Those in power would like us to keep quiet – one man who did not adhere to this unwritten memo was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). During the Enlightenment of the 18th century, a movement that introduced critical thinking to replace the dead weight of tradition and challenge the blind faith in institutions, Kant claimed that one ought to think for himself, free of the dictates of external authority. In Kant’s view, one should use his intelligence without being guided by others. He addressed his messages to the German bourgeoisie (middle class) who seemed resigned to their fate. Kant challenged them: Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence.
In Germany, during the 15th and 16th centuries, feudal lords transformed themselves into feudal princes. They were able to reduce the freedom (feudal rights) of the people under the explanation that they were defending the people from an outside threat, the Emperor. By the 18th century the princes across Germany had secured control of various states; the people only had the rights and liberties which their territorial princes gave them. They had given up various freedoms held in medieval times; now the prince had the power to determine the content of their freedom.[i]
The fact is the person or vested interest controlling the individual is not static. As one prepares to take a step to freedom and maturity, Kant noted, these authorities identify to the people whose ideas they control that the step is very dangerous and difficult to achieve. Once the vested interest (system) secures control of an individual it goes to great lengths to identify the dangers one would encounter if they attempt to do something without their aid – which frightens people from questioning the rules. In the 18th century, the German middle class did not feel they could do anything to change their lot, thus they adhered to convention.
From 1921 to 2008 the top 10% and the bottom 90% shared income gain equally. (as calculated by Emmanuel Saez) From 1971 to 2008 real income declined for the bottom 90% – all growth went to the top 10%, with more than half to the top one per cent. The remarkable gains that the middle class enjoyed during the middle of the 20th century, abruptly disappeared in the last 25 years (of the 20th century). Corporations orchestrated the dismantling of middle class prosperity through unchecked deregulation. The first year of the recovery following the 2008 economic debacle, the top one per cent collected 93% of the income growth.
The largest institution of the 21st century, the corporation, is designed to create wealth and avoid paying taxes. Today’s convention, trickle down economics, gives the richest corporations (business and the wealthy) the biggest tax breaks, on the basis that economic growth flows down from the top to the bottom, indirectly benefiting those who do not directly benefit from the policy changes. In reality, during the last 35 years workers have seen their gains that were achieved after World War II reduced – benefit cuts for the poor, underemployment, a culture of job insecurity, pensions disappearing or slashed. The lower standard of living is being driven by global competition. The system cannot be changed, apologists claim, because minimal government and low taxes are required to create jobs with the ongoing threat from world competition. In fact, they claim, things would get worse if taxes were raised!
Occupy Wall Street protesters challenge the middle class to have the courage to think for themselves, challenge the blind faith and convictions in the present deregulated market, and support interventions to reduce the influence of the dominant institution, the corporation, on the government. The focused challenge to the middle class in the 21st century is – “Sapere Aude!” – Dare to know! – recognize that there is no correlation between top tier tax rates and unemployment, recognize the need for regulatory standards and accountability for businesses and a strong role for government, and the need to take a stand against the corporate special interests that have led us down the wrong path.
[i] Foster, Harold J. An Outline of European Intellectual History: Locke to Hegel p (89-90)