Occupy Wall Street and the shallowness of discontent

By Edward Hadas
October 18, 2011

By Edward Hadas
The views expressed are his own.

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 October 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 U.S. make a partisan show while the European center-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.

76 comments

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?? “For a protest to leave a lasting impression, it has to start a significant cultural change”

ok, bring out the guillotine …..

protests may induce a movement towards a longer cultural legacy and paradigm shift, it needs time

don’t judge Occupy Wall Street from your breakfast table

.

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

I haven’t heard any of the OWS people say they want to ‘change the economic system’. What they appear to want, from my perspective is an ‘opportunity to compete’… The system clearly is not working for these people… WHY ? ? Because the system is not geared to exact a ‘level playing field’.. It’s skewed to the 1%, or actually to the top 1% of the 1%…. In a famous 1930′s movie, William Powell asks Carole Lombard if she knows the difference between a derelict and a man… (Answer) A Job…..
Still true today….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Of course, the Far Left doesn’t really understand World Markets, anymore than the Far Right does.

But there is considerable and widespread anger among those actually participating in Markets worldwide: the small and midsize investors and traders, both retail and institutional, who have suffered egregiously because of the filthy and essentially childish game-playing that has roiled our Markets two decades or more.

We all know that true Markets based on supply and demand no longer exist. Instead we have computer games, run by the algorithms of the most deep-pocketed participants and their legions of kiddie hacker-traders. They have been allowed to take on the role of the “House” in a casino, and they’ve been permitted to do “House Sweeps,” whenever, from pure bad trading, any of their number have badly underperformed the mass of smaller “peon” Market participants or whenever a “rogue” has caused a key institution to get into big hot water.

Putting politics completely aside, honest investors and traders are secretly rooting for Occupy Wall Street to keep putting pressure on Markets, because it makes the Bullies With Algorithms very frightened and causes them to scale back their Casino Sweeps and let actual Market forces prevail.

I might add that Organized Crime is very, very heavily involved with so-called Black Hat trading, including some of the nastier High Frequency Trading (HFT) shops in Asia and elsewhere. So there is a Law and Order and Cybersecurity dimension to this dilemma.

In any case, OWS participants who are not actively participating in Markets and don’t understand what goes on might like to look at my blog from last year, “Capital Punishment-Markets Through the Looking Glass.” Here is a link to the first story, “My Life Versus Mrs. Blankfein’s Diamond Earrings” http://marketslookingglass.wordpress.com  /2010/05/25/1-my-life-versus-mrs-blankf eins-diamond-earrings/

I abruptly discontinued this blog on the sudden death of my beloved elderly father. But recent events have persuaded me I need to start it up again and will do so shortly.

Any OWS leader who wishes to contact me and talk further about small investor and trader discontent with our Market’s morass is encouraged to do so at lifestories@optonline.net or via my Seeking Alpha moniker, Venerability, or my Linked In account, Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Posted by Venerability | Report as abusive

Quote: “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.”

It may not be a conspiracy of the elite, but if your memory is good enough to remember some 40 years ago, when it was the plan and wheels put into action to lower the standard of living of Americans and raise the worlds. It was at same time the beginning of sending our factories overseas. If that is not a conspiracy, then you can coin another word. The path could easily be projected if you have lived long enough and paid attention to see the trend and we’ve been right on target. AS has the dollar that stood 4 to 1, and now barely is 3/4 to 1
[cliche - you ain't have seen nothing yet.]

Posted by DDavid | Report as abusive

This must be an article written at the request of and paid by Wall Street.

Posted by Jeanmichel | Report as abusive

“The Left’s basic economic demands have largely been met: the proletariat has mostly become middle class and the government mostly protects the weak. ” – Are you joking? Have you not seen how any pragmatic measure of income equality has shown a radically increasing income-gap between rich and poor, over the last 30 years???

If America’s basic needs are already being fulfilled by her government, then why do we have stories like these:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canad a-15288865

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canad a-15358183

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

{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.}

Somewhat facile this argument … and perhaps very myopic.

The movement, for the moment, is indeed an amalgam of outrage and indignation at Wall Street – which is only a lightening-rod for a larger range of disgust with the way things are done in this nation.

True enough, the OWS movement will probably flame-out as winter approaches. It is therefore very important that it coalesce into a thrust for Progressive Values.

I am an American writing from Europe (France to be exact.) Europe has changed vastly since WW2, having distinguished itself clearly from the hard-core capitalism of the US. Here, Social Democracy has taken the high ground with its attention to Progressive Values that better the lives of people.

Meanwhile, in the US, back in the 1980s, the Reagan Administration lowered both marginal and capital gains taxes, which opened the Pandora’s Box of today’s ills.

