“There’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
I was a sophomore in college in 1965 when I encountered my first protest. It was staged by a handful of my college’s hippie students. They were protesting the Viet Nam War. I laughed at their seemingly impotent action as I refused to take one of the pamphlets they were handing out and went to my biology class.
Four years later, I was part of a much larger anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. By then, the idea of protesting the Viet Nam War had become a national movement that changed the course of the nation’s history in ways that extended far beyond the ending of that particular war.
The Occupy Wall Street protests had a similar beginning when they first began a month ago. At first the protests didn’t even have a name. A small band of young people who looked like throwbacks to that hippie era of the ‘60s staged a protest in lower Manhattan, right on Wall Street to be precise.
Predictably, the police over-reacted, mace spraying some of the entirely non-violent protesters, who were refusing to disburse. Within New York, they became a news story. What were they protesting, a few curious reporters wanted to know. Did they have a message they wanted to convey?
The answer was a fairly non-descript expression of anger at the country’s most wealthy individuals and corporate entities. Unlike the tea party movement, which coalesced around antipathy to government spending, these protests were directed at the mega-rich and the corporations that, in the eyes of the protesters, are responsible for the demise of the nation’s economy.
Protest movements often start this way; where they end up can be an entirely different story. The Viet Nam protests are a fairly recent example, as they not only forced the end of the war but also ended the military draft and led inexorably to the end of the Cold War. (Richard Nixon took the first steps, Ronald Reagan took a few more, and Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to its ultimate demise.)
But the examples go back much farther. Consider the original tea party activists. They were only concerned with the British government’s tax on their tea. But the protest they staged led to an awareness across the colonies that British rule was no longer viable. The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War soon followed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As a movement still in its nascent stages, the Occupy Wall Street protests have already become more than a side show. The bare-breasted young women and the bongo-playing hippie types have given way to a more substantial, if not sophisticated, amalgam of disenchanted every-day folks. And the single staging area outside of the New York Stock Exchange has also expanded considerably. By last weekend, the number of similar protests had grown to over 1300 worldwide, with the number of protesters growing exponentially.
So, what are they protesting and where might it all lead?
At its core, they are protesting the loss of control over their own destiny. Or, put another way, they are protesting the failure of America’s version of capitalism. To be more specific, they are protesting soulless corporate power. “Corporations are not people,” reads one of the signs at the protests. The significance of that slogan must be understood if the protests are to have any larger effect. What it means is that American capitalism has become soulless; unfettered greed has led to an economy in which one percent of the country’s citizenry is amassing most of the wealth, while the other 99 percent is barely holding on.
The country’s middle class, once its preeminent economic and political strength, has become less potent as a marketing force and less attainable as a product of the economy. This reality is both the cause of the movement and the way to understand it.
Capitalism works best when there is open competition, between companies for profits, and between individuals for a share of the financial pie. Anti-trust laws, which prohibit monopolistic control by a single company of a specific market, are a recognition of the need to keep competitive balance, or, in another sense, to keep opportunities available. The idea is that if one company gets too big, it controls its particular market to the detriment of the overall vitality of the economy.
Similarly, when the wealth of the country is concentrated in the hands of a small number of the nation’s citizens, overall competitive balance suffers. The few who have most of the wealth no longer concern themselves with those who are beneath them. Instead, they look for ways to maintain and even increase their wealth. And those who don’t have the wealth are less able to gain it. The analogy to the corporate monopoly in this circumstance is plutocracy, wherein the society is ruled by its wealthiest individuals.
Seen in this light, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and its spread to a worldwide protest, makes complete sense, even if the individuals who started it may not have understood the theoretical basis of their protests.
In the end, human beings do not adapt well to subjugation, either of the political or economic variety. Politically, the Arab spring represented the reaction of a wide array of people to tyranny and governmental corruption. If governments refuse to tend to the needs and will of their populaces, those populaces will revolt.
Economically, the Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to reverse the plutocracy that American capitalism has become.
If the movement is to be successful, it will likely follow this course: As it gains momentum, leaders will emerge who speak truth to power. The most threatening of them will be vilified, even to the point of being labeled traitors. The super-rich will view the movement with disdain, as will their political surrogates. Police power will be used in an attempt to beat it down. Martyrs may even be created.
From there, the course of the movement will depend on the vitality of the political system. And then, things could really get interesting.