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The All-American Occupation - A Century of Our Streets Vs.
Wall Street

by Steve Fraser

TomDispatch.com
A Project of the Nation Institute
October 13, 2011

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175453

Occupy Wall Street, the ongoing demonstration-cum-sleep-in
that began a month ago not far from the New York Stock
Exchange and has since spread like wildfire to cities around
the country, may be a game-changer. If so, it couldn't be
more appropriate or more in the American grain that, when
the game changed, Wall Street was directly in the sights of
the protesters.

The fact is that the end of the world as weave known it has
been taking place all around us for some time. Until
recently, however, thickets of political verbiage about
cutting this and taxing that, about the glories of "job
creators" and the need to preserve "the American dream,"
have obscured what was hiding in plain sight -- that street
of streets, known to generations of our ancestors as "the
street of torments."

After an absence of well over half a century, Wall Street is
back, center stage, as the preferred American icon of
revulsion, a status it held for a fair share of our history.
And we can thank a small bunch of campers in Manhattan's
Zuccotti Park for hooking us up to a venerable tradition of
resistance and rebellion.

The Street of Torments

Peering back at a largely forgotten terrain of struggle
against "the Street," so full of sound and fury signifying
quite a lot, it's astonishing -- to a historian of Wall
Street, at least -- that the present movement didn't happen
sooner. It's already hard to remember that only weeks ago,
three years into the near shutdown of the world financial
system and the Great Recession, an eerie unprotesting
silence still blanketed the country. Stories accumulated of
Wall Street greed and arrogance, astonishing tales of
incompetence and larceny. The economy slowed and stalled.
People lost their homes and jobs. Poverty reached record
levels. The political system proved as bankrupt as the big
banks. Bipartisan consensus emerged -- but only around the
effort to save "too big to fail" financial goliaths, not the
legions of victims their financial wilding had left in its
wake.

The political class then prescribed what people already had
plenty of: yet another dose of austerity plus a faith-based
belief in a "recovery" that, for 99% of Americans, was never
much more than an optical illusion. In those years, the
hopes of ordinary people for a chance at a decent future
withered and bitterness set in.

Strangely, however, popular resistance was hard to find. In
the light of American history, this passivity was
surpassingly odd. From decades before the Gilded Age of the
late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, again
and again Wall Street found itself in the crosshairs of an
outraged citizenry mobilized thanks to political parties,
labor unions, or leagues of the unemployed. Such movements
were filled with a polyglot mix of middle-class anti-trust
reformers, bankrupted small businessmen, dispossessed
farmers, tenants and sharecroppers, out-of-work laborers,
and so many others.

If Occupy Wall Street signals the end of our own, atypical
period of acquiescence, could a return to a version of
"class warfare" that would, once upon a time, have been
familiar to so many Americans be on the horizon? Finally!

What began as a relatively sparsely attended and impromptu
affair has displayed a staying power and magnetic
attractiveness that has taken the country, and above all the
political class, by surprise. A recent rally of thousands in
lower Manhattan, where demonstrators marched from the city's
government center to Zuccotti Park, the location of the
"occupiers" encampment, was an extraordinarily diverse
gathering by any measure of age, race, or class. Community
organizations, housing advocates, environmentalists, and
even official delegations of trade unionists not normally at
ease hanging out with anarchists and hippies gave the whole
affair a social muscularity and reach that was exhilarating
to experience.

Diversity, however, can cut both ways. Popular protest, to
the degree that there's been much during the recent past --
and mainly over the war in Iraq -- has sometimes been
criticized for the chaotic way it assembled a grab-bag of
issues and enemies, diffuse and without focus. Occupy Wall
Street embraces diverse multitudes but this time in the
interest of convergence. In its targeting of "the street of
torments," this protean uprising has, in fact, found common
ground. To a historian's ear this echoes loudly.

Karl Marx described high finance as "the Vatican of
capitalism," its diktat to be obeyed without question. We've
spent a long generation learning not to mention Marx in
polite company, and not to use suspect and nasty phrases
like "class warfare" or "the reserve army of labor," among
many others.

In times past, however, such phrases and the ideas that went
with them struck our forebears as useful, even sometimes as
true depictions of reality. They used them regularly, along
with words like "plutocracy," "robber baron," and "ruling
class," to identify the sources of economic exploitation and
inequality that oppressed them, as well as to describe the
political disenfranchisement they suffered and the
subversion of democracy they experienced.

Never before, however, has "the Vatican of capitalism"
captured quite so perfectly the specific nature of the
oligarchy that's run the country for a generation and has
now run it into the ground. Even political consultant and
pundit James Carville, no Marxist he, confessed as much
during the Clinton years when he said the bond market
"intimidates everybody."

Perhaps that era of everyday intimidation is finally ending.
Here are some of the signs of it -- literally -- from that
march I attended: "Loan Sharks Ate My World" (illustrated
with a reasonable facsimile of the Great White from Jaws),
"End the Federal Reserve," "Wall Street Sold Out, Let's Not
Bail-Out," "Kill the Over the Counter Derivative Market,"
"Wall Street Banks Madoff Well," "The Middle Class is Too
Big To Fail," "Eat the Rich, Feed the Poor," "Greed is
Killing the Earth." During the march, a pervasive chant --
"We are the 99%" -- resoundingly reminded the bond market
just how isolated and vulnerable it might become.

