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Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupying Wall Street

At the “Occupy Wall Street” protest in Washington, D.C., a man was preaching the Gospel as protesters pleaded with him to stop. While I suspect that the hackneyed secular/progressive vs. right-wing Christian dichotomy is reflected in this dynamic, the protesters may also have been “policing” the contours of their movement as anti-corporate and anti-Wall Street. Yet one of the pleading protesters was holding a sign, “Create Peace,” which does not really get at the anti-business theme. Another of the protesters pleading with the evangelical had a bongo drum handing down from around his neck, which could suggest that he would be out for any left-wing protest. Still another protester, perhaps from the peace movement, held a sign “2 Wars equals = Deficits!” Even morphing into a protest against the horrendous debt of the U.S. Government would miss the mark on the anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street target.

In the New York protest, an elderly black man held two-part sign: “Obama: One Brilliant American Moving America” and “Upward a Standard of America.” Standing next to him, a young woman was holding a hand-written note, “This Guy Is Clueless” with an arrow underneath pointing to the man. Her expression said, “What is this guy doing at our anti-Wall Street protest?” His expression said, “I’m confident in what I believe and I’m not backing down.” Neither one looked angry.

My question is this: In a free society in which people enjoy the right to protest on public property, how can a given protest movement enforce the limits of its message? If a group secures a permit to protest in a certain area, can that group establish gate-keepers along the parameters to keep out signs that do not reflect the group’s message? I am sympathetic to permitting protests this self-regulatory function. In attending protests in the past, I saw people interlarding their own causes where they were obviously on topics other than that stated of the protests. How selfish of them! I remember thinking. It is as though such people assume that the rules don’t apply to them. They are like those people who show up to a private party uninvited then are offended when they are asked to leave. Essentially, they are arrogant and presumptuous; such an air belies any cause.

The anti-corporation, anti-Wall Street protests are not religious revivals; neither are they pro-Obama rallies. The rallies aren’t even geared to protesting the fiscal mess of the U.S. Government, even though the deficits and debt can be partially explained by the largess pressured by industry lobbies (including banking) and bail-outs occasioned by the greed and fraud extant in the mortgage and investment bank sectors. In short, the protests need not be an opportunity for virtually any progressive cause that wants to promote itself as though it had been invited to interlard its own agenda.

The Wall Street Journal reports that at a “protest off Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., it was unclear what the protesters stood for, much less if they’d accept political support from the Democratic Party. A man on stage beat on a drum while reciting free-verse poetry lines such as ‘Revolution is the solution,’ and ‘then we can all sit down and have a lollipop.’ The group at one point participated in Yoga stretches.” In contrast, the populist protests in the Arab Spring were focused and had tangible goals (i.e., the removal of a regime). The American protests can be just as radical with respect to breaking down the system of corporate capitalism, whose oily tentacles have made it around the throats of nearly every government official in Washington, playing those wind pipes like Scots.

By availing themselves to virtually any sort of professional hippie, the American protest movements in the fall of 2011 were relatively wan or pallid—not likely to result in anything other than venting on a variety of left-wing causes. Failure to delimit a movement makes it possible for the point to be the protesters themselves, the various causes all blending into each other like a rainbow of colors. Given the lack of accountability on the Wall Street banks that received TARP by elected officials and the fact that banks helped write the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, even as the banks and Congress refused to obviate the mass-foreclosures, the ambiguity permitted by the protest movement’s organizers was unfortunate; it actually served the interests of the corporations and banks by diffusing and thus dissipating the opposition.

The Occupy Wall Street movement could potentially turn into a Tea Party of sorts on the left capable of pulling the Democratic Party along similar to the impact that the Tea Party has had on the Republican Party. Sen. Charles Schumer (D. NY) exemplifies the sort of careful Democrat that the Occupy Party could replace. The Wall Street Journal reports that he “enjoys strong backing from financial services firms and wouldn’t comment on the protests on Wall Street.” Bought and paid for, one could reasonably conclude. That senator would not be one to push through structural reforms sufficient to thwart the plutocracy that has taken root in America. For such reforms to be effective, the large corporate form itself (i.e., massive concentration of private capital), which is inherently a threat to a republic, would have to be exculpated and extirpated from the legal and economic landscapes. An economy of small and medium-sized businesses would appeal to Democrats who castigate the towering corporate salaries and bonuses, and to Republicans who value the extent of competition that Adam Smith wrote of, wherein producers are price takers rather than oligarchic makers and therefore not quite so supercilious (and powerful).

Instead of debating the “legal persons” doctrine and whether corporations should be allowed to make campaign contributions, the very existence of the large corporate entity itself can be placed front and center. “Too big to fail” and “systemic risk” could serve as context. The Occupy Wall Street Party (OWSP—outing wasps) could potentially crystalize around the very existence of the modern corporation and megabank. Playing drums, campaigning for Obama, demonizing the Republican Party, saving souls, protesting war and deficits, and doing yoga won’t cut it. Let’s just say it is in the financial interests of Wall Street and Corporate America, and thus their sycophantic agents in Washington, to keep the Occupying Wall Street movement diffused and chaotic, such that the various protests could eventually blend in adiaphorously with the cacophony of campaign issues in 2012. Perhaps the plutocracy’s power extends to being able to furtively relegate its opposition by moving it onto peripheral issues, as if a magician making a white dove suddenly disappear—the animal supposing itself still on stage. Perhaps the question is whether corporate capitalism can be eradicated by democratic means. That the protests sport signs advocating revolution may provide us with a baleful glance at the answer. It may be that economic (and political) inequality will continue to expand until the pressure builds to such a point that the sluggish, somnolent masses finally have had enough from the super rich, proffering to the world an American Spring. Although perhaps a harbinger, Occupying Wall Street is in all likelihood yet another garden-variety protest rather than a game changer sporting real change.


Jonathan Weisman and Laura Meckler, “Democrats’ Populist Puzzle,” Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2011. 

Mark Landler, “Protests Offer Obama Opportunity to Gain, and Room for Pitfalls,” New York Times, October 7, 2011.