This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In 1729, when Ireland had fallen into a state of utter destitution at the hands of its British landlords, Jonathan Swift published a famous essay, "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public."
His idea was simple: The starving Irish should sell their own children to the rich as food.
His inspiration, as it happened, came from across the Atlantic. As he explained, "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young, healthy child well nourished is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust."
Inspired in turn by Swift, I want to suggest that we put in motion a similar undertaking: On January 16th, Martin Luther King Day, citizens from around the country should gather at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Let's call this macabre gathering—with luck and even worse times, it should be mammoth—"We Surrender" or "Restore Debtor's Prisons" or "De-Fault Is Ours" or "Collateralize Us." And plan on a mirthful day of mourning.
The basic idea is that we offer ourselves up, 99 percent of us anyway, on the altar of high finance as a sacrifice to the bond markets. It was Karl Marx who first observed that high finance is "the Vatican of capitalism." How right he turned out to be—right with a vengeance!
The Death of Democracy
Whole governments, democratically elected, are collapsing, or abdicating on orders from our secular version of the papacy. Who will weep for the passing of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi? Not many, surely. Still, it's appalling that, in Italy as in Greece, governing authority has been usurped by technocrats, elected by no one, answerable only to the European institutions of high finance that installed them in power.
At last count, eight governments of the European Union have come and gone, suffering the wrath of our new god. Other European governments barely hang on and scurry to curry favor with the bond market, proposing in effect to eat their own children and the futures of 99 percent of their people, if that's what it takes to make high finance happy. More will follow. By the time this piece was published, who would be surprised if yet another government had bitten the dust.
What about here in the US? That capitalism and democracy go together (like love and marriage in that old song) has been the imperial boast conveyed to the rest of the world by American banks and diplomats and presidents and Marines for a century—and more recently, by crony capitalist outfits like KBR and predator drones. Today, at home and abroad that particular gospel seems a sorry piece of hypocrisy. Capitalism has become a synonym for—to use an old word on its way back just in time—plutocracy, not democracy. The Obama administration like the Bush administration before it, and the one before that, and the one before that, has bent its knee to "the Vatican of capitalism."
Take Our Children, Please!
Anticipating Swift, we are already eating our own children or, at least, the futures available to them. My suggestion is to make the most of that reality.
When we assemble on January 16th, we should arrive as supplicants, bringing the deeds to our homes, if we still have them. We could come dressed as credit-default swaps or collateralized debt obligations. (Use your imagination!)
You'll want to turn in your subprime mortgage documents. And do you really need that mobile home or tent? And certainly, you'll want to offer up your children to Wall Street if they're young enough to make a "delicious" and nourishing meal. If a bit older, haul along that creaky swing-set from your backyard, or dilapidated blackboards and outmoded computer consoles from your child's underfunded, disintegrating school. Bring with you the paints, recorders, and stage props once used by art, music, and theater teachers, but made superfluous when their programs were cut by schools too poor to afford them.
If your children are older still, and waterlogged from the college loans that put them "underwater" before they even had their first jobs, why not donate those debts as securitized gifts to the Street? Better yet: give back their college diplomas.
If you can, cart along vats of heating oil or coal bins to symbolize the winter fuel that you can no longer afford. (Thank god for global warming!) Declare yourself undocumented or at the very least "undeserving" (a prematurely retired and wonderfully apt word used by the 1 percent back in the late nineteenth century to describe those who apparently preferred starving to working). Turn in your food stamps and unemployment insurance checks.
If you happen to have a job, return it or tithe a portion of your wages or pension for the cause.
Give back your votes; they do you no good, but might placate The Street. If you're not too shy, donate your medical records, x-rays, CAT scans and IV drips; you won't need them anymore since the odds are you won't be able to afford health care, and Wall Street can use them. After all, who is more endlessly ingenious when it comes to turning misery into money?
Here's a really big January 16th gesture if you're up for it: securitize your body parts. What, for example, is a leg- or ear- or brainpan-derivative really worth on the open market? You don't know, but Wall Street will. And you can think of it as your contribution to solving the deficit dilemma, which keeps the 1 percent awake at night.
My poor imagination is hardly up to the task of imagining all the ways in which we might express our fealty to Wall Street's financiers. But we, the partisans of OWS, are if nothing else a remarkably creative bunch. I'm confident that, when we get together on the 16th of January, the world will marvel at our inventiveness.