Grover Norquist, vowing to never raise new tax
revenue in any way. And they have no answer to how the financial industry should
be prevented from frothing up another crash.
So it's hard to imagine that the
Occupy movement could set off anything more reactionary than the situation we
already have, (Though Republicans are debating whether to slash Social
Security, too, and whether to abolish all the remaining progressivity in the
Meanwhile, at least half of the
Occupying protesters are deeply alienated from the Democratic Party. This
opposition cuts deeper than the opposition of the New Left to the Democratic
Party in the 1960s. To be sure, Democrats created a catastrophe with the war in Vietnam.
But Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy stirred huge reactions by offering
themselves as saviors in 1968, and by 1972 the Democratic Party had an antiwar
presidential nominee, George McGovern. Today, the disillusionment with Obama
and the entire establishment is intense in the Occupy movement, because Obama
and the Democrats are functionaries of a prevailing order that does not work
for most people.
do you most admire about the movement? And what worries you? What's a best-case
scenario for it, in your mind?
The greatest strength of the Occupy
movement is its rebellious spirit. It is angry, and it is planning to stay. You
have to be awfully stubborn and rebellious to persist in opposing Wall Street's
dominance of the economy. And it is inspiring many people, especially young
people, to believe that democracy is stronger than the economic oligarchy, at
As for what worries me: every protest
movement has to negotiate the twin dangers of co-optation and marginalization.
Besides that, what worries me most is that it would not take much of a spark to
set off a violent crackdown by the police. We know this because numerous
crackdowns have occurred already, despite the fact that this is a disciplined
and peaceable occupying group--one that prohibits alcohol and drugs in the
square and one in which all manner of spiritual practices are practiced daily.
My article addresses the "best-case"
question. I greatly admire the Occupy organizers for setting off something that
the various social justice organizations to which I belong never came close to
launching. The Occupy founders had a better idea. This movement is closer,
ideologically and strategically, to the antiglobalization movement of the 1990s
than to the social justice organizations that initially snubbed the Occupy
protest. The Occupy organizers, however, realized that demonstrating against
the World Trade Organization every now and then did not accomplish anything.
Claiming a site, and holding onto it indefinitely, plays out very differently.
article focuses on regulating Wall Street banking and investment, which is
clearly one of the movement's top concerns. What other policy goals
would you list as priorities in achieving greater equality in our economic
and political systems?
A substantial part of my work has
made the case for developing decentralized forms of economic democracy--public
banks, community finance corporations, community land trusts, worker and
community owned enterprises, cooperative networks and, most importantly,
mutual-funded holding company models that are more entrepreneurial than
cooperatives and are better able to scale up. I don't believe that the factors of
production trump everything else. But I do believe that those who control the terms,
amounts, and direction of credit have a huge say in determining the kind of
society that the rest of us live in. Anything that democratizes the process of
investment is a gain for the common good.
Martin Luther King Jr. was devoted to
three interlocking social justice causes: racial justice, economic
justice--especially antipoverty activism--and antimilitarism. That is still a
compelling list of priorities to me, except that all of these commitments have
to be conceived as inseparably related to struggles for gender and sexual
justice, and ecological flourishing.
As a social ethicist whose field was
invented by the Social Gospel movement, I treasure the Social Gospel's emphasis
on just distribution and the common good, along with Reinhold Niebuhr's realist
emphasis on power politics and the faults of liberal idealism. But
liberationist criticism adjudicates what I take from the Social Gospel and
Niebuhrian traditions. Social justice must not be reduced to concerns about the
fair distribution of things. It is also about giving voice to oppressed
communities and being liberated from structures of oppression and dependency.
Because some groups are privileged, social justice involves paying attention to
the differences between groups in order to fight against racial injustice,
sexism, violence, exclusion, discrimination against GLBTQ individuals and
communities, and other forms of domination.