The only thing really surprising about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it didn’t happen sooner. The United States has a long history of friction over policies that enable an elite to thrive at the expense of ordinary people.
The earliest tensions emerged soon after the Revolutionary War, when Jeffersonian democrats raised alarms about the “moneycrats” and their counter-revolutionary intrigues. They were referring to Alexander Hamilton and his confederates, who favored a British-style system of merchant capitalism that the Jeffersonians feared would undo the democratic and egalitarian promise of the Revolution. The fissure opened by that post-Revolutionary confrontation has never been entirely repaired.
In the first half of the 19th century, followers of Andrew Jackson inveighed against the Second Bank of the United States, otherwise known as “the monster bank.” They feared the bank was part of a systematic monopolizing of financial resources by a politically privileged elite. That tradition was embraced again just after the Civil War, when the Farmer-Labor and Greenback political parties were formed out of a determination to break the stranglehold on credit exercised by the big banks back East.
Later in the 19th century, Populists decried the overweening power of the Wall Street “devil fish.” The tentacles of finance, they insisted, not only reached into every part of the economy but also corrupted churches, the press and institutions of higher learning, destroying the family and suborning public officials from the president on down. When Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan vowed during his campaign for the presidency in 1896 that mankind would not be “crucified on a cross of gold,” the Populist-inspired “Boy Orator of the Platte” was taking aim at Wall Street, and everyone knew it.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the antitrust 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 exposes of “muckraking” journalists and depicted by cartoonists as a cabal of prehensile Visigoths in death-heads.
As the new century began, condemnation of the money trust came from disparate groups that included reformers in statehouses and city halls, socialists in industrial cities, strikebound workers from coast to coast, working-class feminists and antiwar activists. Financial interests were blamed for turning the whole country into a closely held system of financial pillage and labor exploitation while practicing 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 long tradition of protest that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have tapped into had perhaps its finest hour during the 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.
In addition to rallies and marches of the unemployed, there were hundreds of sit-down strikes of workers inside industrial plants, foreclosures forestalled by infuriated neighbors and occupations — even seizures — of private property. There was a pervasive sense that the old order needed to be buried. In response, the New Deal was launched, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his determination to unseat “economic royalists” who were growing rich off “other people’s money” while the country suffered its worst trauma since the Civil War.
In recent years, protest by ordinary people against the culture of wealth accumulation and the powerful financial institutions Marx referred to as “the Vatican of capitalism” had largely died off. We had grown fearful of using nasty phrases like “class warfare,” “plutocracy,” “robber baron” and “ruling class” to identify the sources of economic exploitation and oppression.
Now that spirit of protest is back, and just in time. Never before has “the Vatican of capitalism” captured quite so perfectly the specific nature of the oligarchy that has run the country for a generation — and has now run it into the ground.
At a march I recently attended, the signs spoke to a reemerging willingness to combat the economic divide. “The Middle Class is Too Big To Fail,” one proclaimed. “Eat the Rich, Feed the Poor,” read another. During the march, a pervasive chant — “We are the 99%" — resoundingly reminded the Wall Street titans just how isolated and vulnerable they might become.
It would be foolish to predict how lasting this Occupy Wall Street moment will be and just where (if anywhere) it’s heading. Some observers have worried that the movement is too diffuse, that it doesn’t have a clear-cut set of demands and that its anger is unfocused. It is far too soon to conclude that, with the protests on Wall Street, our pitiful age of acquiescence has 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 could play that role again today. In 1932, three years into the Depression, most Americans were more demoralized than mobilized. A few years later, all that had changed and 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 to and rebellion against “the Vatican of capitalism.”
Steve Fraser teaches history at Columbia University and is editor at large of New Labor Forum and co-founder of the American Empire Project. He is the author of “Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace.” A longer version of this piece appears at tomdispatch.com.