I’ve generally been skeptical of protest movements over the years. This is largely for two reasons: a) I’m always suspicious of anyone who claims to have magically discovered The Solution and that everyone else is wrong, especially in relation to complex issues like, y’know, the world economy; and b) the fact that my political views are of a generally left-wing bent invariably means that attending protest marches involves spending time with the sort of irksome hippies for whom political engagement means playing bongos and riding oversized unicycles.
Having said that, I wandered down to the Occupy Wall Street march in Washington Square today. Or, at least, I tried to — since I was stuck at home working all day, it was pretty much finished by the time I got there. So it goes. But even with the bulk of the protesters having dispersed for the day, I was impressed to see that there was a pretty broad spectrum of society represented — sure, there were the hippies and their bongos, along with the rent-an-anarchist minority who invariably turn up at all such events, but there were all sorts of others: old ladies with small, nervous dogs; families with large, expensive prams; tourists; students; and even the occasional businessman.
Ordinary people, in other words, not rabble-rousers who are out to “destroy jobs”, as Michael Bloomberg rather hysterically claimed this afternoon, but who are largely fed up with… well, everything, really. I doubt many of the attendees want to storm the barricades and shut down the stock exchange, or run the banks out of town, or any of the other sensationalist motives that have been ascribed to Occupy Wall Street over the last couple of weeks. Most of them looked like they were there to voice a general discontent, and then go home and make dinner.
This, of course, isn’t the impression you’d get from reading news reports, which largely focus on the people carrying placards proclaiming class war. Having ignored the protests at first, politicians, policemen and other bastions of civic goodness are now doing their best to portray the protesters a mixture of communist agitators and well-meaning but hopelessly naive folk who are talking about things they couldn’t possibly understand. All this is predictable enough, but it doesn’t make it any less infuriating.
It may well be that the protesters are idealistic and naive, but it’s a sad state of affairs if idealism is something to sneeze at (or bad for tourism, as Bloomberg rather hilariously griped today — since America’s freedom is what the rest of the world is apparently jealous of, shouldn’t such demonstrations of freedom be a tourist attraction or something?) And more to the point, people are justifiably tired of being patronized by those like Bloomberg, whose alleged economic savvy has left the world economy in a right old mess.
I don’t think for a minute the majority of OWS protesters know how to fix things. I suspect they’d be the first to admit this. But I also suspect that the people sneering at them have no idea how to fix things either. Economists and politicians have been telling the public for years that economics is all far too difficult for ordinary people to understand, and that we should just put our faith in the free market, and that we should rejoice that we’re living in a society where the sort of executives who appear as if they’d have trouble running a bath, let alone a company, can earn epic amounts of money for their ineptitude because somehow, magically, the benefits will trickle down to the rest of us. The events of the past few years have proven this to be a lot of self-serving piffle, an excuse to make very large sums of money, and pay very little (if any) tax on it.
The fact that these lines are still being trotted out are probably exactly what plenty of the protesters are angry about in the first place. Apart from the lunatic fringe, no-one doubts that a healthy free market economy is good for society. But having said that, the thoroughly disingenous bleatings about “stifling innovation” and “penalizing business” and etc that invariably get trotted out whenever any politician is brave or stupid enough to mention anything like an increase in the highest marginal rate of tax, or stricter corporate governance, or limits on executive remuneration… well, they’re getting old. The right has subsisted for far too long on the apparently limitless capacity of the US voter to buy into idiot rhetoric that leads them to vote in direct contradiction to their own self-interest. It never ceases to amaze me.
So anyway, I find Occupy Wall Street fascinating. It seems to me to be very much a protest movement for our times. In the past, people protested in search of the fulfillment of definable political desires — they wanted the government to step down, or they wanted greater social freedoms, or they wanted a war to end, or they wanted more food stamps or something. In America in 2011, no-one’s really demanding anything concrete. They want things to change, sure, but exactly how… Who knows? I don’t feel there’s any manifesto here beyond asking the denizens of Wall Street if they’d stop being self-serving shitheads, please.