In two words, that action opened America’s “Greed Factor”. Cupidity came to the fore as Americans assumed that personal enrichment was not only easily possible (because of such low taxation) but that it was, somehow, miraculously, preordained by God. Getting rich became our nirvana.

Whereas in Europe, Social Democracy set about realizing concretely progressive values in many ways. Foremost, I submit, was the advent of National Health Services that make a mockery of private health insurance in the US – both in terms of quality and at far, far cheaper cost.

So, if disgust is in the air, there must be a reason for it – and it is not just about jobs or the Great Recession or the foreclosures. These factors are symptomatic of some frustration more deeply placed.

We are in a paradigm shift, from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. We must learn to adapt – but foremost that which we must realize is that Industrial Age brought enormous riches to only a select few. And our political system insufficiently protected the have-nots. That is what Social Democracy does. Whilst it allows the accumulation of capital, it also tends to its role of insuring Income Fairness.

There is a balance to be maintained as averse to the glaring lopsidedness as seen in the US. We’ve lost sight, I suggest, of that egalitarian value.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

Hehehe… try to dismiss the movement with something like: “they have no brains”, “look how ridiculous they look” is something i would expect from hmmm… Palin? hehehe
hmmm this is not only in america… declinism is global…(like other girl’s article tried to dismiss the protests)
Others will try to dismiss saying “US is still the No1″. The superpower was forged over decades and will last long… but this does not mean imunity from problems that exist and are maybe already synergistically correlated and growing… In the world eyes this is maybe a sign that US is not a beacon anymore… to guide others’ politics nor economies…

Greed, inequality… the 99% talk… sounds a familiar path…
Lets use the words of a great president then…

Parts of Jimmy Carter – Confidence Crisis speech-1979:
(EVERYBODY SHOULD LOOK FOR THE 4 PARTS SPEECH ON YOUTUBE)

“…It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper …, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as president I need your help…
I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.
I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence…
…In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns…
…For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world…
…These changes did not happen overnight. They’ve come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy…
…What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another…
…Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do?…
…There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure…”

The other path was the oportunity lost.
Every time a guy like Jimmy Carter (Nobel Peace 2002), Al Gore (Nobel Peace 2007) or Obama (Nobel Peace 2009) say something like: “And I realize more than ever that as president I need your help.”
I would pay attention, maybe is another oportunity…

Posted by VonHell | Report as abusive

The biggest loss is the sense that we are all equal. Now it is perfectly acceptable to get in, screw the other guy, and get your millions and get out. This somehow makes you a winner, and all those who suffered at your expense, the losers. Americans at this point are apparently too stupid, distracted, ignorant, self-absorbed, or on too many prescription drugs to realize that what hurts one member of society, hurts all of society. In fact, the notion of society as a whole is dead in America. The society that created the last remaining superpower after WWII is gone. What is left is two opposing teams of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, based solely on how much money you can accumulate.

Posted by lhathaway | Report as abusive

I think it is interesting that Hadas pretty much says the movement is shallow. I think in reality there are lots of individuals that are not happy with the present economic structure. Most of these people have to work a job all day and can’t be as brave as these people living on the streets. Yeah they have iphones, but they are living uncomfortably to make a point. I for one appreciate their effort. I guess my hope is that at least our markets will be regulated better to avoid further recession in this country.
Really the interesting thing is that regulation of stock markets and housing markets would ultimately be something to protect us from ourselves and our neighbors. The other countries are not just outperforming the US. It is mostly self inflicted.

Posted by Jrob | Report as abusive

“Occupiers see the economy as a disaster”

This is not the case at all. If the protesters saw the economy as a disaster they would be protesting at the capitol to petition the government to do something about it. The protests are focused on, more than anything else, how the top 1% has syphoned off all the gains the economy has made in the last 30 years leaving nothing for the rest of us. The protests are about restoring the idea that hard work will be rewarded as opposed to effective lobbying and graft.

As for a solution they have made it quite clear. Tax the top through either taxes on certain financial transactions or a raise on the income tax to the top (as well as closing loopholes that allow many on the top to pay a lower effective tax rate than the middle class). What more of a message do you need? The top cheated the system to make obscene profits and instead of being jailed for their fraud they were given even more money by the Federal Government. The rest of us want our money back.

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

Fact check: Middle class wages since Reagan vs the income of the wealthy = Obscene. Privileges such as health care and a house to live in for the middle class vs the wealthy = obscene. Result? The free ride for the wealthy is over. Ron Paul is a good example of this attitude. He was a physician. He never has known poverty from a street perspective. His ideas are idealistic. They won’t take care of the less fortunate. With Ron Paul in office, deficits will grow even more when the majority of consumers cannot buy things. U.S. bonds will fall. Bank will fall as the government forces bank recapitalization, Banks will sell off business units, or assets, asset deflation will follow, GDP will fall, tax revenue will fall, deficits will grow. Republican ideals are simply reinforcing views that are proven to be total failures except for the wealthy.

