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Occupy Wall Street Faces a Winter of Discontent

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When a vehicle parked at Wall and Broad Streets exploded, it was a deliberate attempt at mass murder. The year was 1920. Historian John Steele Gordon looks at anti-capitalist sentiment through the ages.

The people occupying Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan were probably not happy with the surprise October snow storm that paralyzed the northeast two days before Halloween. Protesting is a lot more fun in nice weather.

But what are we to make of this phenomenon of hundreds of people camped out in a private (but open to the public) park and their confreres in other cities across the country? It’s hard to call it a movement, because that word implies a certain unity of direction and philosophy—a political agenda, in other words. Other than being anti-capitalist, there doesn’t seem to be a unified message here. Instead, there have been several anti-Semitic signs waved about, some violence, and many arrests in these protests.

Needless to say, there have been endless journalistic comparisons with the Tea Party movement that erupted in the summer of 2009 and has had a profound influence on American politics ever since. But the Tea Party, despite intense efforts to label them as racist, etc., have been astonishingly peaceful, respectful, and law-abiding. There were few arrests at Tea Party protests and the protestors even cleaned up after themselves. Their signs have had such a high degree of imagination that books have been assembled of them.

OWS seems about one-third protest, one-third pot party, and one-third upper-middle-class youthful self-indulgence.

To be sure, Tea Party supporters often insisted at town hall meetings that their congressmen and senators answer their questions rather than blow smoke, which caught many of these members of Congress, who were used to dealing with a toadying Washington press corps, badly off guard.

And the Tea Party has a very coherent agenda: reform Washington’s fiscal ways to prevent the United States from turning into Greece, unable to pay its debts and essentially bankrupt. Their political success so far has been astonishing. The mid-term election of 2010 was an epic rout of the tax-and-spend, business-as-usual forces. It gave the Republicans their largest majority in the House in decades, greatly reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate, and put President Obama’s re-election chances in serious jeopardy.

Is Occupy Wall Street (OWS) something new under the sun, or have we seen it before? While Wall Street has often been the object of political opprobrium, it has always been rhetorical rather than physical in nature. The great New York draft riot of 1863 that took place in the newspaper district, then just south of City Hall, and in what is now mid-town, was not directed against Wall Street. It was against the military draft necessitated by the Civil War and the fact that the affluent could escape it by paying $300.

OWS bears much more of a resemblance to the anti-war protests of the 1960s and the recurring protests that have marred meetings of the World Trade Organization.

To be sure, in 1920, a horse-drawn wagon pulled up in front of J. P. Morgan and Co. at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets a little before noon and exploded. It was a deliberate attempt at mass murder—the wagon had been loaded with cut up pieces of iron sash weights—and killed about 40 people. Had it gone off 20 minutes later, it would have killed hundreds of people eating their lunches on the steps of Federal Hall in the beautiful September weather. The crime was never solved and seems to have been the last major outrage of the dying 19th-century anarchist movement.

But even in the early 1930s, when Wall Street was blamed for much of the disaster of the Great Depression (in part correctly), there were no physical demonstrations on or even near Wall Street. Union Square, a few miles uptown, was the center for political demonstrations in that decade. Most of them were more concerned with the right to unionize rather than with Wall Street.

OWS bears much more of a resemblance to the anti-war protests that so marked the late 1960s and the recurring protests that have marred meetings of the World Trade Organization as it works to eliminate global trade barriers. In 1999, Seattle—a city known for its peaceful ways—was the scene of a mass protest against the WTO that involved about 40,000 people. It caught the city police force completely by surprise. While reports of Molotov cocktails were erroneous, store windows were smashed and hundreds of people arrested.

The Tea Party, despite intense efforts to label them as racist, etc., have been astonishingly peaceful, respectful, and law-abiding.

As with OWS, there has been little political coherence to these WTO protests other than a generalized anti-capitalist and a thorough-going ignorance of economic history. The collapse of global trade in the 1930s was one of the prime reasons the Great Depression was so long and so deep. Globalization has been one of the prime reasons inflation has been tame for the last three decades and the prices of many goods have declined.

So it is hard to take Occupy Wall Street entirely seriously. One young man interviewed by a television reporter was asked what he wanted. He replied “To destroy capitalism.” But when asked the obvious next question—to replace it with what—a deer-in-the-headlights expression passed over his face. He seems not to have thought things through that far.

Unlike the Tea Party, with its seriousness and its phenomenal success in changing the political landscape, OWS seems about one-third protest, one-third pot party, and one-third upper-middle-class youthful self-indulgence. As winter weather changes from the meteorologically extraordinary to the routine, I suspect it will fade away, leaving only a vast mess for someone else to clean up.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “The Henry Ford of Our Time,” “English: The Inescapable Language,” and “The End of the Book?” Jonah Goldberg offers "OWS Needs a Republican President." Peter J. Wallison describes "Wall Street's Gullible Occupiers," and AEI's November Political Report surveys OWS's popularity.

Image by Darren Wamboldt | Bergman Group | Flicker User: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kapkap/

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