America Returns to Our Proud History of Hating -- and Fighting -- Wall Street
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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.