I Support the Strike
Occupy Oakland demonstrates its strong commitment towards the principles of democracy by constantly validating diverse opinions. This makes it nearly impossible to articulate a “unified message” in a concise sound byte. That’s why I volunteered to interview people who support the strike—I wanted to get a better sense of why specific individuals are joining the movement.
So far, I have collected reasons-to-strike from over 30 people. Their reasons to strike include:
- “Veteran Scott Olsen’s condition”
- the existence of “discriminatory hiring practices”
- the need for “environmental initiatives”
- the “injustices on Wall Street”
- the fact that “people with disabilities aren’t getting the services that they need”
- “corporate corruption”
- the lack of “health insurance”
- the fact that “this country is cruel to senior citizens” and
- for “the five schools that were closed down” in Oakland
Although my interviews revealed such different reasons to strike, I found myself nodding my head, passionately agreeing with each answer because I am a leftist cosmopolitan Rawlsian.
"A What?!?" you might say.
To explain what a “leftist cosmopolitan Rawlsian” is, I have to first discuss John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice
Rawls starts with a thought experiment. He asks his readers to imagine a hypothetical initial situation, “the Original Position,” in which no one knows their particular place in society. In the Original Position, no one knows their social status, talents, intelligence, strength, and special psychological propensities. These particularities are arbitrary from a moral point of view; Rawls argues that what creates “justice” or the lack thereof is the way our society’s institutions deal with these arbitrary facts.
Without knowing one’s specific attributes, no one is able or even motivated to advance policies favoring their particular condition over the well-being of others. The argument is abstract but simple: if I were asked to come up with principles of social and economic justice, but I did not know my specific ethnicity, gender, class, health, and talents, then I would surely advocate for policies that ensured basic rights for everyone. Furthermore, I would favor policies that did not leave society’s most disadvantaged groups hungry, unsheltered, and disempowered. Because without knowing my particular social status, I might actually end up being the least well off.
Rawls argues that the hypothetical people in the Original Position would therefore derive the following two principles of distributive justice:
Principle #1: Each person is to have equal basic liberties, such as the right to vote and to be eligible for public office, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold personal property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure.
Principle #2: Positions of authority must be open to all. And justice allows for inequality in the distribution of basic goods only to the extent that such inequality benefits the least advantaged members in society.
If our government implemented these two principles, then the grievances that my interviews revealed would be taken care of.
For example, deference to Principle #1, specifically to freedom of speech and assembly, would have prevented Veteran Scott Olsen’s condition. Furthermore, the implementation of Principle #2, specifically requiring positions of authority to be open to all, would thwart discriminatory hiring practices.
All the other concerns—caring for the environment, the injustices on Wall Street, providing services to people with disabilities, ending corporate corruption, access to health care, caring for senior citizens, and ensuring access to public education in Oakland—are linked to a more just distribution of wealth, expressed in Principle #2.
Currently, our world is getting more and more unequal. It is a sad but true cliché that while the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. The top 1% of American households accounts for about two-thirds of all income gains. Contrast that to the fact that the bottom 40% of the population of the United States owns less than 1% of the Nation’s wealth. According to the principles we derived above, such an inequitable income gap can only be justified only if it benefits the least well-off. But this is not the case. The most disadvantaged members of our community are not at all benefitting from the top 1%’s accumulation of wealth. Hence the school closures, the bank bailouts, environmental racism, etc.
A Little More Left of John Rawls
The top 1% often argue that the “richest are some of the smartest, hardest-working, conscientious, persevering, and talented people one can find. They earn their wealth; they deserve it.” I recognize these same attributes in teachers, nurses, custodians, nannies, and farm workers. But somehow, they are too often left out of the conversations about merit.
Many philosophers have elaborated on Rawls’ view that inequalities are just if and only if they benefit the least well off. I have adopted what I call a leftist interpretation of “just inequalities.” Basically, I believe that “just inequalities” are statistically uncommon and only include “special burden” cases in which higher salaries, wages, or social rewards act as a counterbalancing equalizer where work is especially arduous or stressful.
Under this view, farm workers, coal miners, health care workers, middle school teachers, and factory workers should earn a higher hourly wage than business executives, accountants, and lawyers. People should get paid more to do jobs that others do not want to do.
The United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” campaign illustrates that our economic structure perpetuates unjust inequalities. In the campaign, the UFW challenged U.S. citizens to take their labor-intensive, low-paying farm jobs. Unsurprisingly, despite the 14.6 million U.S. unemployment count during the widely advertised campaign, only a few dozen seriously applied and followed through with the process. In other words, even though the study showed that no one wants to be a farm worker, farm workers do not get paid extra for their accomplishments. This is unjust.
A Cosmopolitan Conception of Distributive Justice
Another political philosopher named Kok-Chor Tan who represents a school of thought called "Cosmopolitans," advocates for an international system of distributive justice. Rawls focuses on inequalities flowing from characteristics of people that they have done nothing to deserve, such as their race, their sex, the wealth or poverty of their parents, and their inborn natural endowments. Cosmopolitans introduce other arbitrary sources of inequality: specifically, natural resources and nationality.
Under this view, a theory of economic justice should include re-distribution of wealth beyond borders because one’s national origin is random and arbitrary. The fact that one is born in a famine-stricken country does not mean she deserves to starve. A just world would not allow her to starve.
Of course, one does not need such an elaborate theory of distributive justice to support the strike. I just wanted to put one out there because in our General Assemblies, Occupy Oakland constantly encourages autonomous actions. All I hope from my autonomous (blog-writing) action is to show how ridiculous the mainstream media is for repeatedly criticizing the Occupy movement’s “lack of a single focus.” Indeed, the lack of a single focus is not a critique on the movement but a symptom of so many damn injustices. The leftist cosmopolitan Rawlsian view is at least useful to think about it all in one framework.
Here are a few things that you can do to change the system:
- Join the General Strike!
- Gather neighbors, co-workers, or fellow students together and organize group walks and small marches around the neighborhood to have fun, raise awareness and encourage others to join you in the streets! Bring noise makers, signs, banners and let your community know why your are participating in the strike.
- Stop at banks, large businesses, chain stores, gas stations, corporate headquarters, large commercial media outlets, etc. to protest and picket.
- Gather in neighborhood centers and on the corners of main intersections to hold speak outs, BBQs and street parties – make your voice heard and raise awareness by reclaiming space where fellow community members can join you and talk about the issues that affect them most and how we can organize together to build a powerful movement.
- If you must shop, only spend money at locally owned stores and as much as possible purchase locally-produced goods.
- Move your money from big banks to a local credit union.
- Sign the petition to amend the U.S. Constitution to end corporate personhood.
- Join the Occupy Oakland Movement
- Come to the General Assemblies at Occupy Oakland. Your voice is important. Let it be heard.