Time will Tell: Occupy Wall Street in Historical Context
The number one criticism leveled at the Occupy Wall Street protests is the lack of coherent message. The second is that the protestors themselves are a bunch of middle-class kids, which in the critics’ eyes, makes them automatic hypocrites.
Not only are both of these statements wrong, they display an astonishing lack of historical perspective. If we look at the 99-percenter movement in context, its goals become pretty clear. After all, they’re the same as every similar movement since the Middle Ages.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that revolutions are made not by the sans-culottes, but by the middle class. The poor are too busy with day-to-day survival to organize. The poor don’t participate in the information economy. It’s the middle class who controls the media—the printing press in the sixteenth century, the Internet in the twenty-first. Every time someone at Zuccotti Park whipped out a smartphone to upload a picture of a sign to their Facebook page, they were doing the same thing Martin Luther did when he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door—only rather than spreading information at the speed of a fast horse, they were doing it at lightspeed.
It’s also the middle class that has the education, the organizational skills, and the frustrations from stifled aspirations to make a mass movement. This has been true of every revolution in Western history. The English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 wasn’t a starving rabble clamoring for bread: It was a well-organized rebellion by newly prosperous farmers who resented a parasitic nobility trying to turn back the socioeconomic clock. The first thing they did was burn the books that recorded their taxes and debts. The French Revolution was kicked off by the well-off Third Estaters who were sick of a dysfunctional social structure that was literally stuck in the Middle Ages. France’s second revolution began in 1830 when Charles X sank the economy and limited the freedoms of the middle class; the reign of his successor, Louis Philippe, ended when the petit bourgeoisie agitated for their share of the pie. The Chartist movement in England wanted universal suffrage and to do away with a system that benefited the few at the expense of the many. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t led by the poor, but by middle-class church leaders and college students. Arab Spring happened because a viable and hungry middle class had formed—just like Turkey had when Atatürk led that nation kicking and screaming into the modern age. The list goes on.
What’s the lesson here? The economic and political are one. We see in Western history a steady, if not unbroken, march towards constitutionality, rights, and democracy—that which we call “liberalism.” It’s when someone tries to stem the tide that movements happen. You can’t have political freedom and real democracy in a world with radical disparities in class.
No one using an Apple product to broadcast the Occupy happenings all around the nation will make a serious argument against capitalism, but all will say that the abuses of the system need to be rectified. Citizens United means that an artificial person gets more of a say in the national discourse than one of flesh and blood. Millions of people declare bankruptcy because our supposedly Christian society does not see that stockholder profit and healing the sick are mutually incompatible goals. Education, the supposed path to upward mobility in our meritocracy, carries with it the price tag of lifelong debt. This is why the goals of Occupy Wall Street are no more and no less than those of any popular movement since the beginnings of the middle class: Economic opportunity, property rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from unjust laws and tyrannical concentrations of power.
This is why the 99-percenters aren’t the disorganized, disaffected Balaclava Bloc types from the Battle of Seattle 10 years ago. Nor are they idealistic college kids or a bunch of filthy street punks. The people in Zuccotti Park are teachers, grandmothers, and union members. They are African-American churchgoers and fathers and mothers. They are well-connected, well-educated, well-socialized ordinary people who have taken to the streets because they feel that they have no choice but to brave the physical discomfort and the potential risk of NYPD brutality. The rights their parents and grandparents fought for in the 1930s and the era of postwar prosperity have been whittled to nothing. We are the first generation of Americans to expect less out of life than our parents, and we are pissed.
The juggernaut of the middle class has awakened, and woe to those who do not heed the lessons of history.
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