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Want to Overthrow the Rule of Wall Street? You’ll Have to Start a Religion…

The world’s leaders, financial and political, are disappointed in us. Around the globe, they’ve cut spending on our schools and roads and parks, raised our retirement ages, taken aim at our health care and pensions, and what do we do? We protest, riot, go on strike. We are not willing to “eat our peas,” as President Obama put it during the debt-ceiling negotiations. Why can’t we understand, as David Cameron put it last winter, that “people have to play their part”? Last month in this piece, John Lanchester nailed the reason: “The austerity is supposed to be a consequence of us all having had it a little bit too easy (this is an attitude which is only very gently implied in public, but it’s there, and in private it is sometimes spelled out). But the thing is, most of us don’t feel we did have it particularly easy. When you combine that with the fact that we have so little real agency in our economic lives, we tend to feel we don’t deserve much of the blame.”

Lanchester’s main subject is the discontent in Greece, whose people “know they are being lent money just so they can work very hard for lower wages and higher taxes in order to pay it back at great cost.” This is supposed to be a fair comeuppance for decades of self-indulgence, but whose indulgence was it, really? People in Greece (and Ireland, and Iceland, and the United States) didn’t vote for this financial system, and to the extent that anyone “in the know” explained it to them, it was described as a goose laying golden eggs, which wasn’t to be doubted. People took those public-sector jobs, got those easy loans, went to European universities for free, planned to retire at 55 or 60, because the experts told them they could and should. What were they supposed to do, stay unemployed or skip getting an education, because someday in the future the masters of politics and finance would change the rules?

Who is this “we,” then, that must eat its peas and play its part? Identity is a fluid thing, and so this question is very much up in the air as the economic crisis continues. Whether people in nation after nation will consent to austerity now depends on the answer. Will the masses buy the premise that “we” must all bear the burden of “our” past practices? Or will the stresses of austerity open people to alternate interpretations of who “we” are—interpretations that could upend the current rules of the world economy?

Here’s an example: The financial news is full of warnings that the debt ceiling deal may not be enough to prevent a few credit-rating agencies from downgrading the country’s sovereign debt, thus costing all of us Americans billions in higher interest payments. (At least, so we’re told. OTOH, Mehdi Hasan argues here that dropping to double-A would be no biggie.) On one interpretation of national identity, “we” are all responsible for avoiding this terrible downgrading, and we should pull up our socks. But we might also interpret national identity to mean that moving to downgrade our credit rating is an act of treason, punishable by death (and the destruction of one’s yacht, and the turning over of one’s summer home to a worthy orphanage).

Well, a boy can dream. Under current circumstances, it seems unlikely. But that raises an interesting question: Why don’t we, the un-rich many, feel easily alienated from the rich and well-connected few? “Class warfare,” that bugaboo of the right wing, has benefited millions of people and been an agent of progress throughout human history. Given the many pains of unequal societies, it’s something of a mystery why we don’t have more of it.

The reason, I think, may lie again in the psychology of identity. Fact is, “downtrodden masses” is not a very appetizing label, and most people prefer other identities available in daily life. “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!” runs the Internationale. To which many a person must say, “um, well, actually, I’d rather dwell on how I’m the head of the PTA this semester, thanks all the same.” When they’re victimized, people would rather imagine they’re in a temporary condition from which they will emerge. But building a social movement requires them to see their victimhood as an identity, a part of them forever. It’s a tough sell.

This may be why the social-justice movements that do succeed are often tied to religion. Agent of God is a far more appealing identity than victim-of-the-system. Perhaps, too, it explains a certain tension in such movements between leaders and followers. The leaders often have been quasi-religious figures, who want their followers to retain the identity that made the movement. In contrast, the followers want to get their share and move on.

This gap is the theme of two fascinating book reviews in this month’s Atlantic: One discusses the flaws of Cesar Chavez, who created and led the United Farmworkers union. The other is about Gandhi. Both men were political actors in fights for justice. But in their own eyes, that didn’t matter nearly as much as their roles as religious leaders.

Writing about Miriam Pawel’s new book, Caitlin Flanagan was struck by this. Chavez, she writes, “didn’t conduct ‘hunger strikes’; he fasted penitentially. He didn’t lead ‘protest marches’; he organized peregrinations in which his followers—some crawling on their knees—arrayed themselves behind the crucifix and effigies of the Virgin of Guadalupe.” His goal, then, “was not to lift workers into the middle class, but to bind them to one another in the decency of sacrificial poverty.” Consequences: By the late 1970’s his operation looked and felt like a cult, according to Pawel’s reporting. Also—talk about leaders disappointed in their people—he came to feel contempt for the merely human workers he represented. “Every time we look at them, they want more money,” he said once at a taped meeting. “Like pigs, you know.”

Gandhi, too, didn’t conceive of his movement as a path for Indians to a more modern, richer life in this world. Rather, as Christopher Hitchens recounts in his review of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography, , he wanted to create a pure and spiritual place, shorn of corrupting technology and mere fleshly concerns. “India’s salvation,” he wrote in 1909, “consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such like have all to go.” This is the Gandhi with boundless disinterest in ordinary human aspirations, the man who thought the Chinese should shame the Japanese by passively accepting invasion; who thought the British should let the Nazis “take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered […]” This Gandhi, like the Chavez in Flanagan’s piece, is (in Hitchens’ fine phrase) a friend of poverty, not of the poor.

I don’t see us rising up against our financial masters, then, at least not as a mass of victimized mooks. But if someone were to link our lost middle-class dreams to a religious movement, then watch out.


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