Occupy Wall Street  
comments_image Comments

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

Only weeks ago, an eerie unprotesting silence still blanketed the country. That's all over now.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share

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 exposés 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). 

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. 

 
See more stories tagged with: