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).
Insurgencies by industrial workers, powerful third-party threats to replace capitalism with something else, rallies and marches of the unemployed, and, yes, occupations, even seizures of private property, foreclosures forestalled by infuriated neighbors, and a pervasive sense that the old order needed burying had their lasting effect. In response, the New Deal attempted to unhorse those President Franklin Roosevelt termed "economic royalists," who were growing rich off "other people's money" while the country suffered its worst trauma since the Civil War. "The Street" trembled.
"System, System, System": It would be foolish to make too much of a raggedy sign -- or to leap to conclusions about just how lasting this Occupy Wall Street moment will be and just where (if anywhere) it's heading. It would be crazily optimistic to proclaim our own pitiful age of acquiescence ended.
Still, it would be equally foolish to dismiss the powerful American tradition the demonstrators of this moment have tapped into. In the past, Wall Street has functioned as an icon of revulsion, inciting anger, stoking up energies, and summoning visions of a new world that might save the New World.
It is poised to play that role again. Remember this: in 1932, three years into the Great Depression, most Americans were more demoralized than mobilized. A few years later, all that had changed as "Our Street, Not Wall Street" came alive. The political class had to scurry to keep up. Occupy Wall Street may indeed prove the opening act in an unfolding drama of renewed resistance and rebellion against "the system."
Steve Fraser is Editor-at-Large of New Labor Forum, a TomDispatch regular, and co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books). A historian of Wall Street, his most recent book on the subject is Wall Street: America's Dream Palace. He teaches history at Columbia University.
Copyright 2011 Steve Fraser