Are the Liberals Embracing Occupy Wall Street Rejecting Capitalism?

Just because the protests target the rich doesn't mean they fit into the organized left's platform

600 OWS Billionaire Time REUTERS Lucy Nicholson.jpg

When a movement rises up to target Wall Street fat cats and push for greater income equality, you might think that progressives everywhere would quickly latch on. But instead, some on the left are deeply skeptical of the Occupy Wall Street protests. They think its radical roots actually conflict with the modern progressive mission. They're right to be wary, but a shared source of anger with the Tea Party crowd should worry them as well.

Progressives Are Capitalists

A major criticism of the OWS movement comes from the progressive-leaning magazine The New Republic this month. This excerpt from its editorial in its November 3rd edition explains the heart of the complaint:

One of the core differences between liberals and radicals is that liberals are capitalists. They believe in a capitalism that is democratically regulated--that seeks to level an unfair economic playing field so that all citizens have the freedom to make what they want of their lives. But these are not the principles we are hearing from the protesters. Instead, we are hearing calls for the upending of capitalism entirely. American capitalism may be flawed, but it is not, as Slavoj Zizek implied in a speech to the protesters, the equivalent of Chinese suppression. "[In] 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV and films and in novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel," Zizek declared. "This is a good sign for China. It means that people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dream. Here, we don't think of prohibition. Because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It's easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism." This is not a statement of liberal values; moreover, it is a statement that should be deeply offensive to liberals, who do not in any way seek the end of capitalism.

Put another way, modern progressives believe in the foundation of current system, but want to reform it -- not start from scratch. They don't believe in socialism; they believe in what they believe would be a fairer capitalist system -- one with more progressive taxes and less crony capitalism. They see the path to a more progressive nation being more reasonably achieved through incremental changes, rather than tearing down the entire system and starting over.

To be sure, some at OWS rallies believe that too. The problem is that a fair number do not. That much is fairly evident by the rhetoric, as the editorial points out above.

The Tea Party Connection

But there's another danger that TNR doesn't consider. A part of OWS's anger is shared by the Tea Party: they're both critical of the bailouts. That's approximately where the similarities between the two movements begin and end. But this is an important point, because the mere concept of bailouts probably isn't so offensive to many progressives.

Most progressives I know believe that there is a place for the government to intervene in the market in some -- if not many -- cases. They would probably mostly object to the way in which the 2008 bailout was handled, not to the need for a bailout to occur. This, of course, contrasts starkly with those on the right that dismiss bailouts, no matter how grave the situation, as a lethal threat to the free market.

For example, the right is extremely critical of the GM/Chrysler bailout. But this wasn't exactly the sort of crony capitalism that progressives might disapprove of. The auto bailouts mostly benefitted union workers. The left, including the Obama administration, argues that the auto bailout saved tens or even hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The sort of anarchist-socialist radicals that can be found at the OWS protests threaten the progressive view that there are times when it is sensible and morally righteous for the government to intervene and prop up the economy, an industry, or even specific companies, if that action is thought to benefit the economy on a whole. The difference here is that the radicals think the occasional need for a bailout proves that capitalism is doomed and should be shuttered, while progressives believe that bailouts can help capitalism to work.

So why don't progressives just co-opt the movement and feed off its energy? They might find doing so difficult. As The New Republic points out, it has a "genuinely creepy" group-think process for setting policy. That will make it hard for outsiders to change its direction. If the more practical, reasonable voices on the left can't manage to break-in, then the movement may be doomed to be seen as an extremist effort by most Americans.

Image Credit: REUTERS Lucy Nicholson