It is not so much wealthy individuals or even corporate entities who are ultimately responsible for inequality and environmental devastation. They are merely the beneficiaries of the political economic system that we take for granted; moreover, to a large extent, they are acting in accordance with our social and legal norms, which equate accumulating more resources, money, or market share with success, esteem, and power. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was not so much that individual executives should have gone to jail, but that the system of financialized capitalism that incentivized exploitation should have stood trial. Accordingly, the 99 versus the 1% is not about vilifying or targeting a particular group of people, but about reforming our exploitative system.
And likewise lawyers are not to be blamed personally for the legal system: whether prosecutors or defense attorneys, corporate or plaintiffs’ lawyers, most of them simply play their institutional roles according to the institution’s rules — but that system of rules, roles, institutions rests on a history of exploitation. Similarly, consumers are not to be blamed for consumerism, and producers not to be blamed for economies that rely on alway producing more. People who shop at Wal-Mart do not deserve primary blame for or because of the store’s employment practices and erosion of communities. Governments should not allow businesses to pay sub-living wages and they should even the playing field for small and local businesses.
We must take away the incentives for a race to the bottom. The system is set up like a prisoner’s dilemma. We cannot rely on individuals to solve these collective action problems. If I don’t take the deal, I’ll get screwed because other people will take it. Yet while any given individual deserves little blame for exploiting collective action problems within the normative boundaries of our system, nonetheless each of us must be held fully responsible for the collective errors of our species — because no one else can be. But specifically what we must be held accountable for is not so much the incidents of exploitation but the failure to solve these collective action problems through governance; in other words, our crime is not taking the deal, but offering it.