Mystifying Wall Street by Matthew Bowker, Ph.D.

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Dr. Mulvey works with two students
October 12, 2011 - 1:03pm

There is a difference between rationally opposing the Occupy Wall Street protests (now in Buffalo and dozens of other American cities) and misunderstanding them. Earlier this month, Eric Cantor (R-VA) warned about the threat posed by “mobs” in Manhattan who were “pitting Americans against Americans,” while, last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed that demonstrators were trying to “take jobs away from people. ” GOP Presidential hopeful Herman Cain even argued that the protests were anti-American and that no one should be angry “at the bankers and Wall Street” because “they're the ones that helped create the jobs.”

Even hardened conservatives do not seriously believe that the largely peaceful and democratic protestors clamoring for job opportunities and financial equity seek to “take jobs away,” nor that Wall Street bankers “create jobs.” In fact, the 2008 credit crisis and global recession, caused by financial de-regulation and the greed of top investment banks, insurance firms, and rating agencies on Wall Street, left millions of people unemployed around the world.

Such glaring misrepresentations of fact and intention would have been understood by the late Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing as elements of a process he called “mystification”. Mystification is an effort (not always a conscious one) to subvert and confuse by presuming facts not in evidence, by misattributing others’ motives and intentions, and by posing loaded questions that imply undesirable answers.

A common example of mystification would be the case in which one person petitions another for a small favor, and the other replies, “You know I can’t do that. Why are you trying to hurt me?” In this case, the petitioner is told what he or she ostensibly “knows” and this attributed knowledge is then used as evidence that the petitioner’s motive is “to hurt” the other person, perhaps by making him or her feel guilty for not providing the favor.

In this instance, both participants are left feeling confused, frustrated, even angry, since neither understands the other and a wedge is driven between them in the form of a surprising attribution of hostility. I have noticed that even the questions asked by mainstream media analysts seem similarly likely to mystify audiences about the purposes of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. One such question is: “What do they want?” Like the question posed after the attacks of September 11th (“Why do they hate us?”), such a question conveys both a rebuttal and a dismissal.

In the case of 9/11, to ask “Why do they hate us?” was more than naïve curiosity; it actively denied the realities of American foreign policy, economic statecraft, and cultural influence around the world. To ask this question with surprise was to suggest that no one could reasonably dislike us, when, in fact, the U.S.’s global reputation had been suffering for decades.

In the same way, when we ask of demonstrators around the country, “What do they want?”, we obscure, and perhaps not unwittingly, the very purpose of the protest. As Glenn Greenwald has convincingly argued, it is difficult to believe that anyone is unaware of the goals of the demonstrators, indeed, of all who support the redress of grievous political and economic injustices in our country and around the world.

While no individual can speak for the demonstrators or the majority of Americans they claim to represent, clearly targeted injustices include America’s vast and growing economic inequality, a pattern of corrupt collaboration between Wall Street and Washington, DC, and the disappearance of norms of equity and responsibility in civic and corporate life. To ask “What do they want?” makes such complaints seem trivial or idealistic, as if the only reasonable reply to the question would be to list concrete demands.

While thoughtful questioning is almost always admirable, the thoughtless repetition of this question urges us to view the demonstrations as would-be hostage-situations in which the protestors are expected to make unilateral “demands” (increased tuition-assistance in unmarked bills and a get-away car parked behind the Stock Exchange) that will resolve their complaint. Who would want to demonstrate in this way? Certainly not the protestors, who have shown an admirable dedication to non-hierarchical leadership, democracy, and consensus in their efforts thus far. How could we rationally assess such demands? Would a CNN analyst display them on a large, smart-screen monitor and tally up the costs and benefits? I shudder to think of how this would go: “The protestors are demanding greater corporate accountability, John, but couldn’t this move incite panic in an already volatile stock market?...” And what can anyone demand of Wall Street, an emblem of those financial powers that hold enormous sway over American citizens but remain accountable to none?

I was lucky enough to have lived in Paris during the French national strikes of 1995, which are an apt analog to these demonstrations, especially considering last week's announcement that several unions and political actions groups would join the protests. Although the French strikes were led by established labor and political organizations and eventually outlined clear objectives, the spirit of 1995, particularly among students who walked out of overcrowded classrooms and workers who marched, was one of manifestation, of demonstration. A primary goal, as in the Zuccotti Park occupation, was to demonstrate, to make manifest to the nation their presence, their ideas, and their will to change.

Thus, to search for specific demands at this moment from the Occupy movement is to protest against the protest by turning a manifestation of democracy into a hostile negotiation in which agitators make demands on ostensibly beneficent individuals and institutions. In the days ahead, it will be crucial to reflect carefully upon the motives and consequences of our discourse about this emerging movement, so that we can recognize assumptions, assertions, and questions that mystify audiences about what seems to be an attempt to do just the opposite: to create a public space for de-mystified thought, expression, and action about the realities of American life and the undeniable economic injustices we can no longer afford to mistake.

- An essay by Matthew Bowker, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor

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