What Are You Prepared to Give Up?

November 5 is Bank Transfer Day, an unofficial effort to collectively stick it to the large banks by closing accounts and taking business to smaller institutions that, presumably, will not precipitate major credit crises while maintaining a very high salary and bonus structure for top employees. It’s a good example of consumer activism in a capitalistic system – let your wallet do the talking and try to hit the people whose behavior you want to change in the pocket book. It’s a tactic that has a long and proud history that includes the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Indian independence movement.

I do have one slightly cynical question. Seeing as we’re three years from a financial meltdown that left no one happy with bankers with the possible exception of their mothers, why is anyone with the option just getting around the leaving the big banks now? What motivated people to keep doing business with people whose practices they seemed to abhor? (You can include me in this category if you want – my “bank” accounts have almost always been with credit unions, but the large banks have been making considerable profit from my credit cards and student loans for years.)

My guess is that for many people, the status quo offered some convenience or enhancement that they were not prepared to sacrifice. Maybe they don’t want to have to rely on Wawa and the cash-back checkout option for surcharge-free ATM use. (Maybe they don’t even HAVE Wawas. How terrible.) Maybe there’s a loan connected to that savings account that can’t easily be separated. Maybe people just hate the paperwork. Whatever the reason, there are a bunch of people who didn’t want to hurt the banks because they’d hurt themselves in the process.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while as the Occupy movement has gained steam. And one reason that I am not an enthusiastic supporter is that I don’t get a sense of what the Occupiers are willing to give up in order to create the changes they want, so I can’t tell if I am willing to do the same. I recognize that the Occupiers are making individual sacrifices of time, energy, money, and supplies in order to keep the movement going and visible, and some have been arrested or injured in the process. I’m not questioning the level of commitment. What I’m thinking of here is a sustained program of consumer boycotts or civil disobedience that makes cooperating with Occupy – at least in part – a more profitable option than continuing to resist. Without an electoral strategy, I don’t see any other path to change beyond armed revolution. A mass of people showing they’re unhappy doesn’t motivate the corporate world to change. I’m reminded of the insurance manager from The Incredibles, Mr. Huph. When Bob asks his boss if he’s gotten any complaints about Bob’s work, Huph just smiles and replies, “Complaints, I can handle.” A mass of people costing the corporate world money; now, that will motivate change.

The problem is, the corporate world gives us a lot of things we like and we, as a society, don’t want to give them up. Maybe I’m not happy about the way that the companies who supply parts for Apple treat their workers. Many websites, for example, have reported on problems and suicides at Foxconn’s factory in China. Sure, it bothers me that people would treat each other that way. But it doesn’t bother me enough to stop listening to my iPod while I type this blog entry on a MacBook. People complain about the price of cable television, but they keep paying because they don’t want to give up ESPN or HBO. The path from where we are to the world we’d like to see is very long, and I’m not sure how much I want to walk it.

I’ve seen a lot of people (mis)quote Gandhi about protest and social movements. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The part that I don’t see as often is that for that progression to work, a large group of people has to be willing to keep fighting, and losing, until the tipping point is reached. Otherwise they can just keep on ignoring you. A minority can not oppress a majority unless the majority cooperates. But the minority has a lot of tools at its disposal to try to motivate the majority to do just that. The majority has to be willing to ensure losses and sacrifices that it could avoid by giving in, in order to have a hope of a better future that might make up for the losses. As rough as the last few years have been, I wonder if enough people are close enough to the bottom that they’re willing to give up what it takes to turn things around.

I wonder if I am.

And I think that means that however much blame I want to give people above my pay grade who ought to know better, I need to save a little for myself.

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