Pundits have tried to attach their own spin to the meaning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Depending on the media outlet you watch or listen to, the protesters are either a group of uninformed youngsters more interested in creating havoc than pushing a cogent agenda or a group of highly educated, underemployed who champion Michael Moore’s views on Capitalism. As is often the case, neither of these extreme characterizations are likely accurate.
What the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about is regaining the individual’s voice. Corporations have gained control of our government, a fear expressed by Abraham Lincoln in the quote I posted yesterday. We live in a corporatocracy and the corporation always has the upper hand. I’m not trying to tout a conspiracy theory but am merely pointing out the obvious. Every candidate for public office, unless he or she is independently wealthy, needs corporate support to have a chance at winning an election. Foreign policy is often dictated by “American interests,” which is just code for corporate interest, rather than by threats to national security or humanitarian reasons. Corporations push for free trade agreements and have a large say in the “foreign loans” we give to other countries. That being said, just because corporations have power doesn’t necessarily mean they will use it poorly.
Corporations have many tools at their disposal to get their way. They’ll use lobbyists, public relations campaigns, political influence via campaign donations, and if all else fails, making the American worker an unwitting hostage, which goes something like this: if we don’t get our tax loopholes, we’re taking these jobs overseas. Because through mergers and acquisitions, these corporations have grown so big that their profit sheets dwarf the GDP of some smaller nations, we almost have to give in to their demands because not to do so would be like letting a state leave the union.
Corporations can be very good. In the past, we’ve followed their guidance as they’ve led us to prosperity. We were all too willing to cede control of our say in the process, provided we were included in a share of the profits. During the 80s and 90s, the standard of living improved for most Americans, and retirement portfolios combined with social security were enough to allow our seniors to retire in comfort. Is it justified, that when these corporations make a few bad decisions, that we should take to the streets in protest?
In this case, I can see why. While wages for the poor and middle class have remained stagnant for a little over a decade, we’ve seen executive pay skyrocket. Pension plans of the average worker have been mined to enrich the kings on the throne. Who decides on these salaries? The board of directors. Who serves on these board of directors? Executives of other companies who know that if the general pay of CEOs increases, their own pay raises will be justified. Who elects these members of the board to allow such foolishness? Sadly, we do. Or that is, we’re supposed to, but long gone are the days when we considered which companies we owned. We sacrificed our voice to fund managers who manage our retirement portfolios. While diversifying through mutual funds spread risk and basically ensured profit as long as the stock market goes up (‘the stock market has never lost value over any ten year period,’ is how my financial advisor sold it to me), it also made us less involved in the operations of the companies we own. As long as we were making money, we didn’t make a big stink about it.
This lack of shareholder insight combined with deregulation unleashed the corporations and opened the way for ballooning executive pay. We were doing better; so were they. Greed begets greed. But now we have a chance to fix this. No single entity is entirely to blame, but what we can do is regain our voice. We can watch companies a little more closely and if we don’t like the way a company is doing business, we don’t need to do business with the company. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but isn’t all change? The protestors in New York are making a stand in a collective voice, which is not common in our nation. The free world can easily slip into becoming a “me” world where the concerns of society are quickly forgotten. Corporations can no longer be faceless, and the people who support them can no longer be voiceless because when we are stripped of our identities, like Gollum or Gyges, we lose our humanity.
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
-Abraham Lincoln, 1864
Reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace left me feeling deflated. It made me want to snap every pencil in my house, tear up every sheet of paper, delete every Microsoft Word file, and cease all future writing endeavors. It was that good. At the outset, I resisted the temptation to enjoy the novel. I’m naturally skeptical when East Coast critics heap so much praise on a novel. The first few chapters, or rather sections (there are no chapters in the novel), were daunting and it seemed as if the pages were a vehicle for Wallace to flaunt his super human IQ. However, by the end, the pages dripped with so much humanity and truth, I wanted to be so immersed and present that I wouldn’t miss catching a single drop.
The premise is a simple one. The title, Infinite Jest, refers to a movie that is so entertaining that whoever watches it becomes unable to pull themselves away from the screen. It is instant and perpetual gratification, and the viewers ultimately die, completely content, of dehydration or bedsores from staying immobile for so long while watching the movie. At a philosophical level, it speaks of our society’s own “progress” at continually finding things that become addictively fulfilling, whether it be drugs, sex, pornography, video games, television, or any other kind of fantasy. But in this quest to find pleasure, we lose the ability to communicate in a mutually intelligible way or to extract meaning from our everyday experiences.
Taking its title from Hamlet’s description of Yorick, Infinite Jest is Yorick. It is legitimately funny. Laugh out loud hilarious at times. But these moments of hilarity only make the subsequent moments of sadness that much more poignant, and we are reminded of the physical, grimy skull that Shakespeare’s Hamlet holds in his hands. The characters in the novel demand empathy and are so completely developed we feel like we know them better than our best friends, better than our own family, better than ourselves.
The clarity Wallace achieves in describing the mood and the moment is humbling for me as a writer. What is there left to write besides mindless drivel? Where I describe dust, he describes the universe. My only comfort is the knowledge that many readers will be daunted by the size and density of Infinite Jest and will never invest the time in reading it. It’s my only hope of ever competing.