Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.
Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.
In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.
I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn't allow him the means to live with dignity.
Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man's simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.
Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran's lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.
I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe. Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.
The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can't afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don't expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.
The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?
Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?
Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.
The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.
Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a "mere machine"—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a "perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things."
Hannah Arendt discusses Kant's use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:
Metaphor is ... the very substance of poetry"; without it, "there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen."
For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of "dog" or of "God" that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.
As Arendt writes:
[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains "concrete" and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and "the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations" through plausible associations by which images are joined together.
Arendt's point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.
That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, "fascinating and disquieting." It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.
The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon. She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that
"poetry," when read aloud, "will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points."
I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance "Floating the Tongue" is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world. In Arendt's words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge "the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances."
Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. "Politics," writes Hannah Arendt, "deals with the coexistence and association of different men." As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.
A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.
For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion. We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.
On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.
On July 13 of 2011, David Graeber published an essay in the Canadian journal Adbusters called "Awaiting The Magical Spark," an essay asking what it would take to set off a revolution in the West similar to those in the Middle East. It was the same day Adbusters put out its now infamous call for a movement occupying Wall Street.
On August 2nd, Graeber attended what was advertised as a General Assembly meeting on Bowling Green. An experienced anarchist, Graeber became angry that the General Assembly was actually a traditional protest meeting not interested in hearing ideas from the protesters. With two friends, he organized a splinter group that gathered on the other side of Bowling Green Park. It was this alternate General Assembly initiated by Graeber that, over the next six weeks, organized the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is one reason that David Graeber has been called the anti-leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Beyond his actual role as the original facilitator of OWS, Graeber has claim as well to being one of the movement's intellectual torchbearers. A Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmith's University in London, he has published widely on anarchism both in the ancient world and in the contemporary west. His book Direct Action: An Ethnography, is an ethnographic account of the anarchist movement and protests at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Just this year Graeber published Debt: The First 5000 Years, a rambling and also rambunctious revisionist history, one that argues against the moral grounds for repaying our debts. A constant refrain in Debt is that the moral responsibility to repay debts is part of an inhuman commercial logic.
Both Graeber's anarchism and his calls for a universal forgiveness of consumer and international debt—a forgiveness in the spirit of a biblical jubilee—has set him at the forefront of debates that swirl around the storm that is Occupy World Street. As he writes in Debt:
“It seems to me that we’re long overdue for some kind of biblical-style jubilee, one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary, not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality. That all these things are human arrangements and, if democracy is to mean anything, it is to the ability for all to agree to arrange things in a different way.”
Graeber's views may strike fear into the heart of Wall Street and the bankers who hold all those credits, but his radical proposals are catching on amongst many in the 99%. And some in the business press are taking notice. He was recently featured in an essay in Business Week Magazine. And the investing website Minyanville just published a rich interview with Graeber. This interview, done by Kevin Depew over at Minyanville, is your read for this Thanksgiving weekend..
In the Minyanville interview, Graeber says:
And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt. I would tell stories to people, very sympathetic people, liberal lawyers, well-meaning do-gooder types, and you’d tell these stories about horrible things. You know, in Madagascar, for example, the IMF came in with these policies, you have to cut the budgets because, god knows, we can’t reduce the interest payments you owe to Citibank, they owed all this money. And they had to do things like get rid of mosquito eradication programs, as a result that malaria returned to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had dead babies being buried and weeping mothers. I was there, I saw this sort of thing. You described this to people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts. You’re not suggesting they cancel it or default, that would be outrageous. And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt.
Well just such an outrageous act is what Graeber has in mind. Read on.
Occupy Wall Street has been looking for issues to coalesce around. Now the Canadian group Adbusters—the group that issued the initial call that began the protests—has proposed that Occupy Wall Street adopt a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions as its first issue. Here is their call to action.
