The Rise of the Working Poor: Occupy Wall Street Goes Global

The Rise of the Working Poor: Occupy Wall Street Goes Global October 16, 2011

I’ve been grappling with whether I should write about Occupy Wall Street, and what to write about it, for some time. I’m not as eloquent as T. Thorn Coyle nor truly very savvy to what is going on. I felt a bit like I was hearing reports from another country, as if these could not be my people, my apathetic Americans.

Then suddenly, it wasn’t just Americans but people were protesting in London, Rome, Madrid, Seoul, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Zurich and other cities around the world. And I was overwhelmed and I still didn’t know what to write, or if I should write. I was grappling for understanding and so I watched V for Vendetta and The Singing Revolution. As I write this I’m watching The Singing Revolution for the third time in two days.

I think I’m beginning to understand. I think for the first time in a very long time, in my living memory at least, we as a country are realizing that we are not the elite, but the working poor. Having a white collar doesn’t mean you’re not working class. And there’s a sense of pride in that, in being the working poor. There’s a sense of culture that’s missing when we perceive ourselves as pursuing the “American Dream,” as Steinbeck’s temporarily embarassed millioniares, or thinking that we could all be fabulously wealthy because that’s how capitalism works.

I’m not anti-capitalism nor am I militantly socialist, but I do believe it is no shame to be the working poor. Everyone in my family is working poor. We will each of us work hard and lead modestly comfortable lives if fortune allows. We are not rich people and we never will be. I am ok with that.

As a Southerner I’m often frustrated when the South is pictured as antebellum plantations with crystal chandeliers, when the culture I grew up in was overalls and mason jars. That is fine and good. I take pride in the banjos, fried chicken and blue jeans that mark the culture of the working poor in the South, a culture forged of people of various ethnic backgrounds. It’s a culture of English protestants, Irish catholics, indentured servants, penal colonists, hopeful immigrants and imams holding services on the coast of South Carolina as African slaves. A rich multi-cultural heritage made up of the working poor, and a far cry from the American Dream.

The way I am understanding the Occupy Wall Street movement is it is full of anger from where the government and corporations through their machinations have turned the working poor into the destitute. Hoovervilles have sprung up again all over the US, something my grandmother remembered and feared. She refused to vote Republican not due to any current issue or party ideology, but because she vividly remembered Herbert Hoover’s presidency and the great reforms of FDR. The Great Depression colored her view of politics and for all of her 80+ years she feared the “Hoover Days” would return.

I think the protesters are tired of selling their soul to corporations who only sell them down the river. I think the protesters are angry, not because they want a new iPad but because they want to effectively educate their children without sinking into debt. I think they are angry because they see what they’ve been taught about the American Dream is untrue; they see that the cake is a lie. They are tired of being told they have to have a car to have a job and a job to pay for the car. They are tired of being told they have to have a degree to have a job and going into debt to get the degree to get the job to pay for the degree. They are tired of seeing the government bailout corporations and give bonuses to execs, then vilify them for their $250 a week that doesn’t pay their bills because they were fired for being old/fat/gay/non-Christian,* or because an executive who got a bonus made a bad decision.

The people who are angry just want to be working poor. They want to be modestly comfortable and do work that doesn’t hurt them more than benefit them. They want to feed and clothe their children. They want heat in their homes in the winter. If they pay for education, they want it to be useful and worth their hard earned money. They don’t want economic factors to determine if they are eligible for work. They don’t want to live in fear.

They are angry because they can’t get a job because they are already unemployed. They are angry because after being out of work for months, maybe a year or more, they are asked to pass credit checks in order to gain work. They are angry because their employer wants someone who owns a car, regardless of the availability of public and private transportation options. They are angry because the job they have done for years at a modest wage and with a high school degree, is now only offered to college graduates at barely over minimum wage. They are angry because they had an excellent work record and reputation but were fired because they were too old for the company’s image.

They are angry because we seem to be in a second Great Depression, because once again Wall Street has screwed us over and because the governments allowed this to happen again. They are angry because the government has become so bloated and complicated that they no longer know who to be angry at. They don’t know who to point the finger at or whose office to protest at. They are angry because the situation is the result of two different presidents and two different political parties, and they don’t know who to trust anymore.  They are angry because the corporations and government are trying to preserve the status quo and they know the status quo doesn’t work. They are angry because politicians keep promising change and doing nothing.

This is what I think. I may be wrong. I just know I’m seeing the Battle in Seattle all over again. I’m seeing Egypt. I’m seeing Libya. I am both hopeful and frightened that I may be seeing the beginning of the Second American Revolution. I’m also seeing people demonize each other and sneer at people who are poor, destitute and unemployed. I think this is beneath us because last I checked, most of us are working poor**. Some of us just happen to be lucky enough to have jobs.

I know the solution to our problems won’t come from clinging to the status quo, won’t come from the minds that have created the problems and won’t come from some purist ideology. The solution will come from giving us the ability to be the working poor. Giving us the ability to give our children food, clothing, shelter, and a modicum of security. Give us pride in being the working poor, give us a culture not based on consumerism and don’t sell us into destitution or debt slavery.

Lasting tribute to centuries of working poor.

If I could, I would be out there demonstrating, calling for radical change and accountability. However, I’m lucky enough to be the working poor. I have a job that manages to provide me with the means to live very modestly, and I am grateful to have it. I’ve been unemployed during this Great Recession, and I can tell you from the bottom of my heart I am grateful and proud to be the working poor.

And what does this have to do with Paganism? I’m a devotee of Hephaistos, the only Greek God with a day job and patron of workers and unions everywhere. Why am I a devotee of him? Maybe because I was born a UAW baby, and maybe because when I get caught up in the idea that I don’t have enough or that I need a “status symbol” he reminds me that the only things that matter are the work I do, the people I love and the reputation I leave behind. He is the patron God of the working poor, and it’s no coincidence his temple is the best built and most intact of the ancient temples in Greece. It was built by the working poor, and they put love into the workmanship of the temple that stood for their average, ordinary, comfortable, happy, working poor lives.

[/caption]*In the State of Georgia you can be fired for any reason without recourse. Some friends of mine wanted to start a class action lawsuit when everyone over a certain age was fired at their company but it was practically impossible under Georgia law.

**The Middle Class is BS. The cake is a lie. There’s nothing wrong with being honestly poor and the concept of the “Middle Class” is to try to convince us we aren’t working poor, but just temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

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