The shallowness of discontent
Occupy Wall Street can claim a tremendous heritage. In almost every generation – from the French Revolution of 1789 to the student revolts of the 1960s – popular movements have rejected a society which, they say, denies some sort of basic freedom. But for a protest to leave a lasting impression, it has to start or mark a significant cultural change. What could OWS signify?
The Occupy movement certainly expresses popular fury at high finance. But that sentiment is far from revolutionary. President Obama and many business dignitaries have expressed sympathy. There also seems to be anger at inequality created by unjust practices. In the words of an Oct. 14 blog entry on Occupywallst.org, the “99 percent” of the population will “no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the one percent.” Such righteous indignation could perhaps spawn a revolution, but only if it came with a more positive agenda. As it stands, though, the manifestos and soundbites coming out of the leaderless groups are long on complaints and short on both intellectual coherence and suggestions for new arrangements.
Still, this movement must have something going for it. It has spread around the world and attracts much friendly attention from the mainstream media. I see three forces at work.
First, economic confusion. Occupiers see the economy as a disaster. They blame the triumph of “neoliberals” who put their trust in small government and big companies. Many of the hand-lettered signs at Occupy protests go further; they suggest the enemy is not an erroneous ideology but a huge economic conspiracy of the elite against the people.
Such claims are not justified. The global economy is certainly not in bad shape. The big news these days is the increasing prosperity and influence of China, India and other countries which used to be too poor to matter. The U.S. economy does have problems, especially in the job market, but the country remains prosperous. Occupy is certainly right that the elite are still powerful; that is what elites do. New laws and regulations would be enough to temper corporate power; a brand new economic order is not required.
As for the dangers of neoliberalism, faulty ideology did indeed lead to inept deregulation of the financial sector, but the political tide is already flowing in the opposite direction. In other parts of the economy, there is no need for reversal. During the years leading up to the crisis, the U.S. government increased its sway over healthcare, education and mortgage finance – three of the four domains citied in the Occupy Wall Street blog as under neoliberal control.
Second, utopianism. The spirit of Woodstock lives in OWS. There are tents, talk of peace and love and hope for improvement in human nature. “We must change, we must evolve” is a typical slogan. Utopianism, though, was not invented in 1968. The belief that society can be made perfect through radical democracy has long been part of the Left’s revolutionary ideology. More than two centuries of history show how easily the failures of past experiments in radical social engineering are forgotten. The enthusiasts at Occupy have duly forgotten.
Third, the decline of the Left. If the moderate left had a distinctive agenda for reform, Occupy’s wrongheaded and unrealistic musings would look like a dangerous distraction. But there is nothing to be distracted from. Even a crisis in speculative financial capitalism has not spawned substantial left-wing proposals for reform.
The Democrats in the United States make a partisan show while the European centre-left parties mostly feud among themselves. As bearers of anything like an ideology, though, the Left is a spent force everywhere. The decline is easy to explain. The Left’s basic economic demands have largely been met: the proletariat has mostly become middle class and the government mostly protects the weak. That leaves the Left without an obvious agenda. In practice, it must choose between fine-tuning and revolution. The politicians go for incremental policy initiatives. The timidity leaves room for extremists to flourish.
Occupy’s participants might want to be revolutionaries, but they are a pale imitation of the idealists of the 1960s. While the new movement is undoubtedly counter-cultural, corporate leaders and politicians have learned how to co-opt such incoherent anti-establishment sentiments. Apple, for example, has done brilliantly by combining high tech, high prices and a veneer of counter-culture. Occupy participants use more than their share of Apple products.
Indeed, the grief over the death of Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, gives a more accurate cultural reading than Occupy. The college dropout who wandered to Asia looking for enlightenment became a hero for many of the 99 percent. They may feel oppressed by the state of the economy, but they sense they have more to lose than to gain from any substantial change in the system that has provided iPhones and iPads. So what does OWS signify? The shallowness of our discontent.