Occupy Wall Street is either the Left-wing Tea Party or Woodstock for Paul Krugman readers, depending on your perspective and sense of generosity. More than a month into this multi-city pan-demo, OWS still lacks organisation, cohesion and an official list of demands, which would be too authoritarian. An official website, however, seems to be egalitarian and here the interested reader can find a forum where individual OWSers have posted their personal suggestions for how to take the country back from the bailed-out fat cats. My favourite so far: “Immediate across the board debt forgiveness for all. Debt forgiveness of sovereign debt, commercial loans, home mortgages, home equity loans, credit card debt, student loans and personal loans now!” A constitutional amendment guaranteeing a three-album record deal for your garage band can’t be far off in such a schema.
“[I]nept, incoherent and hopelessly quixotic” is how Eugene Robinson, one of OWS’s confessed liberal admirers, describes the scene from Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute is less sanguine about the Democrats’ inevitable attempt to co-opt radical street threatre into its own platform the way Republicans did with the Tea Party, much to the continuing intellectual degradation of the GOP. Marshall’s logic is persuasive: “Conservatives still outnumber liberals, and moderates still outnumber conservatives. Essentially, this means liberals need to win big among moderates to win elections. Getting in bed with radicals sporting slogans like 'Eat the Rich' probably won’t help them woo moderates.” Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon and Slavoj Zizek might form a powerful bloc in the Belarusian parliament, but anything they endorse is unlikely to further Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Like the more voluble London rioters and their apologists, OWS activists have already begun to alienate the ones they profess to love: small business-owners and the working stiffs. Local vendors at Zuccotti Park who used to turn a brisk trade from morning to night say that the OWS protestors who haven’t bought coffee, bagels or much of anything else in their month-long bivouac have dried up all the sales. One Egyptian vendor called Magdy, a halal cart owner who moved to New York from Egypt two years ago, thinks that the OWS lot are a far cry from the broom-wielding revolutionaries that filled Cairo last January to topple a dictatorship. Here’s New York magazine in conversation with Magdy:
“I don’t know. I have no idea what these people want. But they aren’t buying.” Business has “not been good” since the occupation came to town. As we spoke, an occupier came up and started yelling slogans outside. He rolled his eyes and turned away.
In Atlanta, a famous civil rights leader, John Lewis, was denied a chance to address an OWS assembly because so hyper-participatory was that assembly’s orientation that everyone was forced to creepily chant whatever the last person had said and each person -- except John Lewis -- was given a chance to speak. By my estimate, “Soylent Green is made out of people” takes about an hour and half to articulate at one of these rallies.
Sure, it may not be fair to judge a grassroots movement by its kookier adherents, but you can tell a lot about the self-confidence of a movement by how resentful its supposedly rational core becomes at having those adherents presented as representative of the whole. Nothing induces snarls of defenciveness on Facebook like inquiring about those protestors who can’t seem to leave Jews or Zionists out of a conversation about the credit crunch. Even the liberal-friendly New York Times does OWS no favours by encouraging Oprah-esque “dialogue” between a well-meaning everyman banker from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and the sort of be-spandexed, greasy-haired hippie who practically writes The Wall Street Journal’s editorials all by himself. If more OWSers are older and wealthier and more gainfully employed than they appear, then why are the idiots hijacking the narrative?
The one claim everyone seems to agree on is that OWS represents the “99 percent” -- that is, Americans not in the wealthiest 1 percent tax bracket. Whoever came up with this hubristic claim clearly hasn’t taken the temperature of 99 percent of the American populace lately. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, the same percentage of people (about 25 percent) support OWS as does that which supports the Tea Party. But roughly two-thirds of those polled blame the federal government more than they do private institutions for the country’s economic woes. Moreover, the US General Social Survey has found that between the fiscally fraught years of 2008 and 2010, the belief that “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor” has shrunk, not grown. White Republicans opposed to Obama haven’t accounted for this attitudinal shift; minorities and the working-class have done. Why?
Four academics from Stanford, Harvard and Princeton have intriguingly attributed this phenomenon to what they call “last-place aversion,” the fear that “can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them.” It’s why those who make slightly above the minimum wage (set at $7.25) are less likely to support increasing that wage than those who make well above it. If people voted their class interest in America, OWS would have an easier sell.
Finally, there's a cultural contradiction that the minor tent cities have yet to confront, one which may not be a virtue about our financial system but is nevertheless an unmistakable characteristic of it. Previous examples of shameless speculation -- take junk bonds in the 80’s -- drew the same fierce denunciations of the speculators. But somehow, a popular culture simultaneously grew up that glorified these bad guys and rooted in them in the mythos of the American Dream. Films such as the underrated Boiler Room have since been made accurately showing how the adrenalinised i-bankers of the late 1990s worshipped rather than mistrusted Gordon Gekko, the protagonist of a film made by an extreme leftist as a cautionary tale about insider trading and amoral corruption. Bestselling author Michael Lewis has long held that his bestselling chronicle of Reaganite decadence, Liar’s Poker, was similarly conceived as a warning to future generations and yet similarly read as a how-to guide.
OWS sees itself as a battalion against a lifestyle and a mindset that people don’t, in fact, deplore so much as they do the ruin that that lifestyle and mindset causes. Until the movement figures out how reconcile this uniquely American contradiction, and account reasonably for why it exists, OWS will only be subject to further derision and dismissal.