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Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Some hundreds of people, most of them young, have been occupying a park near Wall Street for several weeks now, skirmishing occasionally with the police. Similar groups of similar sizes have sprung up in cities around the country. The group has issued manifestos about the evils of our current society, certainly with more than a grain of truth; but they have not made any specific demands, and they are not asserting anything more than the right to be where they are. Both they, and many of those who find them appealing, are proud of being non-partisan and even non-political, and some already worry that they will be "co-opted" by the Democratic Party in the way that, some say, an authentic Tea Party was co-opted by the Republicans. Because these protesters are in their heart on the same side of the political fence that I am, I wish I could find something truly encouraging in what they are doing--but I can't. What has happened to our country is not their fault, but sadly, I'm afraid the nature of their protest is another sign of how far we have fallen.

The most prominent list of demands, I believe, from the OWS protesters can be read here. It is an impressive and largely accurate litany of corporate malfeasance. I quickly counted 20 specific complaints, agreed with 14, and found 6 of them over the top. Nor, I think, is it really accurate to blame the state of America on corporations: many of our politicians are equally to blame, and not simply because of the debts they owe to corporations. The list was evidently drawn up to resemble the Declaration of Independence--but there is one difference.

The difference is that there is no punch line--no demand for specific remedies or political action of any kind. As such, it inevitably reminds me of some of the worst of late 1960s thinking--a conviction that society is intrinsically evil (which it was not) and that we can make it better simply by wishing it so. The manifesto includes no recognition that human nature might be to blame for many of our ills, much less any sense of how to control it. It simply calls for more assemblies and protests.

Strauss and Howe in 1993 identified the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002?) as the new Hero generation, parallel to the GI or "greatest" generation. But the GIs only became the heroes we knew thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet, as well as the Lost Generation military leaders like Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley and the rest who led them into battle. The Boom and Xer generations have provided nothing like that for the Millennials, and it seems increasingly unlikely that they are going to do so. The GIs did some great things (and some not so great things as well) when they assumed power on middle age, but they were building upon the achievements of the preceding generations. The Millennials, sadly, are not being given that chance, and with government still being cut back, it's hard to see how they will be.

Nor am I anything but depressed by the new movement's aversion to traditional politics or either political party. That too is reminiscent of 1968, when so many concluded that there was no difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon. Yes, the Democrats are nearly as in thrall to corporate power as the Republicans, but they do not share the Republican zeal for doing away with all levels of government in the United States. They are in touch with reality, which the Republicans are not. (We can hope, of course, that Mitt Romney, if elected, would revert to the sensible views he showed as Governor of Massachusetts, but that surely is grasping at straws.)

In a press conference last week the President tentatively embraced the protesters' concerns. I hope that this will be the beginning of something--that if the protests grow--and they really are very small now--they can move him to the left, and in turn supply him with a new cadre of shock troops for next year's election. But that is the best we can hope for. The United States is no longer capable--though it might at some distant point be--of embarking upon a great crusade to make a better world here at home, much less abroad. Our task now is to prevent things from getting much worse. To help, the protesters, I think, need a more realistic attitude.


Anonymous said...

But as you say it doesn't look really productive what is going on, corrupt govt. (all sides though some making more meaningfully sympathetic noises as fig leaf to their corruption), and young people with complaints but little idea what to do to change things. If the system of govt. lobbying and corporate bought political millionaires of a two party inflexible system with encrusted rules of engagement is unremediable then the situation will break down economically and politically. Say the banks fail(likely at this time) then you have cascading trade collapse, etc. as in 1930s. The kids can't do anything but form criminal gangs as in 90s Russia or terrorist cells against the rich as in 60s-70s Western Europe until some sort of autocratic shows up to remedy the situation à la Putin with emergency rule (FDR did similar even threatening to pump up supreme court with 12 members). Constitutional comvention,etc. and massive change in system necessary longer term.

Bob in NC said...

Professor Kaiser,
I agree, as I almost always do, with your views on this -- but those protesting in the streets are not the ones obligated to come up with solutions. It is the people we elected, who need to stop their infantile and evil ways, and get down to the public's business: governing.
True, some politicians may be swayed a bit by the protests, but not more than by the checkbooks of the elites and corporations, and the ideological rigidity of those elites.
What kind of political action would you suggest the OWS should take now, in this angry environment?
With most of the "99%" of us still chasing dreams crafted on Madison Avenue, I don't see any potential for realism or a new coalition of those on the short end of the stick that could engender a new "New Deal", do you?

L Moore said...

