Dissatisfaction over our economy is creating popular movements and encouraging radical changes to our social system. Led by the disillusioned young, Occupy Wall Street protestors are voicing opposition against the heart of American finance, large corporations, and the revolving doors of government. Occupy protests are held in hundreds of cities with the goal of building solidarity amongst the citizens against institutionalized injustice, which comes at the expense of the poor and middle class. As an elderly Jewish rabbi said to me, “Who did Jesus talk about in the Gospel? The poor. We no longer talk about the poor. We’ve lost our souls.”
One week ago, someone reminded me that if Distributism is to leave a mark in the minds of the general public, we could not fail to show up at the Occupy Wall Street protest and offer an alternative model far superior to both capitalism and socialism. Indeed, it can be easy to live in ivory towers and forget how fundamental it is to walk among the common man, to listen to him, and to recognize that all of us are called to be instruments of the truth. For us to illuminate a tunnel we must walk through it and help carry the crosses of others while balancing our own.
With a thousand Distributism flyers in tow, I was not sure what to expect when I approached Cedar Street and Broadway, the organizational heart of the movement and the designated spot a few blocks from Wall Street. The site is surrounded by protest signs and worn blankets for those braving the cold New York City overnights. A makeshift kitchen, supplied by generous donations, feeds the protestors and the destitute and rests alongside the laptop-filled headquarters of the movement. The “People’s Library” sits by a bulkhead stuffed with literature on economic justice and a hodgepodge of political ideas. Facing Broadway, people hold up signs made out of cardboard, like one man whose sign read, “The People Need a Bail Out.” Pamphlets are laid for the curious, with material ranging from The Catholic Worker newspaper to The Distributist Herald just a few feet away from pedestrians, protestors, and the police, all of whom seem mutually uncomfortable with one another.
Prejudiced by what I saw in the media, I anticipated a group of naïve, fresh-faced suburban kids standing around in Che Guevara t-shirts, the communist icon ironically made popular by capitalist merchandising. Instead, I discovered serious people asking pertinent questions about the direction of our economy and society. I met with Ron Paul supporters and other libertarians, the poor and destitute, socialists and capitalists. These protestors are upset with a nation that has forgotten the needy, a government that has left us with an enormous debt and jobless, while “Too Big to Fail” heads of finance make bonuses from taxpayer funds. Based on my conversations with the participants, most stood in support of a living wage for employees, job creation, the elimination of corporate “personhood,” affordable health care, and the re-enactment of Glass-Steagall, all of which are laudable goals. This is not to say the movement is entirely clear about what they want or how to get it, or that there is any cohesive position among those in Occupy Wall Street about how to fix our problems. “I’m not political. I’m just here because I have a master’s degree, can’t find work, and have no place to go,” Justin said, “the system has to change.” I met few who didn’t share political aspirations, but the concern amongst critics of the occupiers is that a leaderless movement without key goals will make it susceptible to coercion by status quo political ideologies, as what happened with the Tea Party.
Nevertheless, these protestors represent the man on the street’s growing dissatisfaction with our political and economic system, and provide an opportunity for Distributists to give them the direction necessary to solve the mess we are in; goals critics refuse to address face to face and on the street, inevitably losing their relevance and support as a consequence. “THIS is a real alternative to capitalism and socialism,” we said as contributors and readers of The Distributist Review handed out almost six hundred flyers to pedestrians and protestors. Whether in conversation with union members, the press, or the protestors themselves, the surprising interest in resurrecting family and worker-owned, local-driven businesses is encouraging. Indeed, capitalists and socialists talk a lot about jobs. Few repeat what G.K. Chesterton said best,
Our society is so abnormal that the normal man never dreams of having the normal occupation of looking after his own property. When he chooses a trade, he chooses one of the ten thousand trades that involve looking after other people’s property.
The problem with the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street is that one group looks to Big Business and the other to Big Government in an effort to solve our problems. It is certainly true that government’s primary task is to oversee the common good and, with some exceptions, the OWS crowd is mostly right about what is wrong. They rightly stand against injustice, the overindulgence of corporations at the expense of the American taxpayer and those bordering on and under the poverty line. This appeal to government is natural, because as Chesterton said,
A Catholic does not complain of there being a County Council or a Post Office, because recognized government has a right to rule; because social order itself has a natural and even a divine authority. But mere money has not even the smallest human authority.
The question then becomes, if the collusion between Big Business and Big Government will not, at present, provide Occupiers with a top-down approach, what do we expect in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street? Our flyer was prepared in order to offer a new direction for those attending or passing by the Occupy protests. Our message is simple: job creation is a thing of the past. We can create jobs of our own through the bottom-up approach of the Distributist program. Yes, we should discuss economic policy in America, and when injustices are perpetuated against the middle class and the poor, it is absolutely right to protest, just as we should when the genocide of abortion is carried out with the support of the private and public sector. We march, we pray, and we counsel. But the debate shouldn’t be over which sector, public or private, can offer us the sweeter deal. We should “change the terms of the debate,” and ask ourselves if the discussion over who gets a job is relevant, and if perhaps the creation of an ownership society is the remedy for over 100 years of conflict between capital and labor. Distributism eliminates the friction between capitalist and laborer by making them one and the same person. I haven’t met a capitalist or socialist who can find anything wrong with that, and most of the people I interviewed praised a society of micro-property.
Today, our flyer is being handed out not only on Wall Street, but in cities like Spokane, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis and this is one more reason why Distributism is viable. It sparks the imagination in the common man and encourages him not only to write, but to act.
After talking for ten minutes and looking over my pamphlet, the same rabbi said to me, “What you are doing is important. This is what we need. Keep doing what you are doing and continue to preach the Beatitudes of Jesus!”
For a PDF version of our flyer, click here.
For a JPG version of our flyer, click here.
Adapted from a shorter version that was published in Gilbert Magazine.