The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is an idea that has lots of support amongst some economists. My friend David Callahan has been arguing for the FTT for a while now. By far the best and most balanced analysis of an FTT is by the IMF, here. On the positive side, the FTT has the advantage of being simple and intuitively attractive. But is a Financial Transaction Tax really a good issue for Occupy Wall Street to coalesce around?
The main problem is that the FTT employs a sawed off shot-gun approach to a real but specific problem and unintended consequences. Thus, the IMF study cited above concluded that a FTT would not clearly target financial excesses:
Where the goal is to curb financial market excesses, [FTT] offer a less specific remedy for the excessive leverage that is believed to cause them than other tax and/or regulatory solutions. Financial complexity does not derive solely or even primarily from trading activity. The buildup of hidden financial risks in the recent crisis resulted predominantly from excess leverage, risk concentration, and product innovation such as asset securitization, which would have been largely unaffected by a transactions tax. An [FTT] also does not directly address systemic risk.
The point is that the real problem in speculation is leverage and volatility. The FTT doesn't address leverage, and it doesn't target the high frequency traders who drive volatility. Instead, the FTT taxes ALL transactions.
What is more, the FTT will penalize smaller and retail investors—precisely those in the 99%. As the chart below shows, most stock in the U.S. is held by middle-class investors—those between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile. They are responsible for the vast majority of financial transactions (this is especially true since a large percentage of the equity holdings of the 1% in the chart are enormous trusts containing dividend paying stocks that have been held for generations and which never trade). Thus, the FTT falls most heavily on the people who own the most stock in the country and depend on that stock for our retirements and investments.
Another problem is that if the Financial Transaction Tax is not adopted globally, it may well drive trading off shore to even less well-regulated markets than our own. The U.S. tried a similar tax in the 1960s and repealed it when trading moved to London. Sweden tried a FTT tax in the 1980s and 1990s and repealed it later when trading fled to other countries.
Finally, the IMF concludes that the FTT would increase consumption and reduce savings by lowering the returns of investment and savings—a result directly opposite to at least some of the goals of Occupy Wall Street. In addition, the FTT discourages the rebalancing of portfolios, thus depressing total returns on mutual funds investments and 401ks.
So what might be some other ideas for Occupy Wall Street—and also our political leaders (such as they are)—to consider? Here are a few ideas that a number of professionals I spoke with mentioned:
1. Ban all High Frequency Trading. It has no purpose except to make some very big and wealthy firms money while increasing volatility for the rest of us. High frequency traders justify the practice as increasing market efficiency. But there is no economic justification to prefer a system that makes 1000 trades per second to one that makes 10 trades per second. Such trading is disruptive and very profitable. Ban it outright. Doing so would be much easier than getting the global cooperation needed to make a Financial Transaction Tax workable. And doing so would also make the U.S. markets more stable and thus give them a competitive advantage over other markets worldwide.
2. A Cancelled Order Tax. It turns out nearly 99% of the orders placed on Wall Street are never filled, but cancelled. A small percentage of these cancellations are just people changing their minds. But the vast majority of cancelled orders are used to manipulate prices by tricking other traders into thinking that a stock is moving in a particular direction. According to one study on an average trading day in 2010, only 1% of all the 89.7 billion orders were executed, which means that nearly 99% of all orders placed can be attributed to high frequency traders trying to manipulate stock prices. A tax on cancelled-orders has distinct advantages over a tax on all financial transactions. First, it will fall primarily on hedge funds and large high-frequency traders, and will not affect retail investors. Second, it will specifically target the casino-like aspect of Wall Street. A cancelled-order tax is not as simple or sexy as a financial transaction tax. Less has been written on it. But it actually seems like a better idea. Read more about the idea here and here.
3. Reinstate the Uptick Rule. Nearly every market professional I polled supports the re-instatement of the "Uptick Rule," a rule that was imposed in 1938 during the Depression and repealed in 2007—just before the market crash and the financial crisis. The Uptick Rule prevents hedge funds and traders from betting on falling stock prices when the markets are already falling, thus reducing volatility and reducing the ability of traders to make money by encouraging market panics. There is a debate about how effective the Uptick Rule is, but there seems to be little or no downside to reinstating it. The only people who oppose doing so are traders.
4. Taxing Corporate Debt and Leverage and Raising Margins. The IMF proposes taxing not financial transactions but corporate debt, thus discouraging corporations from using debt and leverage to finance their activities. As part of this approach, it would be wise to raise margin requirements, the amount of money that someone has to put up before buying a stock or financial instrument on credit.
While Hannah Arendt may not have been much interested in the minutiae of Wall Street regulation, she did care deeply about the importance of facts in thoughtful and reasoned argument. In just one week, on Friday Oct. 28, the Hannah Arendt Center will open our two-day conference on Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. When facts and opinions blur, reasoned argument falls prey to spin and deception. Politics is a realm of conflicting opinions, Arendt argued, but the opinions must necessarily be grounded on facts.
Whether or not the Financial Transaction Tax is a good idea, the debate around it should be based on solid knowledge of the financial system, the affects of such a tax, and also the alternatives. These are very complex issues and, in all honesty, much of the debate so far has traded in simplifications, soundbites, and falsehoods.
If Occupy Wall Street really wants to distinguish itself from the Tea Party and change our political culture, let's use this first foray into politics as an opportunity to model adult argument, something that has been absent from our public life for far too long. If they do want to model a future of fact-based decision making, they will do well to look deeply into the cons as well as the pros of a financial transaction tax. They would also do well to consult those people who work in financial markets daily. Many of these people—both those in the 99% and the 1%—want to eliminate market excesses and reign in the speculation and insanity that helped lead to the recent financial crisis. In the name of common sense and a way forward, let's have a real debate based in both fact and expertise.
Cornell West was one of the first celebrity academics to arrive at Occupy Wall Street last week. Because amplified sound is prohibited in Zuccotti Park—the protesters have never applied for a protest permit—the speaker's words are repeated by the audience to make them audible for larger groups. Thus West's refrain issued repeatedly in the dark and across Wall Street. The protests, still small on the ground, are growing wings in cyberspace. New protests are springing up in cities across North America, from Los Angeles to Boston and from Seattle to Toronto. Seven hundred people were arrested Sunday during a peaceful crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge (including at least 20 Bard College Students). Seven hundred United/Continental airline pilots joined the demonstration over the weekend, as did 15 U.S. Marines. Unions are pledging their support, suggesting that the protests may get a real boost from traditional organizing. Clearly, "Something is happening here, Mr. Jones." "Don't be Afraid to Say Revolution.
Suddenly--very suddenly--too suddenly?---we are living through a time of revolutionary possibility. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the possibility of revolution was joined with action. Dictators were overthrown, and a sense of possibility ignited. In Syria and Bahrain, the revolutionary movements are being suppressed, violently, quashing the hopes of local revolutionaries. Still elsewhere—in Israel, Spain, Greece, and most recently in the United States—the spirit of revolutionary hope is alive as well.
Skeptics abound, for good reason. Whether these springtime Arab blossoms will grow into hearty summer stalks is still not known. Indeed, it is unlikely. The real powers in Egypt, the military, remain in control, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more liberal democracy protesters have seen their dreams thwarted. Revolutions must not only tear down, but also build up; and building revolutionary institutions takes time. And yet, something is in the air. Everyone wants to judge the protesters. Are they good or bad? Before we judge, let's ask: What does this revolutionary moment mean? There is something going on here, but it is less radical and more dismal, than many of its supporters realize. That is not an indictment of Occupy Wall Street. But some reflection is called for. And a few points are in order.
1. The Question of Hope: There is something very noble, yes even hopeful, in the fact that many hundreds and even a few thousands of people are trying to have their say and make a difference. The numbers on the interweb are much larger, but the feet on the ground are significant, especially at a time of acknowledged bourgeois narcissism. What is it that motivates pilots, marines, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—not to mention the unemployed and underemployed—to occupy city squares in the Middle East, major boulevards in Israel, and parks in New York City, all to call for political change?
In an age when most people are content to be left alone by government to pursue their own private desires and dreams, how is that people around the world are suddenly acting and participating in politics?
2. One answer is public happiness. Arendt named the joy one experiences when acting in public "public happiness." Public happiness is the great treasure of all of those who live through revolutionary times and feel the exhilaration of acting in such a way as to make a difference in the world. One sees the joy in the faces and voices of the protesters. It is similar to the joy evidenced by Tea Partiers at the beginning of that revolutionary moment, before the Tea Party was taken over by ideologues. These protesters are learning, as do all revolutionaries, that freedom is found neither in the freedom from government nor in the welfare state bureaucracy, but in the "public happiness" found in acting together with others in public.
3. Another answer is anger. Where has the anger been? Banks have been bailed out; worse, so have the bankers. It is infuriating to hear bankers who have destroyed their companies and cost investors trillions defend their right to million-dollar bonuses. These are salaried employees who invest billions of dollars with great upside potential and no downside risk. These folks are not evil. The vast majority are not criminals. But they certainly are not the geniuses they think themselves to be, and most do not merit the exorbitant paydays that they have come to view as an entitlement.
Why is it that when AIG bankers insisted their contractually mandated bonuses be upheld after AIG received $182 billion from taxpayers, everyone gave in, but when pensioners demand their contractually guaranteed pensions, talking head after talking head says we have to get real and cut the pensions. The talking heads are right: the public union contracts that mayors and governors negotiated are as un-affordable as they are overly generous. But I am aghast that the senseless and unsustainable contracts of the bankers are seen as inviolable while those of public employees are rendered mere pieces of paper.
And then there is Ken Lewis, the CEO who drove Bank of America to insolvency. Lewis was not fired, nor has he been compelled to recoup the billions in bonuses he authorized for Merrill Lynch executives in 2008, the year Bank of America acquired the all but bankrupt Merrill Lynch. Indeed, all that “Pay Czar” Ken Feinberg demanded was that Bank of America limit the average size of bonuses in 2009 to $6.5 million.
And when Lewis himself finally resigned, he left with his own $125 million golden parachute, on top of the many millions he took home while bankrupting his company during the boom years. Three years later, excessive compensation of failed executives continues, as the NY Times reported just this week.
It is not radical or revolutionary to be incensed at the unqualified entitlement that pervades certain members of the financial community. There is a great deal in the Manifesto of Grievances put out by Occupy Wall Street that, as Henry Blodget admits, is downright reasonable (although much also that is nutty). This anger has been missing from our public discourse. Because of Occupy Wall Street, it may be finally coming to the fore. This is a good thing.
Anger need not be indiscriminate. There are plenty of good people on Wall Street and excellent businessmen and women. There is no need to demonize a whole profession, nor is there a value in simply insulting the wealthy. One of the ugly aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the indiscriminate anger at all wealthy people, as if being wealthy were wrong. Let's hope that the protests can focus their irate passions at the fraud and hubris of those who have continued to pay themselves multi-million dollar bonuses when their firms would have failed and gone belly up but for the generosity of their countrymen.
4. A third reason for these protests is The Loss of Governmental Legitimacy. Without a doubt, there is a growing sense that the powers that be have lost their right to rule. This was true in Egypt and Tunisia and is also the case in Israel and the U.S. Respect for government is a record lows, and for good reason. Illegitimate is a mild word for what many Americans are feeling. As my colleague Walter Russell Mead writes:
"Watching so many second class talents struggle against first class problems is a dispiriting exercise, especially when one reflects on the costs of failure. It is no secret anywhere that our leaders are failing. The Europeans know their political class is floundering; the Japanese have despaired of their politicians for almost a generation; in the US the only people less popular than President Obama are his Democratic allies and Republican adversaries in the US Congress."
There may be no better example of utter government incompetence and malfeasance than the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fiascos. If the Occupy Wall Street Protesters want a real, live culprit, here they have one. That the Democrats are protecting Fannie and Freddie is, quite simply, just as wrong as their refusal to bring criminal or civil suits against executives who engaged in fraud.
The vacuum in leadership fanned by a global wave of anti-elite anger risks radicalizing politics in dangerous ways. Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions. These protests began with a call to action from a Canadian group called Adbusters and its embrace by an organization of hackers called Anonymous, a group closely associated with Wiki-leaks. These are groups that also were intimately engaged in protests in the Middle East and around the world and they represent, above all, a particular view of democracy. The hope, it seems, is that if you just tear down all barriers to information, allow for absolute transparency, and present citizens with the facts, a citizen democracy will emerge that ushers in a more rational and fair system of government. This is actually a technological version of the communicative rationality theories made popular by Jürgen Habermas in the 20th century—the idea that in a system of transparent and perfect communication, democratic reason will lead to rational decisions. As a result, we don't need leaders, or elite institutions. A radical horizontal democracy is enough.
The call is for a "people-powered" movement. Of course not all the protesters embrace this, but Occupy Wall Street is propelled by the belief in the power of networked individuals, as well as a profound suspicion of all traditional and institutional power centers. The dream is to replace a government by governors and politicians with a government by the collective wisdom of the masses.
It is thus no accident that the masks worn by many protesters pay tribute to Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who was tortured and sentenced to be quartered (he killed himself instead) for his participation in the Gunpowder plot whose tagline read: “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”
The Tea party, as I noted earlier, provides us with an interesting comparison. It also began, initially, with individuals venting their anger. There was, and remains, a joy amongst the Tea Party faithful, one that comes from finding a public voice and engaging in public action. And it is a very similar joy that one can embrace amongst the protesters in Zuccatti Park. Very quickly, however, the Tea Party got directed by ideological leaders who have hijacked the Republican Party, an event that is both the source of its political strength and its intellectual incoherence.
What needs to be seen, though, is that there is a profound convergence between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. On both sides, there is deep dissatisfaction with Democratic representative government. The current zeitgeist seeks to replace democratic government with people power, to replace authority with transparency, to reject professionalism and expertise for cloud governance. Thus, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street need to be seen in connection to the extraordinary and surprising (again, to the mainstream media) success of the Pirates in Berlin. What all these movements share is a suspicion of representative democracy and traditional institutions.
5. It might be helpful to recall, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, that the fundamental elements of totalitarian governance are: 1) its disdain for government institutions and political limits; 2) its embrace of mass movements that overwhelm national boundaries as well as traditional moral and political limits; 3) its disdain for politics as usual; and 4) its susceptibility to coherent narratives rather than a confrontation with factual reality.
Let me be clear: I don't see fascist or totalitarian dangers at this point in the Occupy Wall Street or in the Tea Party movements . But that is largely because neither group has a message that is compelling to a large enough section of the population. Their marginality is at this point diminishing their threat. And yet, there are common elements to at least be aware of:
1) Opposition to the state: both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have a deep hostility to the state, as did totalitarian movements (but not fascist movements). That said, the TP is focused on state borders in a way that is closer to fascism than totalitarianism.
2) Both are MOVEMENTS, and thus to persist cannot have realizable goals, but must have goals that continue to shift and grow so that adherents always have issues to be motivated by.
3) Both display an aversion to facts and a tendency toward coherent myths at the expense of truth. The Tea Party imagines that all government spending is bad, even when confronted with the fact that it wants funding for certain entitlements, emergencies, and the military.
Occupy Wall Street wants to bring down Wall Street, empower the 99%, and eliminate student debt. They don't seem to realize that the standard of living they aspire to was possible because of the speculative boom that Wall Street's excesses made possible, and that the loss of debt-financing for students will decimate universities that depend on such funding and make a college education inaccessible to most Americans. BOTH organizations seem to believe that the solutions are clear, but neither side is actually willing to confront the depth of our economic and political problems and think about the collective sacrifice that would be required to address them. Furthermore, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have innovative and absolute readings of the U.S. Constitution. The Tea Party has somehow decided that the government regulation and taxation are unconstitutional. Occupy Wall Street has convinced itself that it has a constitutional right to protest without seeking permits. On both sides, the din of an echo-chamber of like-minded views compresses interesting opinions into unquestioned facts.
4) Both groups have bogeymen that stand in for all evils. The Tea Party excoriates immigrants and public unionists. Occupy Wall Street rails against bankers and anyone on Wall Street. Such blanket hatred can, of course, become dangerous.
6. What distinguishes Occupy Wall Street is its youthful and optimistic faith in technocratic solutions. I hope I have made my sympathies with the protesters clear; and yet, there are good reasons to ask serious questions of Occupy Wall Street.
In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:
"This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries." --Ms. Arendt, 1970.
The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives. Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?
The answer to this has to be no, at least, not yet. It is simply a mistake to think that our current problems flow from a lack of transparency and elitism. On both scores, it is more likely the opposite that is the case.
We are not suffering from a secret cabal of evil masterminds who plotted to bring down the world economy. The problem was not secrecy. On the contrary, the ballooning debt of the last 20 years, the massive student levels of student debt, the internet bubble, the real-estate bubble, the rise of speculation, the replacement of pensions with market-oriented retirement investing—none of these were secrets. Plenty of smart people warned us that we were walking on thin air, but we chose, collectively, not to listen.
Nor is elitism our present problem. In fact, we might have been served better if the so-called elites had actually acted a bit more like elites, and stood apart from the madness of the crowd feeding at the trough of easy money. If we had more true elites—people who felt themselves justified to judge the thoughtless, greedy, and common behavior of our bankers, politicians, and consumers—they might have been able to better deter us from our merry way. It may very well be that we are suffering today not from the cabal of elites, but from the absence of an elite culture that might be able to meaningfully resist and question the folly of crowd behavior.
If we really want be revolutionaries, as Arendt counsels, we must first of all face our present reality. Rather than secret evil machinations, our current world crisis is the result of millions of every day people acting thoughtlessly—knowing that they could not afford that new house, but buying it anyway; knowing they were selling and buying worthless bonds, but giddy at the possibility of flipping them to someone else at a handsome profit. Of course there was greed. But that is not going away. The information was there as well, we just did not want to see it. Transparency will not solve that.
7. The media coverage of the protesters has been excoriated. Some of it has been awful, focusing on the dirty laundry, or ignoring the protests altogether. There have also been demands for demands, which are answered either by vague manifestos or claims that this is a movement without leaders, one that like a startup will find its market as it grows. As Heather Gold notes it is telling that the metaphor for the protests comes from the lingo of internet startups. The revolution is offering a new product—the disaffected anger of the left and the center, combined with the need to believe that our lives matter and that we can make a difference. It is putting that anger out into the world, mixing it with the joy of public acting, and seeking a market for that potent brew.
The protests are growing and multiplying and undoubtedly they will lead to more clashes with the police. The question of violence will emerge, whether from the protesters’ camp or from the police. We should expect mistakes to be made on both sides. That should not diminish the demonstrators or what they are fighting for. We must break a few eggs to make an omelet, as Arendt writes in her essay, The Eggs Speak Up. Politics is, as Max Weber reminded us, not like a nursery. It is a mistake to be hyper-critical of Occupy Wall Street at this point. They will make strategic errors, (like bringing down the website of the new agency designed to regulate the banks!--why that target?). Despite inevitable missteps, the protesters are succeeding, it seems, in breaking enough eggs to finally wake some people up to the terrible tragedy that is unfolding around us. In this, they are similar to the Tea Party and yet also an antidote to the ideological rigidity that the Tea Party has adopted. For this reason alone, we should welcome Occupy Wall Street.