The OWS folks don't have an official list of demands. Any said list is not representative of the protesters.

see here

also mentioned here

the lack of focus is described here

Ezra Silk said...


It's your cousin, Ezra. Chas alerted me to your post. I have read some of your earlier essays on the parallels between Weimar Germany and modern America with interest.

I was at the protests on the first day in NYC, and have been back and slept out several nights there. I have talked to Occupiers in New York and Washington, D.C. So I have a pretty good sense of who these people are.

You make two points that I would stress. There are very few people actually out in the streets. I would estimate, across the country that the total number of people involved adds up to 50,000 to 100,000--and that's very generous. These numbers will likely grow, as the 11 million member AFL-CIO is fully getting behind this, although the impending winter is a serious issue.

The second point is that, despite the small amount of people, the Democratic Establishment is already paying close attention. According to today's Washington Post, the Obama team has restructured their entire re-election strategy around an anti-Wall Street, populist theme, in no small part because of the protests' strong message.

I find it difficult to believe that this has been ineffective so far, given that a few thousand protesters have already influenced Obama's re-election strategy, according to the Washington Post.

I was in your camp on the first day, arguing that the protesters needed to come up with a demand, or at least a very strict message. But I have changed my mind.

Let's say they had decided, on the first day to lobby for a financial transactions tax. If the protest had attracted any attention, the media conversation would have been largely focused on debating the merits of a financial transactions tax. Instead there have been thousands of articles trying to figure out why these people are engaging in civil disobedience.

The thing is, it's really not that hard to figure out. The primary slogan of the movement is, "We are the 99 percent." It's primarily a critique of runaway income inequality that has occurred over the last 35 years, as well as the resulting political inequality. Now we've had hundreds of articles in the American media dealing with the very serious problem of runaway income inequality, instead of a wonky debate over the merits of a particular demand.

Also, as the "serious" press has caught on, many have suggested that these youngsters (they're not all young, by the way) ought to come up with some real demands, like say, campaign finance reform, a financial transactions tax, a tax hike on capital gains, federal job creation programs, etc. What it all adds up to is that many pundits, in their zeal to criticize the protesters' incoherence, have acknowledged the desperate need for radical, structural reform in the system in a way they have not done before. I've seen the word "plutocrat" used on the New York Times op-ed page more times in the last two weeks than I have in the past decade.

Continued in next comment...

Ezra Silk said...


I realize it's not all about media play, and that a terrorist attack or a serious hurricane could destroy the momentum. But this is the most serious conversation the media has had about income inequality in recent history. And the Democrats, who cannot lose their brand as the reform party, are reacting to this accordingly.

Also, are a thousand kids protesting in the financial district really in any position to be making demands on the President of the United States? The numbers are not yet big enough for that sort of thing.

Now, as the deficit-reduction supercommittee begins to form its recommendations over the next several weeks, Democratic (and Republican, for that matter) participants will be smart to pay attention to the rising populist anger in the streets and in the press as they consider efforts to "reform" Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the tax system. I believe that the current media discussion can have an impact on the supercommittee's recommendation, which has the potential to reshape the American government over the next decade. Big Labor can also threaten to put its money into Occupy Wall Street and create a liberal tea party, instead of donating their money to Democrats next election cycle. This is one of the ways that the protests are creating a media and political climate that can (and already is) pushing the Democrats toward reform.

I also think you over-estimate the similarities with the '60s here. These people see themselves as part of the 2011 global protest movement, that started in the Middle East and spread to Europe (the international media sees it that way, too). Many of the tactics being used are borrowed from recent anti-austerity protests in Spain. The folks down there are not as immune to democratic politics as you assume. They just want structural reforms that will make the democratic system work again.

To me, they just need a coherent critique. And they are getting there. The "99 percent" critique of runaway income inequality has been wildly successful, even if it is slightly disingenuous, and is extremely popular even with Republicans, according to Time.

The liberal establishment, which has utterly failed over and over to mount any successful challenge to the status quo, can join in and fill in the blanks on policy. As I told Hendrik Hertzberg (who borrowed my line), these people are not the Brookings Institution. They don't formulate policy, because they are not policy wonks. Save that for the academics, journalists, and political aides who have been forced to acknowledge that these kids are onto something.


Bozon said...


I found myself agreeing with most of this.

Many possible comments, but restraint calls.

It is hard, in a comment, to refer to useful directions for reforms,

but suffice it to say that drastic constitutional reforms, consolidations, and various institutional types of reform, are needed, and yet largely unwanted, and would be ill understood, by the electorate.

