I've been watching the Occupy Wall Street protest in a kind of bemused and detached way since it started. They have yet to look serious or come up with a thoughtful, viable agenda. Their one saving grace up till now has been, in the words of Paul Krugman of the New York Times, that 'they are angry at the right people'.
So I like them—this great unwashed rabble of campers and activists—even though they seem to ricochet from issue to issue like amped up pinballs without understanding anything fully, or even adequately. Why do I like them? Because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They may not understand what they are doing, but they are down there in the financial district making trouble and impeding traffic and generally pissing off the Wall Street establishment. That's almost enough for me.
Things are beginning to change though. Occupy Wall Street is gathering momentum as a movement, and in no small measure due to the over-reaction of the police sent to maintain order and the screeching condemnations coming from conservative pundits and financial commentators on the usual cable outlets.
The protestors are still largely an unfocused mob with no clear agenda, but their persistence, their omnipresence on social media, and the ridiculous posturing of their detractors have given them an air of legitimacy. Lately, even Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, and President Obama have separately expressed philosophical empathy with the protest, if not in principle, at least with their level of frustration. '...Who can blame them?' Bernanke quipped. Well, seemingly a lot of people can blame them, but most of that blame is apparently going to come from the political right.
Indeed. Bernanke's rhetorical question is doubly curious in that one of the more consistent calls of the protest is for the complete and immediate dismantling of the Federal Reserve Bank. Bernanke will be out of a job if the protestors have their way and, given the timbre of some of the attendant tweets and rally signs coming out of the protests, he just might be tarred, feathered, and carried out of town on a rail in the bargain. Obama's remarks are more obviously self-serving, and that, to my thinking, is as problematic as the condemnations from the right because the protest is and ought to stay apolitical.
The initial Occupy Wall Street narrative went something like this: Wall Street greed and corruption have robbed us of our future. They have tanked the economy, cost millions of jobs, stripped us of the value that used to give us comfort in our homes and our retirement accounts. They have undermined our worth as individuals and as a nation. They have made us less secure, less safe, more vulnerable. When they had brought the whole financial system to the edge of collapse, they reached into our pockets yet again and got us to rescue them from their own folly. Now, while the rest of us are still trying to crawl out of the smoking ruins they left us, they are back to their old tricks, unchastened, unrepentant, and unrelenting in the pursuit of the rest of our happiness. This is a huge injustice that needs to be fixed, and we are going to camp here and raise a ruckus until somebody does something about it.
This is not a political narrative, although many seem tempted to make it one. The Wall Street pirates donate almost equally to both major political parties. There is a reason for this, and the first Occupiers of Wall Street seemed to understand as much.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle share the blame for the paucity of regulation and fiscal licentiousness that got us into this mess. While Democrats are held by Republicans to be the party of profligate spending, the deficit rose most dramatically under Republican administrations. And while Republicans are widely thought to be the party that champions the worst excesses of corporate America, some of the most egregiously enabling deregulation took place under Democrats. Our problems are not rooted in political ideology. They are rooted in a system whose controls were deliberately broken in exchange for political contributions and support made to both parties by what Matt Tabbai of Rolling Stone calls a new Grifter Class.
These thieves are the real enemy, and they have co-opted our democratic processes and our institutions for their own gain. What they do is not just greedy, not just larcenous. It is, in my opinion, treasonous. They have done more damage to this nation than any terrorist organization. They have undermined our strength, weakened our influence, stripped us of our freedom, and all without recourse to any ideological framework. They are not political. They are criminal. They use politics, to be sure, but only as a means to an end. The larger political issues of left versus right, progressive versus conservative, the tensioned balance between individual rights and majority rule mean nothing to them. Their only concern is have or have not.
The Occupy Wall Street protestors think this is wrong. They may be a raucous mob at this point. They may even, as conservative commentator Michelle Malkin has suggested, smell bad. There's no doubt they have expressed some crazy notions, some of them self-contradictory, but this is always a danger when you have deliberately tried to remain leaderless and organically democratic. One could level many of the same criticisms against that other infamous grass-roots protest movement—the Tea Party. Personally I think there is something to like about both groups. They each have legitimate grievances.
The danger is that all this unfocused frustration is easily co-opted by politics. Certainly the Tea Party has come to be identified with a kind of fundamental rebublican libertarianism. Now MoveOn.org is busy trying to marshal the energy of the Occupy Wall Street groups. This is a shame, really. There is much to like about the fact that the initial anger of the movement has been directed at real pirates and charlatans. The environment that made the piracy legal was created in Washington by Democrats and Republicans alike. The solutions to the problems are actually quite simple and even fairly well known, but they will have to be addressed with the same kind of bi-partisan co-operation that created them in the first place. Playing us versus them with these movements will just muddy the waters and delay any chance of real reform.