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.