“It’s People Who Have the Time to Do This”: A Banker Speaks on the Democratic Danger of Leisure
Sometimes the most chilling authoritarian thoughts take a seemingly innocent form. Listen, for example, to the following comment on the Occupy Wall Street Movement from a veteran New York city financial executive: “It’s not an a middle-class uprising,” the banker told the New York Times last October 13th. “It’s fringe groups. It’s people who have the time to do this” [emphasis added].
Forget for the purposes of this essay that most of the OWS protestors have shown to be from middle- and working-class backgrounds or that their core grievances – the excessive wealth and power of the super-rich and the corrosive impact of America’s shockingly high levels of economic inequality – are widely shared by the majority of middle- and working-class Americans.
The thing that really stands out to me about this comment is the banker’s apparent disdain for the notion that a part of the citizenry might actually possess enough time to participate in a protest movement. “It’s people who have the time to do this.” Imagine! In a better America, the wealthy financial chieftain seems to think, the populace would be so busy, so occupied, so yoked to wage- and salary-slavery and/or student-hood and/or private business and home tasks and/or other individual pursuits that no significant part of the population would have enough hours, minutes, days, and weeks to act to wrest back control of “their” society and government from the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money.
Time, as the banker’s comment unintentionally suggests, is a core and critical democracy issue. You wouldn’t know this from much of the standard mainstream discussion of the difficulties that overwork and other related forms of over-busyness cause for harried Americans. That discussion focuses on the price paid in terms of individual and family stress, personal health, relationship difficulties, over-consumption, and unemployment for those whose job chances are reduced by the over-extension of many employed. But labor militants and union members who pioneered the movement for free time (first the 10-hour day) in the U.S. during the early 19th century understood time first and foremost as a democracy issue. What use, they asked, was the supposed attainment of popular governance through the celebrated American Revolution and subsequent struggles for the extension of voting rights for “free” citizens and workers who lacked the time and energy to inform and educate themselves on the issues and to meaningfully participate in civil life? As the union pioneers knew and said, formal democracy without enough leisure to enjoy and utilize its benefits was an empty gift and a sure path to the unchecked rule of the moneyed elite, which is rich in time as well as material wealth. The struggles for the Ten and later the Eight Hour Day expressed among other things the demand for ordinary working peoples’ right to participates in the much ballyhooed Ages of Democracy and Enlightenment.
Movements for justice and democracy require (and at their best sustain activists with) time and energy to learn, reflect, organize, and struggle. Thank God that thousands of Occupy activists across the country have enjoyed time and energy to put some real egalitarian and populist risk back into the free speech and other democracy rights that corporations and hired servants of the wealthy masters have worked around the clock to subvert, channel, co-opt and otherwise control in the interest of creating an Orwellian and oxymoronic “corporate-managed democracy.”
It is hard not to notice a delicious irony here. The dismissive banker quoted above might want to think more about his own profit system’s responsibility for generating some of the “free time” some Americans seem to have on their hands. In throwing millions of work and destroying occupations (as in “jobs”) across the nation, the latest epic crash of the finance-ruled and inherently crisis-prone capitalist system under the weight of its profit addiction has created a surplus of economically “opportunity cost”-free hours and days for a certain segment of Americans who seem to think that taking up struggle against the cancerous and misery-inflicting profits regime marks a better use of their free time than wallowing in self-pity or individualized and idiotic self-re-branding. Perhaps our banker would like to use his free time and money to pressure policymakers to resurrect the long lost Workhouses of the Victorian Age, designed to ensure that workers and citizens would not fall pretty to the horrid humanizing illusion that there might be something more meaningful (or even possible) to do with their time on Earth than to rent out their physical and mental capacities to amoral captains of industry or to the imperial gendarmes that police the system’s colonial periphery.
No properly profit- and elite-serving work to give “fringe” Occupiers with too much time on their hands for the good of the plutocracy? Perhaps the miscreants can be commanded to watch 10 hours of commercial state homeland television (including repeat episodes of the proto-fascistic Maury Povich Show and “Housewives of New Jersey”) or to dig holes and fill them up again and again under police supervision or to run lemonade stands in the Subways of New York. Anything to keep them too occupied from the top down to think and act in accord with the dangerous bottom-up notion that – to quote one of the more than 32,000 protestors who hit the streets after the mega-billionaire and financial chieftain Michael Bloomberg (who doubles as the Mayor of New York and twelfth richest person in the U.S.) evicted the original Occupy movement from Zucotti Park last week – “our political system should serve all of us, not just the very rich and powerful.” A treasonous idea – the predictable outcome of dangerously idle hands and minds.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Nelson D. Schwartz and Eric Dash, “In Private, Wall St. Bankers Dismiss Protestors as Unsophisticated,” New York Times, October 14, 2011.
 An important aspect of the overwork issue that seemed oddly missing from the otherwise brilliant Marxian and many-sided analysis in Juliet Schor’s classic volume The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
 As the radical Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey noted in his posthumously published collection Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997): “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy” (18). The phrase “corporate-managed democracy” appears on page 139.at the end of Carey’s chilling essay, “The Orwell Diversion,” which argued that the greatest contemporary totalitarian threat came not from the Stalinism and the “left” but from the corporate sector’s powerful means and methods of thought control in the “liberal” and “democratic” West.
 As the excellent Marxist analyst David McNally notes in the best volume yet written on the current economic crisis, “each crash is unique. But this does not make [the system’s recurrent Great Depressions – P.S.] random events. On the contrary, as a host of major political economists have long recognized, growth in a capitalist economy invariably generates great breakdowns in the system. As a result, capitalism goes through booms and slumps just as people inhale and exhale. Cycles of expansion and contraction are…hardwired into capitalism; they are an organic reflex of the system.” David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PW Press, 2011), 61. For an excellent analysis and description of how and why the recurrent cycles of expansion and crisis operate, see pages 61 through 84. Also useful in presenting the capitalist system’s tendencies towards recurrent crisis and collapse (though far less successful in understanding the recent current crisis) is Chris Harman’s important book Zombie Capitalism : Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (
 In an essay on the contemporary relevance of The Communist Manifesto, Eric Hobsbawm notes (in connection with Marx and Engels’ phrase “the idiocy of rural life”) that the “original meaning of the Greek term idiotess from which the current meaning of ‘idiot’ or ‘idiocy’ is derive” is “a person concerned only with his private affairs and not with those of the wider community.” Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism (