An open space for global conversation
In weeks past, I have – in my capacity as a member of Occupy Bozeman – written about many of the reasons why you should get your money out of big banks – particularly Wells Fargo – as part of a divestment campaign we are waging against the bank. That campaign continues with an action next week, and I have been a good foot soldier for the campaign.
Today, I write entirely for myself and my analysis of what really drives me to take on this campaign. In the past, I found myself appealing to the most selfish motives you might have for making a switch. I have mentioned high fees, high interest rates, and low rates of return. I have mentioned bailouts and subprime mortgages, investments in private prison companies, in the coal industry, and in fracking. I mentioned unfair practices toward people with disabilities and African Americans. I talked about fines and court settlements for wrongful practices. While all those things are and remain true, the appeal was mostly to address reasons why I think that you the reader might find Wells Fargo objectionable. I have spoken little of my own motivation.
I intend to do that in this essay. However, note that I do not think you need to accept the arguments I am about to give in order to come to the conclusion that getting your money out of Wells Fargo is a good idea. Nevertheless, I think there are reasons that may be overlooked that need to be brought to light. We may not always bring them out for fear of hurting the harmony in our organizing environment, realizing that we do not come to the same conclusions for action based on the same reasons. However, I would be dishonest not to point out my reasons and point us to these aspects of the discussion.
It is tempting to go into a diatribe against capitalism because at root this is what this is about and in defense of what I am, which is an anarchist. That is a necessary discussion to have, but it may take us too far adrift for the purposes of this essay. I want to hone in on an aspect of what big banks represent that I think is critical to talk about while fully well understanding that the issues I raise are really part of a much bigger discussion about the nature of governance, wealth, and our reaction to that world.
You should get your money out of Wells Fargo and other big banks because the very act of doing so is a direct affirmation of what has been silenced by them – your voice. The most pernicious thing about banks is not that they make record profits or are deceitful or take care of their investors while hanging you out to dry. What is most pernicious is that the whole process by which this happens fortifies a system that leaves you out of it, which limits your options to register and act on your disapproval.
Banks like Wells Fargo have largely become what we so affectionately term “too big to fail.” While that term has become quaint, I do not think we understand the full import of it. An institution that has become so large that it cannot be allowed to collapse for fear that it will send us into a depression essentially has become an unofficial arm of our government. If we cannot do without something for fear of collapse, then it is who and what we are. That these banks continue to engage in practices that keep the entire system teetering on the edge of collapse, we have much to fear in them because collapse does indeed bring greater economic hardship to those who can least afford more hardship. It is an untenable situation. Those held hostage are the people. As one example, we can easily see how the looming Greek default is being held at bay on the backs of the Greek people.
Wells Fargo, then, is a non-governmental financial institution that wields enormous leverage and power on the American government. No matter who you elect into office, the situation does not change. From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the Wall Street interests and the financial institutions have held the country hostage. No one dares to let them collapse for fear of the political implications that arise from an economic superpower suddenly with more starving and jobless people than it already maliciously tolerates.
Thus, the one manna that most Americans believe is their power, their voice – the vote – is for nothing when it comes to this state of affairs. Voting, whatever else it might be, is not power to make any change when it comes to a bank like Wells Fargo. Even if you somehow managed to elect someone who would go after these banks, all you would be doing is setting up the conditions that will hurt the people who least can afford to be hurt. You will at once be propping up a political and economic system that allows for renegade banks to assert so much leverage, or you will be wiping them out and starting us surely into the storm of depression. Doing the latter might have some opportunities for the radicals among us to foment our lofty ideals of revolution, but only people with privilege can dare assert that they want the hungriest to become hungrier and the jobless to suffer even more. It is playing God to the extreme to think that we should manufacture economic crisis for a chance at a systemic change that is not likely to happen from those means. Look at the Arab Spring where dramatic increases in the price of basic goods drove people into the streets, toppled their governments, and found themselves ruled in most cases by the same ruling classes. Revolution is a beautiful idea, but it is not as easily attained as some imagine.