And it is in confronting this elemental, determining feature
of our society's predicament, in gathering together all the
multifarious manifestations of our general dilemma right
there on "the street of torments," that Occupy Wall Street
-- even without a program or clear set of demands, as so
many observers lament -- has achieved a giant leap backward,
summoning up a history of opposition we would do well to
recall today.

A Century of Our Streets and Wall Street

One young woman at the demonstration held up a corrugated
cardboard sign roughly magic-markered with one word written
three times: "system," "system," "system." That single word
resonates historically, even if it sounds strange to our
ears today. The indictment of presumptive elites, especially
those housed on Wall Street, the conviction that the system
over which they presided must be replaced by something more
humane, was a robust feature of our country's political and
cultural life for a long century or more.

When in the years following the American Revolution,
Jeffersonian democrats raised alarms about the "moneycrats"
and their counterrevolutionary intrigues -- they meant
Alexander Hamilton and his confederates in particular --
they were worried about the installation in the New World of
a British system of merchant capitalism that would undo the
democratic and egalitarian promise of the Revolution.

When followers of Andrew Jackson inveighed against the
Second Bank of the United States -- otherwise known as "the
Monster Bank" -- they were up in arms against what they
feared was the systematic monopolizing of financial
resources by a politically privileged elite. Just after the
Civil War, the Farmer-Labor and Greenback political parties
freed themselves of the two-party runaround, determined to
mobilize independently to break the stranglehold on credit
exercised by the big banks back East.

Later in the nineteenth century, Populists decried the
overweening power of the Wall Street "devil fish" (shades of
Matt Taibbi's "giant vampire squid" metaphor for Goldman
Sachs). Its tentacles, they insisted, not only reached into
every part of the economy, but also corrupted churches, the
press, and institutions of higher learning, destroyed the
family, and suborned public officials from the president on
down. When, during his campaign for the presidency in 1896,
the Populist-inspired "boy orator of the Platte" and
Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan vowed that
mankind would not be "crucified on a cross of gold," he
meant Wall Street and everyone knew it.

Around the turn of the century, the anti-trust movement
captured the imagination of small businessmen, consumers,
and working people in towns and cities across America. The
trust they worried most about was "the Money Trust."
Captained by J.P. Morgan, "the financial Gorgon," the Money
Trust was skewered in court and in print by future Supreme
Court justice Louis Brandeis, subjected to withering
Congressional investigations, excoriated in the exposés of
"muckraking" journalists, and depicted by cartoonists as a
cabal of prehensile Visigoths in death-heads.

As the twentieth century began, progressive reformers in
state houses and city halls, socialists in industrial cities
and out on the prairies, strikebound workers from coast to
coast, working-class feminists, antiwar activists, and
numerous others were still vigorously condemning that same
Money Trust for turning the whole country into a closely-
held system of financial pillage, labor exploitation, and
imperial adventuring abroad. As the movements made clear,
everyone but Wall Street was suffering the consequences of a
system of proliferating abuses perpetrated by "the Street."

The tradition the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have
tapped into is a long and vibrant one that culminated during
the Great Depression. Then as now, there was no question in
the minds of "the 99%" that Wall Street was principally to
blame for the country's crisis (however much that verdict
has since been challenged by disputatious academics).

Insurgencies by industrial workers, powerful third-party
threats to replace capitalism with something else, rallies
and marches of the unemployed, and, yes, occupations, even
seizures of private property, foreclosures forestalled by
infuriated neighbors, and a pervasive sense that the old
order needed burying had their lasting effect. In response,
the New Deal attempted to unhorse those President Franklin
Roosevelt termed "economic royalists," who were growing rich
off "other people's money" while the country suffered its
worst trauma since the Civil War. "The Street" trembled.

"System, System, System": It would be foolish to make too
much of a raggedy sign -- or to leap to conclusions about
just how lasting this Occupy Wall Street moment will be and
just where (if anywhere) it's heading. It would be crazily
optimistic to proclaim our own pitiful age of acquiescence
ended.

Still, it would be equally foolish to dismiss the powerful
American tradition the demonstrators of this moment have
tapped into. In the past, Wall Street has functioned as an
icon of revulsion, inciting anger, stoking up energies, and
summoning visions of a new world that might save the New
World.

It is poised to play that role again. Remember this: in
1932, three years into the Great Depression, most Americans
were more demoralized than mobilized. A few years later, all
that had changed as "Our Street, Not Wall Street" came
alive. The political class had to scurry to keep up. Occupy
Wall Street may indeed prove the opening act in an unfolding
drama of renewed resistance and rebellion against "the
system."

[Steve Fraser is Editor-at-Large of New Labor Forum, a
TomDispatch regular, and co-founder of the American Empire
Project (Metropolitan Books). A historian of Wall Street,
his most recent book on the subject is Wall Street:
America's Dream Palace. He teaches history at Columbia
University.]

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