“I’m not a Marxist” he began. His white goatee looked vaguely Russian, while his white ponytail seemed inspired by some lesser-known Steve Martin film. “But let me lay out to you the dialectic of materialism, which we are seeing today, in America, and which is the foundation of this divide between the one percent and the ninety-nine that we have all been chanting about.”
The attendees of the Occupy Wall Street forum sat in a loose circle of folding chairs in a cold prayer room in Brooklyn. There was a faint smell of artichokes and coffee and perhaps a residue of tofu or lentil soup. The crowd was fed, full, many still wearing scarves or vests or jackets indoors. But the room was brightly lit and the spotlight was on the Economist who was about to speak.
His credentials were not laid out explicitly, but he spoke like a professor. Rather, the members of the group deferred to him as one might defer to a professor, according him a degree of respect and authority that had not fully been conferred upon other speakers. Oh, there was politeness, reassuring nods, a play of open minds and open ears. There was the passing of a tiny tape-recorder like a modern day conch shell or talking stick denoting that a new, valued contributor was about to speak. But the woman who talked about a lesbian/gay/transgendered co-op while keeping her eyes fixed on the floor and the vehement firefighter who presented Wikipedia research on Keynes scrawled in sharpie on a poster board were (justly or unjustly) not given quite as much attention as the white-haired man with glasses who was, we were told, an economist.
“What has happened, in the last 60 years or so is the codification of the Market-State Duopoly.” And he began, patiently, to make his case. “What is money? It’s the exchange value of a commodity. And what is a commodity? It’s an abstract value based on labor. Anything we can sell, any commodity, can be valued in terms of the number of hours of work that went into its creation.
“What has happened in our society with this duopoly is that money has been hoarded by the very few, hiked up artificially in value via interest rates, thought of as an end in and of itself. When money itself becomes a commodity, bought and traded on the stock market, then labor is commoditized as well. And when that happens, people become the ultimate commodity. Each of us here has a value, in money. Each of us has a price tag in terms of the amount of labor we are able to produce. It’s callous to say it, but practically speaking, it’s how the system now operates.
“Money began as a social relationship. You trusted my marker because you knew me, or knew mutual friends who would vouch for me and ensure that I would pay. It was an exchange of labor—my eggs for your fish. My time for your time. But with our current unfettered capitalistic system, the social exchange is devalued, and social relationships are replaced with relationships to things. People are thus reduced to nullity. We become what we own.”
The Economist cleared his throat. His voice was smooth, like a storyteller. He rested one boot on the opposite knee, making a casual kite with his limbs, as if we were sitting around a campfire. His hand rested lax upon his knee. Younger people and one older, bearded man were sitting on the floor, writing down snippets of the Economist’s wisdom with magic markers on a long roll of light brown butcher paper. Earth Grandma kept tiptoeing out of her chair to nudge her recording device closer and closer to the speaker. Her attempts to be invisible only made her more noticeable. Every so often, when the Economist came to a particularly salient point, members of the audience would nod and wiggle all ten fingers towards the ceiling to display agreement.
“Advertisements are beautiful, aren’t they?” the Economist continued with a wry smile. “But they have a beauty that is simultaneously nauseating. This is how they keep us believing that things are what matter—that money is not labor—that we are what we own. And look at how we live: In single unit apartments. In suburbs. The social relationships we have in our workplaces are severed as soon as we start the evening commute. We go home to a different community entirely, interacting mostly with just one other person—a spouse—or children in a so-called nuclear family. We watch TV, exhausted from the day because the value of our labor is being outpaced by the cost of living. Value and price in complete disequilibrium. And so we sit in apartments surrounded by strangers, and we watch TV, and we see the ads…”
“No,” said the older man sitting on the floor. He had a wiry grey beard and a craggy face like a sea captain or a fed-up Walt Whitman. He had been on the floor, stretched out as if reclining on an invisible chaise lounge made of moss. But now he rose to his feet, angrily, wiggling all ten fingers down towards the ground. “I don’t see how this is helping. Frankly, I think that what you’re saying is not true and not in the spirit of the movement. I’ve heard enough.”
“If you’d let me finish—” began the Economist. He sounded surprised, perhaps because he’d thought it was clear from his satirical tone that he was building up to a counterpoint. Or perhaps he was surprised because a speaker of cultural and economic truths did not expect a challenge in a such friendly, open environment.
“No, I think we should move on. You’ve talked for twenty minutes about doom and gloom. People don’t live like that. I don’t live like that.” The angry Sea Captain had spoken earlier in the day about inter-generational gardening with his grandchildren at a local community garden. He was in favor of alternative currencies and everything eco-friendly. He had a vague penchant to side with the conspiracy theorists in the room, and he had looked as if he’d walked, fresh from planting the seeds of the future, straight into the Forum. But this, it would seem, was too much for him, this portrait of modern urban American life, of hard-working people stuck between middle class and bourgeois, mollified by advertisements and fatigue into accepting the status quo.
In fact, when the Economist was talking, I was thinking about my own living room and my one-room, 600 sq. ft. apartment in the suburbs that costs more in rent each month than most people’s mortgages in the Midwest. I was thinking about my drive home from work in the evenings. How the twilight is unfriendly, almost unbearable sometimes, and makes me wonder if this town I live in, this plastic county, which I chose by accident and necessity, can be a real place. And I think about the reruns I will watch, the food I will reheat, as the silence of streetlamps guides me home.
“I’m trying to make a larger point,” said the Economist. But the Forum was now in uproar. Most of the scolding was directed at the old Ecologist.
“Let him speak,” said a man named Echo calmly, sitting in a lotus position in his white socks, Birkenstocks tucked under his chair like a pair of dozing puppies. “This is a Commons. We hear everyone out.”
“You may not live like that, but lots of people do,” said an earnest young man sitting behind me who worked on an organic farm in Vermont. “What he’s describing is true for a lot of people. Good for you that you’re living off the grid, that you have a community around you. But that’s not everyone. That’s not most people.”
The Economist tried to pick up the thread again, but his face was weary like Trotsky. “I used to work on Wall Street. I used to work for the Fed. And briefly in a Swiss Bank, as a trader. But I couldn’t do it any more. It got to be too much.”
He wasn’t more specific. He didn’t place his own experience in the context of a market-state duopoly or a dialectic of anything. All he said, as a true professor would, was:
“I don’t have the solutions. I’m just trying to put what’s happening in context for you. But I will say just one more thing, if you’ll let me finish,” he paused to allow the disgruntled Ecologist to grumble an assent. “I am paraphrasing, but Thomas Jefferson said something to the effect of: ‘If you allow private bankers to control the money supply, they will end up by bankrupting the nation.’”
The audience began wiggling their fingers, pointed at the ceiling, in accord. Chairs began to scrape on the wood floor, which badly needed waxing. A break was proposed by one of the moderators. A few other people spoke up, but nobody was really listening. The Occupy Forum was an endless floor, an open mic for the disenchanted and the undaunted alike.
And as his talking points were rearranged in the low murmurs of elapsed time and short attention spans, I watched the Economist’s face sink. It would have been fitting if he had cleaned his glasses like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon or the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library. But he did not clean them. And within minutes, all the clarity that he had built up in his argument, his lesson on how history repeats itself, had dissipated, joining the smell of quinoa and kale coming from the kitchen. I had taken faithful notes, but by the time the next session began, I could no longer hold on to that slippery, fascinating tension I’d felt when the Economist was interrupted by the Ecologist. And all his words that had made so much sense to me—that I felt deep in my stomach to be true— had evaporated like the mist beneath a yellow streetlamp on my drive home through the dusk.