I always wondered what would Karl Popper say about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Well that being said, the movement is almost dead now but there will be another movement similar in the future. OWS has led me to think on various occasions on whether or not this movement’s objectives are in line with Popper’s open society. Can we define the OWS as a movement in response to the current lack of “openness” and fairness in society (I will focus primely on the United States)? On my many grounds, we can definitely say so. On the other hand, this movement may also ask for future trouble. Troubles that may suppress their freedom if it generates into a social class war. For the moment being, let’s focus on the fundamental messages the OWS movement. From watching several internet videos and television broadcasts, the recurrent themes are: the top one per cent of earners are improving their incomes at the expense of the remaining 99 per cent, with many middle– and low-income earners left behind; moving the power from the states to people; jail corporate criminals; capitalism “got to go”; more economic and social freedom; protesting against greed; end political donations from corporations; tax richer more to have more money for higher educations; economic justice; greater bank regulations
. In other words, what the protestors want is simple: greater economic and social fairness and equality. Popper would support the OWS since this is a movement that can only take place in an open and democratic society where the people can critic and protest in peace without any recourse of violence. However, OSW fundamental messages vagueness is a major weakness to the movement. Fairness should be the primary aim for the protestors and not equality Popper would say. Fairness is what allows the continuum of an open society whereas equality simply calls for the abolition of freedom. What follows is to understand why the OWS movement claim of greater fairness in the politics and economics is the direct result of a downward trend of “openness” in the U.S. Next, with the help of the economist Friedrich Von Hayek, one of Popper’s accomplice, we will then look at why the current movement might lead to the opposite expectation: the abolition of freedom.
Popper’s Interpretation of Occupy Wall Street
“I want true democracy, for the 99% of us that don’t have any” A Occupy Wall Street Protestor
For always the United States has sold the idea that the country stand on the top of the podium when it comes to democracy and open society. Has the U.S. about to fall down the podium? Many will claim so. If we take a close look at the some the assertion of the OWS movement, we have the impression that the U.S. political system is either heavily corrupted or that it is simply feel undemocratic for the U.S. citizen. Why is this the case? Karl Poppers’s notion of the open society will help us highlight some of the current weaknesses in the U.S. political and democratic system. The financial crisis of 2008 sent a signal to the U.S. population that the country may be run by a social elite group: bankers. As said by Nassim Taleb in a recent interview on Bloomberg: “we still live in environment that is one man one vote but eventually banks has fewer votes”
. The bank bailout during the crisis by taxpayers felt like financial corporations have carried a coup d’état. Consequently, this elite group running the country are bankers. Karl Popper would definitely proclaim that the current political system starts to be more and more similar to a Platonic state. Plato advocated for a government / political system not elected by its citizen with the ruling class’ interest ruling the state. Many feel that despite voting for a government to represent their interests, the country is indirectly governed by bankers. For instance, the government is often referred to “Government Sachs” — amplifying the relationship that Goldman Sachs has with Wall Street
. In the past years there have been more and more banker from Wall Street landing a position in the Treasury department in Washington. When bankers received a bailout, they definitely act as an elite representing their interest in the first place when they pay themselves bonuses. One issue that can be rise from this state of affair in U.S. politics is that the current Platonic elite wish to abolish in any form of change (In Plato’s blueprint of the perfect society, change should be abolish since it is the greater evil to peace). In fact, U.S. citizen has seen little change in the U.S. concerning bankers. Banks were once bailed out by taxpayers in the saving and loans crisis in the early 1980s. The society was near to another banking crisis in the 1998 when Long-Term Capital Management was saved by the private sector. Little seem to have change since then. The population always feel at the mercy of Wall Street Bankers. Bankers have achieved an “unfalsifiable” business environment. Despite being wrong on their current practices (e.g. compensation, risk taking, etc.), they have an authority over capitalism. The capitalism system works under the concept of the survival of the fittest. This is one of the primary reason why the OWS movement is protesting. It falls in line with Popper’s belief of the open society and falsification.
It is now important to question what would a piecemeal engineer do when face with such anger towards bankers. Without having any optimal plan for a perfect banking system, small but important change can be brought by the piecemeal engineer. First, implement one of the fundamental rules of capitalism: upside and the downside of risk. Bankers compensation must be based not only on the upside but the downside. Bankers current asymmetric nature of the bonuses and compensation creates only an incentive for success and risk-taking without a corresponding disincentive for failure says Taleb (2011). The downside for bankers is that if the bank falls apart, they must must also fail with the bank. Or simply abolish bonuses. Extreme risk taking shall be reduced. Make banking bland again and bonus and bailouts should never mix. These small steps will assure not perfection in the banking industry but at least provide a response to a system that was falsified more than once without undertaking any reforms of a complexity.
Is Occupy Wall Street Begging for Authority?
As previously stated, Popper would support the OSW initiatives concerning their discontent with the ties between politicians and big financiers. Despite the fact that the OWS movement was born on this particular issue, Popper (and others such as proclaimed by Nassim Taleb on Bloomberg (2011)) would fear a class struggle warfare. This could be the result of the OWS having such a vague objective. As previously shown before, the protestors’ messages vary from abolishing capitalism to an equal economic system to return to the roots of democracy. First and foremost, Popper fears people those who wish to have an economic system based on equality (e.g. central planning). Bringing to power a group of politicians to restore greater equality among classes can only occur when freedom has been abolished. Is the OWS begging for authority? Yes and no. As one of Popper’s accomplice, Friedrich Von Hayek once said in the Constitution of Liberty (1960) “From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time” (p.150). The OSW message may be too vague, some would say, which makes the movement irrefutable. Irrefutable in the sense that they can’t be proven wrong, hence that they hold the truth. As much as politicians and bankers do not hold the truth so does the vox populi vox dei, “which attributes to the voice of the people a kind of final authority and unlimited wisdom” (Popper, 1963, p.467). Poppers does not neglect the idea that in any public opinion there is a kernel of truth. Many simple men are ofter wiser than their governments but there is a lot of danger in public opinions warns Popper in Conjectures and Refutations. Public opinions is an irresponsible form of power. Public opinion can impose direct pressure on an individual’s behavior and develop a doctrine of the authority and uniqueness of the popular will. There is a lot of irrational grasp of truth in social movements (like OWS) which can cumulates in a Hegelian doctrine says Popper (1963) where people cannot be proven wrong especially if they follow their passion rather than their logical reason. Popper would suggest that the OWS opinions and messages, to have a beneficial influence, will be greater if the group is honest (not asking for authority) and have a simple and clear message which is not the case now.