Occupy Wall Street and the Missing American Revolution
What is the historic context and potential significance of the protest movement directed against Wall Street?
October 27, 2011
The amount of intensity and occasional silliness with which the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is sought to be discredited is very self-revealing. The movement’s own antics aside, it does symbolize a deep-seated frustration, shared by many Americans, that the country doesn’t really work well for them.
While they are still amazingly leery to say so out loud and, as always, too busy to protest, many Americans sense that politics and business in Washington and in state capitals around much of the country have first and foremost served top income earners’ interests.
What is only slowly emerging is that the widely held, even foundational belief cherished by most Americans — that their country was born in a revolution — is a historic fallacy.
The founding myth notwithstanding, what the Continental Army and the Founding Fathers did was to shake off the yoke of a foreign king and put Americans in charge of their own destiny. Out went King George III of Great Britain and the Loyalists — and in came another set of economic elites. Call them the American Patriots, albeit primarily in the rather narrow subspecies of white male American property owners.
Not to belittle their efforts, getting rid of a foreign ruler, whether truly oppressive or more of an irritant, is an achievement of historic significance. Other victims of foreign colonization — in particular, dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America — only accomplished the same outcome roughly two centuries later.
However, it does not a revolution make. The event would be more appropriately called a liberation. In sharp contrast, real revolutions are always socio-economic in nature.
The essential measure of a true revolution is whether the cardinal moment — call it “your throat or my share, sir,” spoken at knifepoint — ever occurs. That, more than anything else in the history of nations, is what determines whether a society develops a real sense of social and economic equity over time.
There are those who would argue that the triumph of Andrew Jackson in 1828 was a real democratic political revolution. It toppled America’s traditional elite and brought democracy and populism to the seat of political power. But this democratic revolution was also mercilessly racist against black slaves, Mexico and Mexicans — and most of all against American Indians.
Much of contemporary U.S. history seems to be designed to stamp out the remnants of this popular 1830s revolt.
It is highly revealing that today, social and economic equity remains one of the most derided concepts in the eyes of much of the American establishment. If anything, it is more in disfavor now than during the Founders’ times.
And yet, it is not a clandestine term to connote socialism, as Fox & Co. still wants to make the American people believe. Rather, it is what brings about, pardon the pun, a fair and balanced society and democracy.
What about the argument that the American “Revolution” was indeed one — in the sense that it did not require any social upheaval by virtue of the fact that the United States was a democracy from its inception?
In that view, America was lucky not to need a real revolution to achieve the same end result as those more stubborn Europeans with their entrenched forms of social stratification. The United States — never having had feudalist structures to begin with — did not need to shake them loose in any bloody manner.
By that standard, being born without kings, princes and counts was understood to mean that social balance is put into place permanently, obviating the need for any social upheaval.
That certainly seems to be a compelling argument, especially considering that in many European nations the establishment of democracy was the end result of a usually prolonged and painstaking process of shaking off their royals.
In fact, the shakier the economy there got at the time, the more did the latter overlords seek to extract an ever-larger share of economic benefits from the country. Predictably enough, their increasing excesses and breathtaking intransigence often triggered what they intended to avoid the most: bloody bouts of conflict.
This way of looking at the social power structure of the United States is certainly very comforting. A nation formed by citizens in charge of their own destiny virtually from the beginning never undergoes the political oppression, economic exploitation and ultimately self-alienation of workers who were largely treated as the objects, not subjects, of power in feudalist societies, whether in Europe, Asia, Latin America or Africa.
Still, as impressive and path-breaking as the events of the founding of the United States were back in the 1770s and 1780s, and despite the radiating effect they had on the rest of the world for centuries to come, the fact remains that they did not represent a “revolution.”
The ratification of the U.S. Constitution, followed by the first national elections in 1789, confirmed that the United States would have a highly stable, socially conservative political system, even though it was paradoxically married to extremely dynamic economic and social systems — until a decade or two ago.
The open frontier to the west resolved these contradictions, at least for the 140 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the 1929 Wall Street crash.
And so it is not without a profound sense of irony that we are finding ourselves faced with another financial crisis. It is giving rise once more to the question of whether the deliberately non-revolutionary United States provides a fair shake to the vast majority of its people.
Forever optimists, most Americans have always answered that question in the affirmative — until now. But if we are reading the tea leaves right, there are the beginnings of the ability to do the math and to find that the U.S. economy, despite all the ideology promulgated daily, does not really work very well for the “common man (and woman).” They have been treading in place, if that, for the past 20 years, with no realistic signs of improving their lot.
This points to a surprising reality: The United States might be riper for change than the democracies of Europe and Northeast Asia. For all the shareholder focus, it may be high time to focus on the stakeholders’ interests in order to keep society from unraveling.
Until now, America’s political structures have proven completely unresponsive. The deadly bipartisan gridlock, empty promises and jockeying for advantage by the “haves” that has gripped the U.S. legislative process like a cancer may yet force a real protest movement.
That would be quite a turn of events, given the otherwise so very accommodating and domestically uncourageous attitude of Americans.
As the rise of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party indicates, the odds are that it is high time for a soft revolution. Doing away with such de-facto feudalist scourges as campaign finance would, in one fell swoop, lay the groundwork for a more equitable and dynamic society.
The long-held assumption that the promotion of income inequality is a tool to promote economic dynamism has been resoundingly disproven in the United States of today.
The widely held, even foundational belief cherished by most Americans — that their country was born in a revolution — is a historic fallacy.
The essential measure of a true revolution is whether the cardinal moment — call it "your throat or my share, sir," spoken at knifepoint — ever occurs.
Getting rid of a foreign ruler does not a revolution make. The event would be more appropriately called a liberation.
Doing away with such de-facto feudalist scourges as campaign finance would, in one fell swoop, lay the groundwork for a more equitable and dynamic society.