Posted by truthpatrol | Report as abusive

Ask what your country can do for you! I say let them set up camp in all the big cities amongst those that vote, share the same world views as them-WELCOME HOME! The big cities can raise taxes on their residents to pay for the tent cities and they can live as one harmonious family!

The rest of us will support our local business/communities/ churches and live the way we see fit! May the best view win!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

Here’s a clear goal: Reform campaign finance to not allow corporations to contribute to an election. A corporation is NOT a ‘person’, it doesn’t get to vote and shouldn’t be able to manipulate politics with donations and lobbyists.

Take corporate influence out of politics and our current system of corruptionism can start to look like capitalism again.

And once we get some politicians in office who aren’t bought and paid for, maybe we can simplify the tax code so companies that make profits can’t find ways to avoid taxes.

Posted by Buelligan | Report as abusive

we want the rich and powerful to give us a large portion of what they have and what they have made for the last 30 years and to be regulated and constrained to the point to the point where they can’t make as much ever agin

Posted by ejhickey | Report as abusive

All you anti-OWS people do realize that in general, many of todays rich became so through theft and none have been held accountable for what happened over the past decade. Basically they lobby for certain laws, regulatory or de-regulatory, then they abuse the heck out of them knowing that the middle class has no choice in the matter. Many of the industries are not free market (ie, you and I cant go do it tomorrow due to hurdles set up by the people currently doing it).

Want to know who the thieves are? Thats easy, 95% of government contractors (companies like Lockheed and Raytheon), banks who make gazzilions from peddling your money and give you less than 1% of the profit they make FROM YOUR MONEY, insurance companies who have hiked up medical costs so high that no middle class person can afford to live without them, energy companies who basically have a virtual monopoly because they dont compete with each other and price fix to no end, and finally investment companies who use YOUR MONEY to give themselves power on corporate boards allowing them to vote their buddies into power and then giving themselves ridiculous salaries at the expense of their own investors and other smaller investors.

The list above has basically STOLEN 50% of your income the last 30 years. So now I ask you, where is the justice? You say the OWS movement is about people who want for free, but thats just the tip of the iceberg. Im here on the sideline and all I want is not be a victim any more while enjoying normal things in life, like health care, electricity, and a vehicle. I would also like to get most of the profit FROM MY OWN MONEY that I deposit in the bank. They make about $10k-$16k for every $100k I deposit (leverage) yet they only pay me $500 a year. This is not right and is absolutely stealing in my view.

Posted by marc5477 | Report as abusive

And oh, as a final note, good luck trying to open your own bank. I tried and even though I have the knowledge I simply have no way to meet their minimum equity requirements prior to actually doing business. It would be easy after you open but impossible for me before I open. Gee I wonder who came up with that regulation?

Posted by marc5477 | Report as abusive

“The global economy is certainly not in bad shape.”

HUH?

Posted by teatard | Report as abusive

“The big news these days is the increasing prosperity and influence of China”

You were probably also waving the USA pompoms minutes before the US’s housing bubble burst…

Macroeconomics, huh? lol.

Posted by teatard | Report as abusive

The comments section is better educated, informed, and thoughtful than the article. This is a breath of fresh air. Finally some notice of the ‘Citizens United’ ruling and some concern about society.

Posted by Egladys | Report as abusive

Perhaps the American people are waking up to the reality that the USA has been run for the benefit of mega-corporations and big banks for too many years. I’m not surprised that there is a lot of discontent, but I guess it’ll take a while to formulate a coherent message, particularly when there are so many different things to be unhappy about.

Posted by ActionDan | Report as abusive

I think this article is very polite about these protesters (and I’m not and never have been a banker). I see similarities between them and what I would call the mindless segment of the “internet generation” – people without any real understanding or education about any of the issues they are protesting about, who see an opportunity to “get their views out there” to all and sundry, with little or no cost to themselves. The trouble is that the opinions of the vast majority of them are utterly worthless and incoherent, based on sheer ignorance. We should pay no more attention to them than anyone in authority pays to those ludicrous “spam” petitions that circle the world, the product of oh so many brains with the consistency of curdled yoghurt.

