If Occupy Wall Street signals the end of our own, atypical period of acquiescence, could a return to a version of "class warfare" that would, once upon a time, have been familiar to so many Americans be on the horizon? Finally!
What began as a relatively sparsely attended and impromptu affair has displayed a staying power and magnetic attractiveness that has taken the country, and above all the political class, by surprise. A recent rally of thousands in lower Manhattan, where demonstrators marched from the city's government center to Zuccotti Park, the location of the "occupiers" encampment, was an extraordinarily diverse gathering by any measure of age, race, or class. Community organizations, housing advocates, environmentalists, and even official delegations of trade unionists not normally at ease hanging out with anarchists and hippies gave the whole affair a social muscularity and reach that was exhilarating to experience.
Diversity, however, can cut both ways. Popular protest, to the degree that there's been much during the recent past -- and mainly over the war in Iraq -- has sometimes been criticized for the chaotic way it assembled a grab-bag of issues and enemies, diffuse and without focus. Occupy Wall Street embraces diverse multitudes but this time in the interest of convergence. In its targeting of "the street of torments," this protean uprising has, in fact, found common ground. To a historian's ear this echoes loudly.
Karl Marx described high finance as "the Vatican of capitalism," its diktat to be obeyed without question. We've spent a long generation learning not to mention Marx in polite company, and not to use suspect and nasty phrases like "class warfare" or "the reserve army of labor," among many others.
In times past, however, such phrases and the ideas that went with them struck our forebears as useful, even sometimes as true depictions of reality. They used them regularly, along with words like "plutocracy," "robber baron," and "ruling class," to identify the sources of economic exploitation and inequality that oppressed them, as well as to describe the political disenfranchisement they suffered and the subversion of democracy they experienced.
Never before, however, has "the Vatican of capitalism" captured quite so perfectly the specific nature of the oligarchy that's run the country for a generation and has now run it into the ground. Even political consultant and pundit James Carville, no Marxist he, confessed as much during the Clinton years when he said the bond market "intimidates everybody."
Perhaps that era of everyday intimidation is finally ending. Here are some of the signs of it -- literally -- from that march I attended: "Loan Sharks Ate My World" (illustrated with a reasonable facsimile of the Great White from Jaws), "End the Federal Reserve," "Wall Street Sold Out, Let's Not Bail-Out," "Kill the Over the Counter Derivative Market," "Wall Street Banks Madoff Well," "The Middle Class is Too Big To Fail," "Eat the Rich, Feed the Poor," "Greed is Killing the Earth." During the march, a pervasive chant -- "We are the 99%" -- resoundingly reminded the bond market just how isolated and vulnerable it might become.
And it is in confronting this elemental, determining feature of our society's predicament, in gathering together all the multifarious manifestations of our general dilemma right there on "the street of torments," that Occupy Wall Street -- even without a program or clear set of demands, as so many observers lament -- has achieved a giant leap backward, summoning up a history of opposition we would do well to recall today.
A Century of Our Streets and Wall Street
One young woman at the demonstration held up a corrugated cardboard sign roughly magic-markered with one word written three times: "system," "system," "system." That single word resonates historically, even if it sounds strange to our ears today. The indictment of presumptive elites, especially those housed on Wall Street, the conviction that the system over which they presided must be replaced by something more humane, was a robust feature of our country's political and cultural life for a long century or more.
When in the years following the American Revolution, Jeffersonian democrats raised alarms about the "moneycrats" and their counterrevolutionary intrigues -- they meant Alexander Hamilton and his confederates in particular -- they were worried about the installation in the New World of a British system of merchant capitalism that would undo the democratic and egalitarian promise of the Revolution.
When followers of Andrew Jackson inveighed against the Second Bank of the United States -- otherwise known as "the Monster Bank" -- they were up in arms against what they feared was the systematic monopolizing of financial resources by a politically privileged elite. Just after the Civil War, the Farmer-Labor and Greenback political parties freed themselves of the two-party runaround, determined to mobilize independently to break the stranglehold on credit exercised by the big banks back East.
Later in the nineteenth century, Populists decried the overweening power of the Wall Street "devil fish" (shades of Matt Taibbi's "giant vampire squid" metaphor for Goldman Sachs). Its tentacles, they insisted, not only reached into every part of the economy, but also corrupted churches, the press, and institutions of higher learning, destroyed the family, and suborned public officials from the president on down. When, during his campaign for the presidency in 1896, the Populist-inspired "boy orator of the Platte" and Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan vowed that mankind would not be "crucified on a cross of gold," he meant Wall Street and everyone knew it.
Around the turn of the century, the anti-trust movement captured the imagination of small businessmen, consumers, and working people in towns and cities across America. The trust they worried most about was "the Money Trust." Captained by J.P. Morgan, "the financial Gorgon," the Money Trust was skewered in court and in print by future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, subjected to withering Congressional investigations, excoriated in the exposes of "muckraking" journalists, and depicted by cartoonists as a cabal of prehensile Visigoths in death-heads.
As the twentieth century began, progressive reformers in state houses and city halls, socialists in industrial cities and out on the prairies, strikebound workers from coast to coast, working-class feminists, antiwar activists, and numerous others were still vigorously condemning that same Money Trust for turning the whole country into a closely-held system of financial pillage, labor exploitation, and imperial adventuring abroad. As the movements made clear, everyone but Wall Street was suffering the consequences of a system of proliferating abuses perpetrated by "the Street."
The tradition the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have tapped into is a long and vibrant one that culminated during the Great Depression. Then as now, there was no question in the minds of "the 99%" that Wall Street was principally to blame for the country's crisis (however much that verdict has since been challenged by disputatious academics).