If anything, this is a sort of expression of general disillusionment, and I think it ties into a greater issue, which is a general sense of ennui and alienation from the political and economic processes that govern our lives. Do you know anyone who wants to go into politics, for instance? I wasn’t alive in the ’60s and ’70s, but I get the sense that previous generations perhaps felt that they could engage directly with the world of politics and affect how they were governed, either by protesting or by becoming directly involved in political parties, etc.
I don’t know anyone my age (I’m 33) or below who feels that way today. And I don’t even think it’s a generational thing — I don’t really know anyone older than me who maintains a belief in the political process either. I don’t think I’ve ever had a casual meeting with someone who’s a member of a political party. People are cynical about politics because it’s a cynical business, dominated by vested interests, populated by ideologically bankrupt ultra-pragmatists like Dick Cheney and/or lunatic demagogues like Sarah Palin and Ron Paul. They all think the electorate are morons, simpletons who can’t be trusted with the real issues and are fit only to be manipulated into voting on message with a load of rhetoric about peace, and freedom, and other abstract nouns.
So has it ever been, you might argue, but I’m not sure — sure, politics has always been dirty, but I wonder whether there’s been a time since the electorates of so many liberal democracies have felt as alienated and disenfranchised as they do today. Sure, there have certainly been examples in such systems where power has been almost entirely removed from the hands of voters (Americans might find the history of the vile Bjelke-Petersen government in the Australian state of Queensland to be interesting reading). But I feel that there’s a huge amount of people who view both our political system and our financial system as closed, arcane machines that are both inaccessible and yet able to have huge impacts on their lives.
Take, for instance, interest rates, a subject dear to the heart of Australian society — if like most of Australia you have a gargantuan mortgage, any minor fluctuation in interest rates sends hearts racing. But how many people really understand what causes such fluctuations? They’re a manifestation of a million variables that have their basis in everything from China’s appetite for Western Australian steel to whether Greek public servants are willing to take a pay cut. If I can get mildly Marxist on y’all for a minute here, there’s an analogy to be drawn with Marx’s theories of alienation of produce and labor — this is kind of a parallel case, where the tangible fruit of your labor can be whisked away in a moment due to forces beyond your control. It seems to me that OWS is the latest manifestation of this feeling.
Curiously enough, in this respect, OWS have something in common with the Tea Party — I’m not the first to draw this comparison, and I don’t doubt that it’s not really appreciated by either side of the equation, but it’s a valid one in that both movements represent a general sense of being fed up with the people who are supposed to represent their respective ends of the political spectrum. And curiously enough, I respect the Tea Party (no, I can’t quite believe I typed that either) for one reason and one reason only: they have an ideology. Of sorts. Sure, it’s a reprehensible load of shite with which I disagree on virtually every point, but at least there’s something to disagree with. And if I happened to hold their ridiculous views, I’d probably be somewhat peeved that my former pin-up had gone back to hunting moose and my other alternatives consisted of a pair of clowns arguing about who’s the proper Christian.
But anyway, I digress. Whatever you think of OWS’s motives or their complaints, they’re right about one thing — the solution to the world’s economic problems surely don’t lie in a continuation of the sort of laissez-faire let-the-market-sort-it-out piffle that’s been proposed for decades a a kind of economic panacea, with much high minded scoffing at anyone who doubted its efficacy. And more importantly, they’re a manifestation of a wider feeling of alienation, a feeling that I think politicians ignore at their peril.
Or perhaps not — perhaps the OWS crew could settle themselves in Zuccotti Park until the world ends and not change a thing, because the system against which they’re protesting is too deeply entrenched. But if that’s the case, one has to wonder where it eventually goes from here. It’s no accident that OWS have adopted “I am the 99%” as their slogan, because the rich and privileged in the USA today are a very small and select group. And if you look through history at societies where there’s a small minority who get mega-rich and everyone else shovels shit… things don’t end well, do they?