Saturday, September 15, 2012

Moral Arithmetic, Applying Ethics

It is clear to many, as Michael Zweig of U.S. Labor Against the War has written, that "Budgets are not just arithmetic documents.  Budgets are also moral documents."  Budgets reflect the choices we make as a society.  There is nothing necessary about who pays how much in taxes and who gets what benefits from spending.  The right's insistence that the military is sacrosanct and wars of choice, that murder untold victims, are necessary to fight something called "terrorism" - while we do all too little for jobless, homeless veterans, and other working-class people - is itself a choice.  This moral arithmetic matters, and so do the numbers.  Zweig says that the amount taxpayers spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 was enough to have prevented all the deficits in all fifty states (and of course the loss of countless lives and untold suffering in those now-devastated countries).  Budgets, and how they are paid for, are political and moral choices that reflect class power.
Referring to budgets as moral documents does not originate with Professor Zweig, of course.  It is a frequent analogy, a sound one, and opens up the problem of participation.  Who gets to do the math?  If it is left to representatives, as in our republic, who watches them and what powers do we have over them?

The paragraph above appears in William K. Tabb's article in the current Monthly Review, adapted from a presentation he gave at the 2012  Left Forum in New York.  It appears in MR as the anniversary of the Occupy movement approaches.  There are some reports this weekend of a plan to surround the New York Stock Exchange for the anniversary.  Mostly, the media reflections so far speak of the movement in the past tense.  In an NPR story for All Things Considered this week, one participant from Occupy Boston described the movement as "a political Woodstock that went on a little bit too long." 

An interesting analogy. Was this not an insurrection after all, but a concert?  A work of theatre?  Is that what surrounding the New York Stock Exchange would be, as well?  Performance art?  Do we sum this up as a modern example of what Robert Brustein wrote in Revolution As Theatre ?

Although it may be argued that such incidents are dress rehearsals rather than actual performances (and therefore should not be prematurely judged) the truth is that many of these performances will never take place -- only endless previews before a safe audience that can be counted upon to tolerate the charade, if not actually to applaud it.  

Worse still, some of the people are simply watching the dress rehearsal -- spectators at a rehearsal of their rebellion.  And Brustein wrote that in 1970, a more hopeful time.

If the budget is a society's moral statement, and that moral statement is left entirely to our representatives (and those whom they truly represent), then it is not enough simply to blame class power.  Class power has always been a factor.  It is a call to participate.  To show interest, to seek out or demand information, to respond, and to get involved.  And, as needed, to resist.  That is our responsibility, according to our Declaration of Independence:

When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

That was once the call to arms of Occupy Wall Street: to become participants, not merely subjects to a ruling class or a social order that does not care for them.   

If passing a budget is a moral statement, then we make a decision whom we allow to make that statement on our behalf and with our resources.  Our participation -- or non-participation as they case may be -- is a statement of our ethics. What are we willing to stand up for when the rehearsals are done and it's show time? 

[Image:  Occupy Wall Street.  Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]

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