Monday, October 24, 2011

OWS, the soul, and Melville

This past weekend I finished reading Billy Budd, Sailor and went to hear a speaker in Zuccotti Park. In conjunction, I have the following thoughts:

The speakers, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, discussed the incompatibility of environmentalism with capitalism. They had a lot of interesting points and, as the framing of the topic suggests, fixated upon politics and economics. I think this mode of thought, that our current economic inequality, or environmental crisis, necessitates a political or economic remedy, is a main-stay of many OWS discussions.

While I agree that certain policy reforms are necessary (inclusion of external costs in accounting, better taxes, etc...), I believe there is a more pressing arena that needs attention. It is not something we can fix by shouting and demanding that our politicians write better laws, but something that requires personal effort and introspection.

When I listen to my inner voice, I often hear it saying, "I want, I want, I want!" What does it want? It wants food and girls and clothes. It wants to be praised. The more things I give to this voice, the more it wants. This is greed, and I think greed is the fundamental problem.

Can you fix greed with better laws? Different economic systems? Does greed disappear under socialism? Under a progressive tax code? These conditions clearly affect the prevalence of greed, but I think they're secondary compared to every individual's personal state.

Check out Melville:

Though the man's even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound. These men are madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous, but occasional, evoked by some special object; 

Melville could easily be describing the behavior of the bankers who initiated the mortgage crisis, the corporations that are responsible for the impending global environmental crisis. Irrational greed doesn't play by the rules of what Melville calls the "law of reason". Why? Because "in heart" they "would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law." The heart is exempt from the rules of law, and the condition of the heart is immune to legislative panaceas.

My point is not that protesters should stop shouting at corrupt politicians and destructive corporations, but that we're fooling ourselves if we think blaming others is the only answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment