I’ve lately had multiple conversations with friends bewildered over the lack of widespread rebellion against economic elites. They wonder, given the hubris, the greed, the outright irresponsibility and callous arrogance that led to the bottoming out of the American economy in 2008, why no broad based revolt?
Yes there was Occupy Wall Street. But while it was at times glorious it was in the main an anemic rebellion confined, with some exceptions, to one narrow slice of the broad public affected by the crash. Where were the rest of us? Why aren’t we raising pitch forks and torches and threatening to burn Wall Street down?
I have a theory, actually three.
First, there’s a racial dimension to all of this. Some of us, especially African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, didn’t have very far to fall when the economy crashed. For instance, the black unemployment rate in 2007 was about 8.5%. In that same year, the overall unemployment rate never rose above 5%. When policy makers talk about returning to “full employment” they’re stretching the statistics since 4-5% is hardly “full.” But where whites are concerned, they’re not stretching that far. For black and brown people, on the other hand, the recession didn’t begin with a bang. It was in full swing, including a mortgage crisis that would cause a massive erosion in black wealth, long before 2008.
When business as usual involves negotiating recession like conditions, struggling just to stabilize a bad situation becomes the norm and social mobility the exception. So, you might be less prone to rebellion, even when unemployment rates in black communities eventually rise to above 15% post-crash. It’s a little disheartening to fight in order to turn a depression back into a recession.
But there’s more to this story. Many of us did, in fact, rebel. In 2008, RealtyTrac reported that,
3,157,806 foreclosure filings — default notices, auction sale notices and bank repossessions — were reported on 2,330,483 U.S. properties during the year, an 81 percent increase in total properties from 2007 and a 225 percent increase in total properties from 2006
This is the evidence I offer for my second bit of speculation: that we did rebel. In massive numbers, American mortgage holders stopped paying.
This may not have been a consciously political act, but neither is it a political act when a tired child collapses crying at her mother’s feet while shopping, claiming she’s no longer able to walk. Political or not, it’s a full scale protest against powerlessness.
Some of us took mortgages we knew we couldn’t afford but were desperate nonetheless to have, believing that home ownership would provide security, maybe even accrue to greater wealth as it had for many in our parents’ generation. Some took out second mortgages for home improvements we didn’t really need. Others were duped into bad mortgages, or took out loans when we lost jobs or faced expenses beyond our incomes. Some of the expenses were frivolous. Others were unavoidable. But, avoidable or not, we hid our inability to pay for the lifestyles we were keeping behind debt. And then, we just couldn’t manage that debt anymore and stopped paying.
We didn’t talk about it much, at least not in public. We were embarrassed at having been fooled or over being foolish. Or, we just didn’t feel it was appropriate to protest in public over our private financial woes. Whatever the reason, we took these actions alone.
And then, just as the financial sector was teetering on the edge of collapse, the government stepped in and bailed the banks out. The money came from the public treasury. That debt is now ours. We rebelled and the lion’s share of the consequence of that rebellion is our legacy. Bankers are once again rolling in profits, and the rest of us are struggling to find our way through a wildly uneven, fragile, and much too slow recovery. If a few of us thought of our decision to default as political, we were quickly reminded that what allowed the economic bubble to form and then to burst, right in our faces, was a takeover of our politics by corporate elites. This takeover made our private revolt irrelevant. Major financial institutions were too big to fail, and we were, by comparison, too small to have any say in the matter, at least as solitary actors.
And this brings me to my third bit of speculation. We acted alone because we live alone. Overworked and over-committed, workers in America no longer have the time to build robust communities and to live among our neighbors. And those of us who work even harder to earn less or who simply live without work reside in communities that have been practically turned upside down and shaken until all of the wealth has fallen out and up, contributing to a wealth gap such as we have not seen since WWII. In those communities, we are under attack. We are vilified and then policed like villains. Faced with competition for scarce resources, horizontal hostility, and violence, we can hardly be expected to join hands in solidarity. Instead we are so overwhelmed by the propaganda machines of elites who claim our struggles are the result of our own failures and not of their greed that we find ourselves too often believing them.