One might argue that maybe you could elect – in some strange world that does not seem to exist in America except in the racist pretenses of the Tea Party in their views of Obama – some socialist who will nationalize the banks and therefore rob them of their pernicious incentive to ruin us and the country. Thus, instead of a state that tries to keep banks in line through a Central Bank, we simply have another bank of the United States as the sole chartered national bank in the country. One has to ask, though, even if such a thing were to happen, what would fundamentally change in practice. Who would still have the most influence on government? The poor? In what sense would such a bank then be accountable to the people? While some of the pernicious incentives might be erased by such a move, it might mean less than what some might imagine. Wells Fargo and other big banks already are essentially arms of government; they are already institutionalized into the fabric of the country; they already have complete influence over governing. All you would be changing is the C.E.O. It would be little less than a nominal change in practice. Wells Fargo, whether in the private or the public sector, already is welded to the state. The rich will exert their leverage either way.
Thus, voting is not synonymous with your voice. It is not an action that you can take that does anything to restore what is lost in this system.
As a result, we are left with people in our country who have little say in the governance of their own lives. We are at the mercy of economic factors out of our control and political factors that keep us muted. While I can give an anarchist diatribe like this, it’s only because I have been deemed powerless. We are far from the days when Emma Goldman could be thrown in jail simply for passing out mere information about contraception, when a speech on any subject could get you thrown in jail for years. Everything is essentially entertainment. We can choose “taste’s great” or “less filling”; we can pay exorbitant rates to go to sporting matches, buy our cable and our internet where we can be free to watch or say a million things. Yet, all of that is because we are thoroughly defeated. When push comes to shove, if the food trucks stop coming, if the jobs go away, if your home is foreclosed – those are the things that really matter to the functioning of life – you really have no say whatsoever. It is a game ruled by a very small plutocracy. We have been left helpless and foolish like babbling idiots. It is no wonder that people care nothing for politics. Why should they? People also don’t care about essays like this; what does it matter? We need our fix; we are junkies in so many ways. We know the results of American Idol, or The Voice, but very few of us really know our neighbors or each other or believe or even think about whether anything is wrong. Those who do must because something is very wrong. They are sleeping homeless in our streets, dying too young on the reservation, and wasting away in prisons (perhaps for succumbing to the socially unacceptable drugs). They are often too weakened to take action, and most of us go on ignoring the truth we must all know – that we are not really free or secure.
What action can we take in such a system? Anything we can do which not only takes power from the system but also puts it in or closer to our hands is an action that not only hurts the system but also empowers us if and when such a system collapses. Thus, it is not enough to let big banks fail; we have to have means in place to take care of others when those banks fail. Moving money from one of the banks that are too big to fail into something like a credit union is not some revolutionary move in itself. Credit unions in the way they function in practice are not some idyllic solution; they are not all as democratic as they seem. Nevertheless, they represent the right kind of transition. Moving your money to a place that gives you a greater degree of control over it is a step toward restoring your voice. It begins the process of transferring the power that banks hold over you back to where it should be – within your community. Right now, your money goes to fund who knows what – anything and everything. Shouldn’t it be closer to the space where you live and breathe, where people still hear what your voice sounds like? Shouldn’t your voice be sounds and melodies coming from your vocal chords, and not an abstract balance sheet in a New York or San Francisco office, or a number on a voting tabulation?
The decentralization of capital from institutions that are too big to fail to those closer to where we breathe has the effect of wrestling control of the system from giant banks all while avoiding depression. Developing the means to exert real popular power at the local level gives the means for the community to take care of each other when federal systems begin to fail.
It is an act that tends to restore voice; of course, it is not enough. The banks do not represent the be all and end all of political and economic justice. There are many other things besides. We have touched on issues like food and shelter. Exerting greater control over the wealth within the community should offer some leverage to better deal with the problems we all face when the national and global economy collapses (either in part as is often in American history or in whole as it did during the Great Depression). If we are not completely at the mercy of the whims of policy makers and corporate executives somewhere else, we can actually take steps to do something about the things that matter to us.
Thus, it seems the first act is simple enough. Get your money out of a big bank, and move it somewhere else – preferably somewhere like a credit union. However, the second act, which can happen concurrently with the first, is to organize in your community and take actions together which deal with the needs in your community. The more we do that now, the more we find our voice, and ironically the more dangerous we become. Essays like this will no longer simply be for your reading entertainment. They will be seen as revolutionary calls to arms, the way that disseminating information on contraception was seen in this country only a century ago. That may be when things get interesting, but let’s get that far. We need to go that far, or one day – as they are discovering in places like Greece – things will not really be in our control. The rich will stay rich, somehow, but we will be starving and struggling to survive, much like so many already are – as the system does not ultimately care who thrives so long as those on top stay on top.
Please take action. Please get your money out of big banks, and please take action in your community. I don’t want this essay merely to be an exercise in vanity, which right now is all that it is.