Nearly a year after it began, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which quickly turned into the larger Occupy movement, continues to confound the media in ways small and large. In some early reports it came off as little more than a festival for the counterculture. Soon some observers feared—while others hoped—it was a rehearsal for some kind of revolution.
The revolutionary impulse was fueled by a few outrageous numbers. Twenty-five hedge-fund managers had been paid, in one year, as much as 650,000 entry-level teachers—and the teachers had to pay higher taxes. In 2010, 93 percent of the economy’s gains went to the top 1 percent, which owns more than 60 percent of the nation’s financial securities and business equity. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent is saddled with more than 70 percent of personal debt, and the bottom 40 percent own less than half a percent of the nation’s wealth.
Impressive as they were, the raw numbers weren’t enough. They had to be translated into a language that was morally resonant and intelligible to non-economists. Not surprisingly, references to the Bible were not uncommon among the protesters. The anthropologist David Graeber proposed a debt jubilee to redress decades of rising inequality. Chaplains and rabbis carried a golden calf around Zuccotti Park. Late last year Catholics United brought the calf to Washington, where they petitioned House Speaker John Boehner to support a tax on financial transactions. At the center of New York’s financial district, Christian occupiers reminded the masters of the universe bustling past them in Brooks Brothers suits that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven.
I visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment about six times before it was expelled in late fall. The Occupiers I met brought news I wasn’t reading in the New York Times. I talked with an Army reservist who had traveled from Indiana to take part in the protest. He said that where he lived frustration with politicians from both parties had never been higher. He had slept in the plaza for a couple of nights but had to get back for reserve duty by the weekend. He told me that unemployment for troops returning from Iraq was almost 35 percent. I thought that must be a problem particular to the rural Midwest—until I looked at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics website and found that for veterans aged twenty to twenty-four the national jobless rate is around 30 percent. Another protester had recently lost her position as a receptionist in New Jersey. She told me she came to Zuccotti Park whenever it didn’t interfere with her job search.
By the end of Occupy Wall Street’s first month, the reaction against it was already taking a predictable form: The occupiers were not to be taken seriously because they failed to make specific demands. The media had at first been mesmerized by police violence and the spectacle of disorder so near the site of the 9/11 attacks. But as days turned into weeks and then months, journalists began to focus less on the novelty of the encampment and more on the refusal of OWS’s General Assembly to lay out a detailed policy agenda. In late September members began to propose demands at the website OccupyWallSt.org, but these were never formalized into an official list.
There were to be no litmus tests for membership in the movement, no platform on which to run a primary campaign against squishy Democratic politicians. OWS did not try to chase out libertarians or socialists. It welcomed nearly everyone, unconcerned with “message discipline,” which is widely supposed to be the sine qua non of effective political movements in an age of fragmented media.
At the height of OWS’s fall activities, there were encampments in more than a thousand cities. But after the crackdowns and the arrival of winter, the movement seemed to go into partial hibernation, and people began to speculate it would never fully reawaken. OWS has organized events since then—including a successful May Day march in Manhattan—but it’s no longer the story du jour. Except insofar as OWS may play into the November election, the mainstream press no longer seems interested.
In a political system where ideas mattered more than cash, the Occupy movement might enjoy some influence in both political parties. Many of the points made on the “We Are the 99%” website reflect sentiments that would not have been out of place in the party of Lincoln and Reagan: government shouldn’t be bailing out megabanks; we need to live within our means, both as households and as a nation; everyone deserves a shot at success. But once excommunicated from Red State orthodoxy by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, Occupiers became politically radioactive in the GOP.
Nevertheless, the Occupy movement still has a place in conservative thought. Most of its members do not condemn markets as such, but focus their discontent on a class of financiers who made their fortunes by gambling with other people’s money and leveraging their influence in Washington. Yale School of Management professor Bruce Judson observed that “the kids camping on Wall Street are the capitalists, not the people in the buildings.” It wasn’t the people camping in Zuccotti Park who benefited from the backdoor bailouts, which Judson sees as little better than communism for the rich. And the occupiers were enterprising in their own way; they hustled to make impromptu barters for basic toilet facilities and food. Their initiative was a first-world version of what French-speaking Africans call “System D” (for débrouillard): the shantytown entrepreneurship that brings basic resources to the poor as a corrupt and incompetent state apparatus crumbles.
Despite long years of celebrating themselves as risk-takers, many of Wall Street’s financial firms lost that innovative, productive spirit long ago. It lives on only in the bravado of Wall Street shop talk, as when a top Lehman manager bragged in an email to CEO Dick Fuld, “Will and skill always win, and that be us!!!!” (This was about a year before Lehman’s collapse.) At least Lehman was allowed to fail, though its failure left many of its top “earners” spectacularly rich. Too-big-to-fail conglomerates that survived the crisis, thanks to massive infusions of public money, continue to practice crony capitalism. They make a mockery of the free-market ideals they claim to exemplify.
