WHEN the Occupy protest movement began, how twenty-first century it seemed: leaderless, emergent and driven by a fury at unprecedented cronyism between high finance and high politics. But how quickly it has decayed, in its London incarnation at least, into reheated anti-capitalist slogans with nothing original to say.
Commerce is ancient, and so is the criticism of it. More than two thousand years ago, the supreme Latin poet Virgil wrote in the Aeneid: “To what crime do you not drive the hearts of men, accursed hunger for gold?” In 120AD, shoppers in the forum of Oinoanda in Asia Minor had to trade under a minatory inscription from the works of Epicurus that warned them “one must regard wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing.” Even Aristotle, perhaps Western civilisation’s most important philosopher, thought trade was inconsistent with human virtue and that ancient Greek agoras – their forerunner to the Roman forum – “should be clear of all merchandise”.
The deep and ancient roots of this kind of criticism run all the way up to our own time, through an aristocratic disdain for those whose money came from trade to the snobbish dislike of new money in the 1980s. Today it is embodied in anti-capitalist protests and May Day marches.
But there is a crucial difference between the old antagonism for commerce and its modern inheritors. Today we know it was a mistake. We now know that a suspicion of free exchange held back human society for centuries from the unimaginable economic benefits that we have witnessed. Since the eighteenth century, when a theoretical appreciation of trade’s benefits in the work of Adam Smith met its practical demonstration in the industrial revolution, millions have been and continue to be lifted from poverty and subsistence by the power of capitalism.
Aristotle and Virgil had an excuse for their error. They had not seen what trade could do. What makes the stale anti-capitalist slogans at St Paul’s so dispiriting is not just that they lack originality, but that the ancient suspicion they echo has been visibly disproved. To be anti-capitalist in fifth-century Athens was wrong but not so obviously foolish; to be so in a twenty-first century city made rich by trade is at best incoherent.
And yet, despite the evidence, these old and ugly suspicions abide. A cardboard sign waved outside St Paul’s cries “Ban Usury”, as if it were still the Middle Ages, and we did not know what that prohibition meant, not just in terms of economic restriction, but for the fate of Europe’s Jews.
Anti-capitalism is a kind of mental zombie. It’s intellectual case is dead, but still it rises again and again, hungry to eat up our brains and turn us too into empty, destructive enemies of prosperity and peace. This camp is now just the latest successor to the Carnival against Capital in the summer of 1999, which ended in violence and damage to the LIFFE building; it is cousin to the May Day protests of 2000, that ended with Churchill’s statue and the cenotaph defaced. There was a spark of justice in the initial motive behind the Occupy movement, but its current representatives have nothing to offer but an empty atavism.