Occupy Wall Street's Greatest Strength Is Neutering It

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Attacking a symbol made the protest movement powerful, provoked a backlash, and made reform an unlikely outcome
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In the Joan Didion essay "Goodbye to All That," the California born writer observes that it is not possible for people in the East to appreciate what New York City means to other Americans. "To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best's and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live," she writes. "But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions ("Money," and "High Fashion," and "The Hucksters"), New York was no mere city."

Instead it was "an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power," and so it remains. The Occupy Wall Street protestors beat their drums in lower Manhattan within sight of big financial firms and their suits. But their chants aren't aimed at Goldman Sachs and its board, or junior executives who commute in from Connecticut, so much as the average American's idea of Wall Street. The symbol is what gives the protestors and their movement the bulk of its strength -- and it is, at the same time, the movement's fatal weakness.

How to explain this seeming contradiction?

The protestors benefit by treating Wall Street as an abstraction because it permits them to tap into familiar narratives. Allies are made of everyone who believes, as so many do, that dishonest financial elites take advantage of the basically honest masses; that big, greedy corporations maximize their profits by screwing regular folks; that the top one percent of Americans possess wealth that is obviously incommensurate with what they've earned relative to "the 99 percent."

For Occupy Wall Street, the problem is that a counter-narrative every bit as familiar also appeals to many Americans. These are people who believe that wealth in this country accrues to talented people who work hard and benefit their fellow man through the market; that envying the successful is a kind of poison corrosive to any society; that to attack Wall Street is the same as declaring that you've got no confidence in capitalism itself; and that for all its flaws, our free market economic system has generated tremendous wealth and prosperity for rich and poor alike.

So long as the protestors in the financial districts of American cities attack symbolic Wall Street, they'll attract folks who see the world the same way that they do. As Matt Yglesias writes, it's "an incredibly useful platform for engagement and education." But an attack on symbolic Wall Street inevitably provokes a backlash by defenders of symbolic Wall Street, for whom it symbolizes different things. The ensuing debate is no likelier to end in a declared winner than a long conversation about political philosophy between Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter.

There is a time for battling over first principles and political philosophy, especially for those of us who enjoy doing it. But it isn't all the time. How remarkable that in America, where the political spectrum is so narrow relative to other countries, and the consensus in favor of being a mostly free market liberal democracy so large, our politics is so frequently mired in ideological battles; and waged in rhetoric that is absurd when one reflects on the continuity in ideology and policy from one Congress and presidency to another. It's no wonder that so many Americans are frustrated by political debate, political protest, and political campaigns. More often than not, they're all conducted at a level of abstraction that is both needless and maddening.

What drum circle would I join? 

One dedicated to the proposition that it's often enough to grapple with the world as it is -- to see that we're not confronted by the impossible question, "Is Wall Street basically good or malign;" what we must actually answer are questions like, "What sort of regulations, if any, should govern the market for derivatives of mortgaged backed securities," and "Should the federal government subsidize home ownership," and "What should the reserve requirements be for lending institutions."

Those are contentious questions, and they can't be totally separated from value judgments or political philosophy. But they're manageable, in a society that agrees about as many things as ours, if we take them discretely, and avoid elevating them into symbolic battles about bigger things whenever it is possible. Figuring out precisely how to feel about Occupy Wall Street or "We are the 53 Percent" is difficult for many. Much easier to decide that it's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon; or that it actually doesn't make sense to blame Wall Street for inflation in college costs, the student loan market they spurred, and the culture that sent a message to too many young people that borrowing for education is always a good investment.

What I wonder is how many of the protestors realize that the case against symbolic Wall Street is actually much weaker than the one against actual Wall Street. Symbolic Wall Street is the financial center of earth's most prosperous country. Actual Wall Street's most powerful firms bear responsibility for the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. At times, actual Wall Street violated the law. It squandered many billions of dollars, inflating the market for mortgage backed securities that the people in charge didn't even understand. Taxpayer money was subsequently redistributed to these firms. That is a powerful case that reform is needed.

There is, however, a robust market in America for ideological thinking, for turning every matter into an epic battle in the war between right and left, red and blue, "the 53 percent" and "the 99 percent." Doing so swells the profits of Fox News and the email lists of Occupy Wall Street organizers and their allies, among many others. They're all in theoretically defensible businesses; but perverse incentives are at play, and we ought to insist, regularly, that we won't go along.

We ought to avoid always treating politics as "an infinitely romantic notion," for while there is a time for doing so, it's too often indulged. We too seldom address problems with solutions characterized by pragmatism and narrowness; we too seldom celebrate a proposal precisely because it permits us to improve the status quo without having to grapple with the bigger questions.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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