Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Luck, Power, and the 99 Percent

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key, by Santiago Ramos:

“WE ARE THE 99 Percent” is the online presence (http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/) of the Occupy Wall Street movement which is quickly spreading throughout our major cities. The idea behind the website is simple: to document the precipitous gap between the haves and have-nots in this country. As the homepage says:
We are the 99 percent. We are getting kicked out of our homes. We are forced to choose between groceries and rent. We are denied quality medical care. We are suffering from environmental pollution. We are working long hours for little pay and no rights, if we’re working at all. We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent.
The site is a place where the 99 percent can air their grievances. Anyone can send in a photograph consisting of a headshot (sometimes the face is partially covered) and a note (usually handwritten) which takes after the style of the message above. For example, here is a short one:
My dad subjects himself to harmful chemicals 50+ hours a week so I can go to college and I don’t even know if I’ll have a job when I graduate.
We are the 99%.
If we could find one common denominator, one common attribute to the mood of all these messages, it would not be desperation. It would be a sense of individual helplessness and indignation. But the very act of sending a photo to this website implies at least the flicker of hope—the hope that something will come of this movement.

The 1% who has everything has it either because of injustice or because they were lucky. But if they were so lucky and the rest of us are unlucky, that is also an injustice. “Either way,” the site seems to be saying in a collective voice, “we have to do something together, because what needs to be done no one person can do on their own. We have to help each other to fight injustice.”MediaPicOct14

THE LATEST EPISODE of The Office—“Lotto”—also deals with luck and money and jobs. Perhaps the show’s writers were attempting to address, however obliquely, the grievances of Occupy Wall Street. Regardless of their intentions, they touched on some of the same grievances that one encounters as one scrolls down the “We are the 99 Percent” page.

Because it’s The Office, they do it in a pleasant, inverted way. No one loses his job in this episode. Someone is simply passed up for a promotion, and doesn’t win the lottery.

The warehouse workers of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company—the guys who actually put the boxes of papers into the delivery trucks—win the lottery. The prize money is not quite a million dollars, and it is also split several ways among the workers who took part in the lotto pool. Nevertheless, the prize is big enough that they all quit their jobs and move on to better lives.

Darryl (Craig Robinson) was once part of the warehouse crew, and even part of the lotto pool, until about a year ago, when he took advantage of an opportunity to move upstairs for an office and a promotion: warehouse foreman. Now the workers he was the boss of all have cashed out, leaving him alone. On top of that, their winning ticket was based off of Darryl’s birthday.

Darryl spins into an existential crisis. He left the warehouse on a lucky break, in order to work for a better life for himself. Yet the real luck eluded him—insulted him, even. The real luck went to the people who stayed in the warehouse and won all the cash. He becomes a zombie, retreats into self-pity. He tells his boss to fire him.

The boss responds to Darryl’s request by reminding him that he (Darryl) had been promoted because he showed promise, and hunger, and hard work. But in the last year, he “stopped pushing”: his fire was gone. That’s why he was overlooked for another promotion, when that opportunity came along. That is the real reason why Darryl is unhappy: because he isn’t working to make himself better, and is thinking about luck.

Darryl learns his lesson: “My future will not be determined by seven white lotto balls… I control my destiny. I do.”

BEYOND CONTROL, THERE is only luck. That is what both the website and the TV show appear to be saying. The only difference lies in types of control. Darryl rediscovers his own will: he can control his destiny. The people posting on “We are the 99” are smarter than that, because they have suffered more. They can’t control their own destiny, but perhaps there is hope in mutual cooperation and, therefore, in politics.

Some will find value in “Lotto” because it reaffirms the importance of personal initiative. Don’t blame others for your problems: work harder. There is something to be said for that. But it is not something that should be said to most of the people who have shared their predicaments in “We are the 99 Percent.” Most of them have suffered from problems beyond their control—medical problems, corporate downsizing, the end of industries.

What strikes me about both the website and the TV show, however, is that neither appeals to charity. Not charity in the Salvation Army sense. I mean the word “charity” as it connotes friendship and dependency: we need others in order to get through life. Charity as solidarity: brotherhood in the face of suffering. Charity as love, and as something upon which to build the political order.

Charity won’t tell us (at least not directly) what political policies to pursue. But we all know how real it is: we all know how much we need someone else’s help when life becomes difficult. If nothing else, it is as real as luck and power. And perhaps, in times of anger and disappointment, it is something we should appeal to—not as a substitute for politics or hard work, but as a necessary precondition for both.

Santiago Ramos writes from Boston, MA.