Posted by CO2-Exhaler | Report as abusive

There is pain among the ‘non-1 percent’ Class of USA’s population. Erosion of pensions’ values, 401k’s, and the pain of real estate plummeting towards (more reasonable) market equilibrium levels. Wall St. deserves perhaps 25% of the blame….Federal Gov’t deserves the remaining 75% for convincing Congress to vote such that every American family must deserve a “Mortgage opportunity”. Point Result: Free-for-all financial disaster of devastating scale (basis year 2008). No ‘required confirmation’ of credit worthiness…employment history (current or past)…decent human status/not a criminal miscreant. Hundreds of thousands of mortgages were “awarded” to Americans who didn’t even comprehend how financial systems or basic financial transactions function. Some barely could read the papers they signed. Result has been massive foreclosure wave of mortgage loans which had no arguable/reasonable basis to ever exist on a reasonable basis. OK, fast forward to NOW:
Everybody gets to go to college…Right?? Just like the mortgages per above. Right? WRONG answer. No, not the engineering or science or math ‘capable’ fraction of our population…but truly EVERYBODY deserves it. Of Course, for God’s sake. COLD TRUTH: Complete waste of time college majors culminating in a degree include: History, English Lit, Philosophy,…plus the “—fill-in-the-blank Studies”. If you do not comprehend it by now, …that these b-s majors are useless and impractical piles of waste, costing your distraught Parents upwards of 100K in loan debt, then you are just another ‘Pawn’ in the game which was devised and remains RULED by those humans who are sufficiently intelligent to comprehend and utilize science and mathematics in a manner to gain advantage in our real world. NOTICE: This is true Darwinism at it’s most glorious display, portrayed in finest color among these pathetic ‘March on WS demonstrators’…LOOK PLEASE: You demonstrators as a ‘Group’, …You apparently lack the base-level intellectual capacity, and the base-level COURAGE, to achieve a real SOLUTION and put it to PRACTICAL USE. Notice To Protesters: If you don’t actually possess the fortitude, talent, and courage to influence tangible improvement, then shrivel gloriously downward in your self-created pits of loathing and self-pity.

Posted by STEMcollege | Report as abusive

Those who can do; those who can’t OWS!

It’s hard to simultaneously decry the greed of others whilst arguing for a bigger snout in the trough.

Hard working individual don’t have the time to hang around all day doing nothing?

Posted by I_R_Responsible | Report as abusive

@I.R.Responsible – U R also deaf and blind. But you’re comment also proves OWS’s apparent point that U (and many others) R pigs at a trough.

You convince me that higher income taxes and taxes on corporate profits are the only way to go. If so many can’t find paid work and should be satisfied that the trough is being “hogged”, than those hogging the trough deserve to pay the most. Otherwise you may find the trough starts to shrink until even U can’t find a place at it.

I’m waiting to see what happens when a whole lot of returning Vets come home and find they can’t find jobs either? It will be very suspicious if they can. It will argue that the government has moved to a self-perpetuating system where vets forever get preferential treatment and rewards to be killers who do their bidding. You admit that the motive is more the spoils of war and a place at the trough. Every job application already asks if the applicant is a Vet.

There is no point in taxing those who can’t pay taxes when they aren’t getting sufficient taxable slops. If it goes on long enough – they start to die off because they can’t reach the line let alone the trough. And U and the “responsible” employed ones will have to pay for all the damaged VETs for the rest of your lives, and not mine or the unemployed.

It will also prove many other arguments I have made on these pages. Thanks for being so responsible.

I’m glad I’m too old to care much now.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@Stemcollege_ you’re funny! You believe the hype about math and science skills.

I’ve had my share of college math and science and found they were never needed at most employment. But the schools have to put something in your heads for 12 plus years. And they have to have some sales pitch to induce you to go into a school of higher mis-education for another four or more. Otherwise there would be too many young people looking for too few jobs.

In fact so many jobs require reading skills more than anything else and especially the ability to write coherently.

Even computer training classes online at Harvard that claim to deal with programming, are more about manipulating packages of programs and understanding their concepts.

The world is full of stories about people who were overeducated in the very demanding so-called hard fields, and if the economy doesn’t need them, it’s the unemployment lines or any job they can get.

I am convinced that the most difficult subject is music and learning to play a musical instrument. And public schools seem to be cutting back on all their arts programs. Another one is drawing and painting, especially lifelike portraiture and sculpture. Whole periods of art history actually forgot how to do it or never learned.

BTW – it was either everyone in a mortgage or a lot more public housing. Apartments have not been built as frequently as condo’s since the 80s. Come on Mr. Wizard -haven’t you noticed? Being a landlord is a very risky business and no town or city’s taxpayers have ever liked public housing. In my self-employment in the architectural field since the early 80s, I never saw a single client building a new apartment building. Everything was an office park, planned unit development, office building or condominium building. Nobody wanted to rent, except office space.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive