Decoding the protests occupying Wall Street

AMERICA’S left may finally have found its answer to the Tea Party. Over the last four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has gone from a local curiosity to a national phenomenon, with copycat protests in several cities across the US, including Washington DC. In a sure sign that it is being taken more seriously, this week OWS has found both Hollywood celebrities and big labour unions trying to shelter under its anti-corporatist banner. Its moment in the spotlight may soon pass, but then, people said the same thing of the Tea Party, mocking and marginalising its members until their persistence and anti-tax integrity made grudging acceptance the only option.

Many commentators are now writing off these protestors for their lack of a clear vision of reform. No doubt there is little original or penetrating analysis in some of their anti-capitalist placards – or in the idea that an America without Wall Street would be a better place.

But they also have a point.

Like the Tea Party, this is a modern, decentralised, social-media-empowered campaign. While started by the Canadian pressure group AdBusters, it has taken on a life of its own. It survives and thrives, at least for the moment, because it crystallises a widely-shared disquiet. Its headless network varies in the conclusions it draws from that feeling, giving the impression that it lacks a clear platform. But in its collective heart is a visceral disgust at the intimate dealings between a wealthy political class in Washington and a wealthy class of financiers in Wall Street, while the American economy flounders. AdBusters state that their central demand is to “separate money from politics”.

This movement is based on folk economics, not statistical depth, but Main Street America is hurting, and its power brokers are neither hurting nor, as unemployment hovers around 9 per cent, do they seem to be helping much either. The protestors are right to criticise the corporatist tilt of the Obama administration, which has not only strong Wall Street ties, but has turned GM into Government Motors and has used its bully pulpit to back flawed green energy projects like Solyndra with American taxpayers’ money.

But they risk drawing the wrong conclusions.

While OWS is the self-styled resistance against a world where big politics and big business live in one another’s pockets, many of its largely leftist followers are marching to demand that government should be doing more for them instead. But it is exactly such demands that gave government the power that made it a prey to corporate capture.

The answer to big politics is not to change the interest group it favours – big business or the unions, corporatism is a drag on innovation and a barrier to those without the right connections. Its regulatory distortions create the kind of dangers that the financial crisis made evident, with ratings agencies an uncontested oligopoly and huge financial firms aware that if their decisions were wrong, they would not have to bear the consequences.

The only answer to big government and its culture of cronyism is small government and a culture of personal responsibility. If the protestors could recognise this, and make common cause with the Tea Party, together they might stand a chance of restoring not only the American economy, but the American Dream, too.

First published: City A.M., 7/10/11

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Filed under Business, Finance, Freedom, Politics

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