OWS realizes that many of those in the top 1 percent are not simply the beneficiaries of impersonal forces like technology and globalization. Rather, wealth is increasingly based on state support. The FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) industries protect their profits with extensive investments in the drafting and interpretation of key legislation. (Market-oriented thinkers like Luigi Zingales and Russ Roberts have joined a chorus of more progressive economists in documenting this unsavory set of practices.) Breaking the stale paradigm of state vs. market, OWS criticizes the troubling fusion of government and big business, especially when it subverts normal legal processes.
Economic crisis scrambles ordinary politics. In the recent past, thinkers on the American right have been far more congenial toward talk about virtue and the soul than thinkers of the left and the technocratic center. The Occupy movement takes up the conservative’s invitation to consider how social arrangements shape our habits and dispositions. The movement also shares the typical conservative’s skepticism of an invasive “big government.”
Suspicion of government energized the Tea Party during the critical 2010 election season. But by the time the first wave of Tea Party Republicans arrived in Washington in 2011, the movement had already been co-opted by Washington insiders. As Jeffrey Winters explains in his book Oligarchy, the wealth-defense industry’s lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants are skilled at channeling popular anger into deregulation and tax breaks. The elected tribunes of the Tea Party have opposed President Obama’s health-care and financial-reform legislation, but even some conservatives, such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, acknowledge that these legislators have offered no good alternatives. Their idea of regulatory reform is simply to gut existing regulations and starve the federal agencies in charge of enforcing them. The lesson the Tea Party learned from the financial crisis was not that Washington had given Wall Street too much leeway, but that regulators would always be one step behind the innovators in the financial industry, so why throw good money after bad?
The press likes to call the Occupy movement the “liberal Tea Party.” Reporters focus on common emotions: the protests, the anger, the scornful rejections of politics as usual. There are also some substantive similarities. Like the Tea Party, the Occupy movement distrusts the giant (and increasingly intertwined) bureaucracies of big business and big government. Indeed, the Occupiers are arguably more conservative than many self-described conservatives, insofar as they seek to conserve traditional communities and ways of life threatened by blind market imperatives. Both Tea Partiers and Occupiers are alarmed at the centralization of power, whether political or economic.
But the differences between the two are at least as important as the similarities. Above all, the two movements have a fundamental disagreement about the role of the state in helping vulnerable citizens. This is, not coincidentally, a disagreement of central importance in this fall’s election. The Democratic Party has failed to take advantage of the Occupy movement’s outrage in the same way the GOP took advantage of the Tea Party’s anger, but it has shrewdly adopted some of the Occupiers’ rhetoric. And while OWS may not be mobilizing voters for President Obama, it has at least clarified the values that would likely animate a Romney White House. It helped set the stage for a remarkable GOP primary season, in which voters were willing to consider a long parade of fringe figures before grudgingly accepting a private-equity tycoon as the party’s nominee. When Newt Gingrich released a half-hour video documenting the economic devastation left in the wake of Bain Capital’s “creative destruction,” he was borrowing a theme central to the Occupy movement. Candidate Romney was forced to respond to charges—from the right, as well as the left—that his much-vaunted business experience mainly involved paper-wealth shell games of little value to anyone outside his firm. As questions continue to swirl around his “retroactive retirement” from Bain, it’s clear that at least some people aren’t satisfied with the answers he has given so far.
Meanwhile, the Occupy movement has also highlighted facts about the Obama Administration that may demoralize many on the left. Not many progressives want to help Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner block efforts to break up the largest banks, or help Attorney General Eric Holder continue the Justice Department’s manifestly inadequate response to foreclosure fraud. President Obama may be less beholden to Wall Street than a President Romney would be, but he is far more the candidate of Holder and Geithner than of the Occupy movement’s challenge to corporate power.
The tension between the free-market rhetoric that still prevails in Washington and Wall Street’s too-big-to-fail dependency on state support may yet lead to some kind of political realignment, but not in this election cycle. Although there is an obvious OWS critique of the Republicans’ economic agenda, much of that critique extends to the recent record of both major parties. This is one of many reasons the Occupy movement is unlikely to have as great an effect on this year’s election as the Tea Party had in 2010. Which isn’t to say the Occupiers have already become irrelevant. The movement’s real legacy may become apparent after the election—especially if a Romney administration undertakes the kind of austerity policies the Republicans on Capitol Hill have been demanding since the economic crisis began. In that case, it will be up to people who were active in Occupy Wall Street to help organize focused and effective resistance to cuts in unemployment insurance, Medicaid, and other programs that protect those left behind by our economy. Last year’s encampments and demonstrations may turn out to have been a dress rehearsal for larger confrontations to come.