Assuming you still believe that you can work, or at least can somehow promote change, reform, progress if you will, through only or primarily the Democratic party, best of luck.

I believe that they both have lost all bearings, based on how things have gone, over decades, now with the lower class and largely urban labor components of the Democratic Party.

Most unfortunately, it seems to me, it was always the big party for free trade, undercutting its own largely working class base all along, in recent decades.

All the best,GM

Bozon said...


Great essay. I found myself agreeing with almost all of it. (Maybe not a good thing.)

I thought this an especially important point, (I would call it a political structure problem point), to have made:

"Nor, I think, is it really accurate to blame the state of America on corporations: many of our politicians are equally to blame, and not simply because of the debts they owe to corporations."

I would just suggest, also, that American politicians' milieus, the political system within which they operated, (not just the party system we have had virtually from the beginning), through time, have framed the kinds of politicians we have had.

Put another way, the 'structure' (if one can call it that, rather than lack of structure) of our system has given us the kinds of politicians Americans have so often found disappointing, (or alternatively, have lionized, often erroneously)

All the best,

Charles Kaiser said...

I agree with all of Ezra Silk's comments. In all your years of intelligent comment on current affairs, David, I don't think you have ever underestimated the importance of a movement as much as you have this one. A new Time poll says 54 percent of Americans support these protests. That number is probably quite a bit larger than any support given at any time to any anti-Vietnam War protest.
You write, "The United States is no longer capable--though it might at some distant point be--of embarking upon a great crusade to make a better world here at home..." The whole purpose of the people in the streets today is to prove you wrong. I hope and believe that they will.

Anonymous said...

God bless and God speed to those marvelously brave and patriotic individuals engaged in the OWS and similar protests.

They are the true Americans for they see inequities and refuse to stand silent. Those who acquiesce and remain silent in the face of such activity quite effectively encourage the perpetration of it.

Those patriots may lack direction and organization right now, but those are temporary shortcomings that will come in time. Remember, those individuals that walk in protest parade for 99 percent of us and that certainly includes myself.

Retro Housewife said...

Perhaps you should consider the possibility that great things just might be possible outside of the realm of government.

The great generation isn't considered great 'just' because of their activities in government. Their activities in the private sector were and are the foundation of their greatness, as well as the principles that guided their behavior (for the most part). You speak of government as if it could exist autonomously in any meaningful way without the taxes produced by the private sector - it cannot. Great things in government are enabled by a vibrant, healthy economy. I wonder how many of our government employees will continue working once their paychecks stop clearing at the bank. Great things indeed.

David Kaiser said...

To Retro Housewife:

I hope you read this week's post too. Yes, the private sector was much healthier under the GI generation, too. The private sector, sadly, ain't what it used to be. It focuses on downsizing, not employment.

Anonymous said...

Doctor Kaiser,

I read your post and agree with most of it. However, I think you should have more faith in these protesters. They are just starting the fight. The challenge to the United States is immense: on nearly every policy issue, many things have been left fallow for too long, and both government and Wall Street need to be brought to task for their inaction, corruption, or a combination of both.

The reason why the movement has no leaders, I would guess, is a media tactic: it is very easy for an organization ( a media conglomerate and thus a part of big business) like MSNBC to put a designated leader of a movement on the air and focus the public's attention on him at the expense of the movement and his message, eventually to discredit him (look at Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for historical reference.) It's a way of cutting the head of a snake, a threat. The current OWS organization likely has a few well hidden organizers so that the press can't get to them so easily.

Obviously, this movement eventually is going to have to get leaders or it won't work out, because without leaders at all one risks chaos. That is going to take time. It will likely have to be an older man who can streamline the message and cut out extraneous ideas and paths so that the kids can fall into rank and file. Right now, we are just at the beginning. The feet are marching, and unlike the 1930s, it is going to have to be the old joining the young.

Other than that, you are incorrect that Washington should be brought to task first: this is not going to work if the people bribing the politicians aren't smoked out of their foxholes first. The kids already voted for Obama and he did not deliver. They grew up watching Bush use the Constitution as toilet paper, watched their parents squabble like spoiled children, and some of the older ones remember Clinton acting like a sleazeball who signed away Glass-Steagall. They may not see any point in using the process as it stands now. They want a whole new ball of wax. Personally, I would not be surprised if one of the two political parties gets replaced and the massive overhaul follows thereafter.

Misty said...

I agree with the last several comments, starting with Ezra's. I think you are misunderstanding the movement and selling it short (pun intended).