Occupy Wall Street: A Story without Heroes
The "Occupy Wall Street" movement is spreading. Protests have appeared in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. The drama has become palpable, featuring a march on LA's city hall, confrontations with police, and mass arrests.
In light of such a spectacle, those who highly value the role of ideas in social change are tempted to root for one side or the other. They wish to see their own ideology reflected in prominent people and institutions, and in any clash it is tempting to seek a hero. It is no fun to be neutral when history is being made.
Some who see the protesters as a bunch of whiny young leftists opposing the great symbols of American capitalism will be tempted circumstantially to side with Wall Street. Yet much of the anger against Wall Street is justified, if misdirected — even reflecting a vaguely classical-liberal class consciousness. In cahoots with the politicians, these giant firms are indeed ripping off the middle class and poorer Americans. Today's political economy resembles some form of fascism more than the free-enterprise system, and of the businesses with a hand in colluding with the state in advancement of corporatism, those being targeted by the protesters for special animus are probably among the guiltiest. Some of the activists, waving signs in opposition to bailouts, war, and police abuses, are carrying a libertarian message.
But overall the protesters' message is too vague and heterogeneous — at best — to elicit much enthusiasm. As in the tea parties to which it has been compared, many in this movement are condemning a nebulous conception of the status quo without much of an inspiring alternative vision.
It gets worse. Although there is no single ideology uniting the movement, it does seem to have a general philosophical thrust, and not a very good one at that. OccupyWallStreet.org has a list of demands, and while the website does not represent all of the protesters, one could safely bet that it lines up with the views of most of them: A "living-wage" guarantee for workers and the unemployed, universal healthcare, free college for everyone, a ban on fossil fuels, a trillion dollars in new infrastructure, another trillion in "ecological restoration," racial and gender "rights," election reform, universal debt forgiveness, a ban on credit reporting agencies, and more power for the unions. Out of over a dozen demands there is only one I agree with — open borders — and, ironically, many on Wall Street probably favor that as well.
All in all, this wish list is a terrible recipe for moving far down the road toward socialism. On the way to achieving these goals, totalitarian controls on the population would be necessary. Some of these demands are merely horrible ideas that would injure the economy severely — such as the huge expansion of public infrastructure. But others are so fancifully utopian — such as a living wage guaranteed to all, especially when combined with free immigration — that their attempted implementation would confront the many disasters and horrors we have seen in every nation that has seriously attempted socialism. Such policies would vastly expand the government, including its manifestations in the corporate state and police power that these protesters find so unsavory. All of the corruption and brutality they think they oppose are symptoms of the same essential political ideology they favor.
Indeed, the true members of the ruling class have nothing to fear from these protests, which on balance strengthen the power elite, whether the activists get their demands or not. This is because they do not have a coherent program for true liberty. The same principle behind freely living where and how you please and voicing one's opinions without harassment from the government underlies the freedom to engage in short selling, hostile takeovers, mergers, and speculation. Just as important, these protesters fail to understand that the market economy that they want the state to conquer is the principal engine of prosperity.
To be fair, some of the protesters would probably not sign on to this kind of wish list. But there are also many among them who would go even further in the state-socialist direction. In any event, any movement filled with people who want this much out of government is bound to fail in addressing what is wrong with today's system.
Despite their ideological problems, however, most of these protesters have been peaceful, which brings us to the next party to the drama that we certainly cannot cheer: the police. In New York, they have corralled people into fenced-off areas, indiscriminately pepper sprayed them without provocation, and slammed at least one peaceful protester's head into a car. Seven hundred protesters walked onto the Brooklyn Bridge, many or most of them apparently thinking the police wanted them to take this path, only to find themselves arrested. Insofar as the protesters see their cause as one against institutional violence and exploitation, the police are doing more to bolster this narrative than the activists themselves.
It took such outrages for the mainstream media to give much coverage to these protests, and perhaps this would have never happened if we weren't in an age of social media and ubiquitous cell-phone cameras. The press has surely been another party undeserving of our support. Given the media's hodgepodge of biases — it has generally given favorable coverage toward economic collectivism, the political status quo, leftist reformers, as well as the police — most will look upon any coverage they do see with the preconceived assumption that it is slanted to make the people they already don't like look better than they are.
As for the Obama administration, it has so far been silent on the whole affair. Its partisans, however, have begun using these incidents to shore up support for the agenda of social democracy and higher taxes. MoveOn.org, essentially an arm of the Democratic Party, has been playing up the protests much as institutions tied to Republicans have played up the tea parties, in both cases offering very little reason to believe that their favored politicians would actually enact reforms of a radically different nature from the program of the partisan opposition. While Obama can push through more taxes, more regulations, more spending, and more government, the protesters will ultimately not be satisfied with this. For those who see government as an end in itself, even Obama is too moderate a state socialist by their estimation. And for those who seek to use social democracy as a means to a lofty end — to abolish privilege, corporatism, imperialism, or police violence — they will face great disappointment in the years to come, as Obama, a Goldman Sachs asset and enthusiastic warmonger, embodies most of what they despise about the American system. Most fundamentally, since the ideal of social democracy contains the seeds of the very exploitation they oppose, they are pushing a contradictory political agenda that can never satiate them.
Some have called for the tea-party conservatives to join the protesters in New York and across the country. If their only uniting principle were directionless opposition to the status quo, this would not be enough to excite libertarians, much less would it be a formula for positive change. Ideally, there would be enough classical liberals in the streets, opposed to war, state corporatism, state socialism, police brutality, the whole Obama domestic agenda, and US foreign policy. We could fantasize about that being a rallying point for leftists and conservative populists to stand behind. But given the ideological landscape of the United States, this would be just that: a fantasy.
A movement finely focused on resisting Washington's corporatism and bailouts, however, could potentially be much stronger and wider, bringing together at least some of the anti-Obama Right, elements of the anti–Wall Street Left, and libertarians too. The conservatives would have to agree to leave their anti-immigrant and prowar signs at home, and the lefties would have to put aside their demands for national healthcare and prohibitions on gasoline.
Such a movement, involving the better people on both sides, could potentially make a difference, but it would require a far more cooperative spirit than we're likely to see any time soon. With progressives siding firmly with Obama as he demonizes the tea parties, and conservatives cheering the cops on as they beat the Wall Street occupiers into submission, it would seem that more than economic theory separates these disaffected groups of dissidents. Call it the culture war or partisanship, but whatever it is that divides Americans against one another — distracting them from the real problem in Washington, DC — is also no hero in this story.