Is Occupy vacant?

Prospect Magazine

Is Occupy vacant?

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A new book forgives the protestors their lack of ideas

Zuccotti Park, September 2011. Photo: David Shankbone


They say accepting you have a problem is the biggest step towards solving it. That might be true for alcoholics. I’m not sure it’s true of entire societies. Ask anyone what they think about “Occupy Wall Street,” they are quite likely to tell you they agree with it. They will then tell you they don’t know exactly what it’s trying to achieve.

Welcome to the world of the 99 per cent. When you say you stand for nearly everybody, I guess you can expect nearly everybody to sympathise. What you can’t expect is a lot of agreement on what to do. The Occupy Handbook (Back Bay, £12.99) is not, strictly, a guide to the pop-up protests that appeared in more than 1,000 cities around the world in the autumn of 2011 (some of which have returned, now, with the sun). I would bet that most of the 50-plus contributors—among them distinguished economists and thinkers like Paul Krugman, Martin Wolf and Paul Volcker—have spent little time at St Paul’s or Zuccotti Park. If any.

But taken together, the articles in this dense and wide-ranging book do help explain why, to quote the introduction, Occupy Wall Street “has the rare distinction of being a protest movement that even the objects of its attack can find little fault with.”

Spectrem Group, a consulting firm for rich people, claims that 68 per cent of millionaires favour raising taxes on millionaires. Though that might simply be because they’ve miscalculated. Other research suggests that half of the top one per cent mistakenly believe they’re in the lower 99.?The writer Michael Lewis has some fun with this in a short, typically acerbic contribution, a “strategy memo” addressed to the top percentile. “That any human being can earn 344 grand a year without having the sense to identify which side in a class war he is on suggests that we should limit membership to actual rich people.”

Faced with any campaign for change, defenders of the status quo usually resort to the standard trope: the proposals are either too modest to make a difference, or too ambitious to ever be feasible. The Occupy movement has so far escaped this standard attack, only because it has largely failed to produce concrete proposals of any kind. Is this a problem? Many commentators have tended to think so. But contributors to this volume offer two kinds of arguments to defend the dearth of specifics.

One is the anarchist answer, given here by David Graeber, who has been closely involved in the movement. (He’s credited with coming up with the phrase “we are the 99 per cent.”) He suggests the lack of concrete demands is itself a part of the protest. You don’t ask the authorities for anything, because that would suggest the “system” was legitimate. Many who gathered in Zuccotti Park might buy this. Those who are only metaphorically inside the Occupy tent would not. Martin Wolf is not known for his anarchism. Nor Paul Volcker. Nor Nouriel Roubini. (Being a contrarian doesn’t count.)

The other defence is historical. Various authors point to past popular social campaigns—like the populists and the progressive movements in America in the years around the turn of the 20th century. Programme-wise, these movements were also a mess. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the idea that animated them: outrage at the way the concentration of economic power by the so-called “robber barons” was concentrating political power as well.

Over time, the authors argue, that outrage worked its way into the bloodstream of the body politic. The progressive movement faded away but America did eventually get anti-trust legislation, a progressive income tax, and other reforms which helped keep a lid on inequality for several decades. Is that what the Occupy movement should be about now? Breaking up monopoly power and taxing the rich until they squeal?

Many want to stop the financial system being able to hold the rest of the economy hostage. Nearly all also favour much higher taxes on the very rich. But if you take seriously the complaints gathered together in these 500-plus pages, that is only the start.

Paul Krugman speaks for pretty much everyone in this volume when he says “we won’t get good economic policies until inequality is curbed.” But he knows, better than most, that the causes of rising inequality are many and complex. This isn’t something that financial regulations alone can fix, and nor can a few more progressive taxes.

As many contributors point out, the health and education systems play a big part in cementing inequalities—particularly in the US. And so does the increasingly interwoven relationship between money and politics. In the words of Martin Wolf, if the boundary between those two is not well policed, “the bazaar (the sphere of the market) consumes the forum (the sphere of politics).”

For many of the authors, campaign-finance reform in the US is the golden key to unlock other changes that are long overdue. Perhaps. But can it change the structure of the global economy to increase the demand for unskilled workers in the west? Can it make it harder for the managers of a large company—or bank—to capture nearly all of the economic rents? Or any easier for governments to extract tax revenues from the likes of Google? Can it make the squeezed middle (and upper middle) feel like paying higher taxes, to help the bottom? I wonder.

I recently interviewed Ron Paul, the maverick libertarian congressman running for president. I suspect he would find himself agreeing with a lot of the articles in this book—particularly the ones that say America is now a giant stitch-up by government and big business. So might the conservative thinker Ferdinand Mount, who has just written a book on inequality. So, for that matter, would Karl Marx. But that is where the agreement among them would probably end.

In years to come, we might say the Occupy movement was a catalyst for a radical shift in policies in America, just as the progressives laid the way for many Roosevelt reforms in the 1930s. Or, we might see The Occupy Handbook as a reflection of a rather peculiar time in our political culture, when anyone who was anyone became both hopelessly depressed about the way the world was heading—and oddly utopian about the scope to change it.

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