As thousands continue their march on Wall Street for a fifth straight week, an ancient story has much to tell us about the demands of justice.
The occupation of Wall Street is about a colossal failure of justice. When justice fails, anger grows into rage. And rage can tear a community into shreds. When a few people reap huge rewards they do not deserve, while others get nothing but insults — even though they have worked hard and been loyal to their workplace –- justice has failed. Bankers carry away huge bonuses, while more and more of the workers who do the heavy lifting are laid off.
Upper-level managers in many industries are allowed to plunder their businesses while loyal employees get the shaft:
Employees were particularly outraged that even as the company fell into bankruptcy, top managers awarded themselves $57.3 million in court-approved bonuses while 4,200 people lost their jobs and the workers who remained went without raises.
An ancient Greek myth captures our moment: The Greek warrior Ajax has fought hard for nine years for his friends in the Greek army outside Troy. He was by far the most effective fighter, and he saved many of his friends’ lives in combat. Now comes the time for a major reward, and who gets it? Not Ajax. The reward goes to someone who is cunning and does his fighting with words—a man we know as Ulysses.
Ulysses is the idea man in the army, gifted at argument and strategy. But Ajax has always done the heavy lifting, the day-to-day work that keeps the wheels turning. The leaders have been taking advantage of Ajax for years. Ajax sees at last that management has been playing him for a fool. He explodes in anger and rage. In the ancient myth he sets out to kill the commanders, but he is foiled by a goddess and later takes his own life.
In our times, a modern Ajax can be just as angry. He may work slow or sabotage his company in some other way. If he is really angry, he may do serious damage to his team or to himself. Management should know how to give the heavy lifters their rewards. Failure to do so leads to the sort of anger and chaos we are now seeing in the streets. Justice is the best cure for anger.
Ajax is right to explode when taken for granted and abused. Management does not have to treat an Ajax so badly. It is true that they must also keep the cunning Ulysses on their side. If Ulysses is not rewarded, he may go over and work for the Bank of Troy, where his Trojan Horse Investment Vehicle could produce gigantic profits for the other side.
Management can keep the team together, however, if they pay attention to justice. That calls for leadership. Leaders show wisdom, and compassion. Leaders know how to recognize the value of each member of a team and communicate that to all. Most important, leaders work for the benefit of the team, not to win big rewards for themselves.
Are you an Ajax or a Ulysses? Are you loyal, hardworking — and shafted by the system? Or are you cunning, selfish — and making out like a bandit as the economy collapses? Or are you an Agamemnon, who commands the whole army but looks only to his own rewards?
In our time, too, there is a better way. We are right to be enraged. Those in charge — Wall Street, and our elected government leaders — had better show some leadership and pay attention to the demands of justice. It’s not easy to do that, especially after so much as gone wrong. But it is never too late to start.
Paul Woodruff teaches philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has held positions for over twenty years as department chair, honors director, and dean. He served in the United States Army as a junior officer, 1969-71. His many books include Reverence, First Democracy, The Necessity of Theater, and The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards.