by Robert Teitelman | Published November 16, 2011 at 1:11 PM
The pundits have been out in force of late, making grandiose declarations. The world is changing! The world is changing! Much of this, not surprisingly, involves Occupy Wall Street. Over the weekend in The New York Times, Columbia University's uber-professor (actually he's director of the Earth Institute, and nothing gets much more uber than that) Jeffrey Sachs declares, "Occupy Wall Street and its allied movements around the country are more than a walk in the park. They are more likely the start of a new era in America." Sachs insists OWS represents the beginning of a third Progressive Movement in American history, though he offers very little real evidence for this beyond political gridlock, lousy macroeconomic performance and the fact that "Historians have noted that American politics moves in long swings." Why does one suspect Sachs told the Russians the same thing when he introduced them to the market in 1991?
The Times' public editor, Arthur Brisbane, in the same Sunday paper, describes OWS as if it had tumbled from an alien spacecraft and essentially admits that the Times had no idea what it's been reporting on for the past two months. This must have been popular in the newsroom. The Times, he writes, is used to dealing with leaders and OWS seemed to have no leaders, leaving the paper confused and befuddled. (I'm just interpreting Brisbane here.) His suggestion -- culled from a survey of "journalism educators" -- is to examine the origins of the movement, identify the leaders and go from there. That might work (others managed to pull that off: see Bloomberg Businessweek on anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber) but then, once again, you're fixating on leadership, which was the problem in the first place.
Then, hard on the heels of the police cleanup of Zuccotti Park, which would have been described as a counterrevolution if we'd actually had a revolution, comes former FT editor Richard Lambert who offers hope to the 99%: "The Occupy Wall Street movement is a symptom of a growing public disquiet about the workings of market capitalism. As such, Monday night's decision to close down the camp in New York City is unlikely to check the protests: if anything, the reverse may be true." Events have proved, he adds, that the efficient market "is for the birds" and inequality is rampaging. (He says nothing about Europe -- and he's probably right about that: OWS, like the Tea Party and GOP candidates for president, seems not to know or care that it's coming apart.) And then his big conclusion: "So it may be that capitalism is approaching some kind of tipping point, away from the winner takes all culture of the past three decades. If left unchecked, public disquiet will sooner or later bring a political response, maybe in the form of much more aggressive regulations and progressive tax systems. These could be at least as damaging as the free market fundamentalism that they would seek to replace."
Let's deal mostly with Lambert, who at least makes an argument, albeit, like Sachs, a classic journalistic resort to the Zeitgeist. Something's happening out there and he doesn't know what it is, so he resorts to rudimentary cause and effect: It must be a reaction to that which came before -- a variation of course on Sachs' profound belief that politics moves in long swings. Lambert is right about inequality and the blows taken by rational expectations and efficient-market economic theories. That said, there's no evidence that OWS has the ability to move the political meter a jot. In fact, today, there are major questions where the movement goes at all. It's very true, as some of the spokespersons (don't call them leaders) declare, the movement doesn't need a small park in lower Manhattan to define itself; its sentiments, beliefs (particularly in terms of direct democracy) can be recreated anywhere at any time, virtually or tangibly. But while some issues like inequality have been aired, usually by mainstream pundits and journalists desperate to make the movement make sense in terms of conventional politics -- It's the progressive Tea Party! It's the reincarnation of SDS! -- its core philosophy has gotten little traction. The goals of OWS were always immense: to transform, at least around the edges, American political culture. They were never primarily about economics at all.
It's easy to exaggerate the long-term effects of sudden political tempests by outsiders, particularly when they're predominately young. Wasn't it just yesterday that the Tea Party was creating a destroy-the-government revolution in America? And they weren't necessarily young. Wasn't it the day before yesterday that the young came out for Obama in droves? Now the Tea Party has taken over the GOP. And the great mass of students not only do not appear to be politically active for Obama this time around (it could change), they appear to be unmoved by OWS, which still remains a fringe movement, no matter what the polls say. For God's sakes, an entire campus of students mourned the firing of a football coach last week, and raised a little hell as well. One of the big lessons of the '60s is not just that students helped end Jim Crow and Vietnam, but that the country lurched to the right in reaction to them -- a rightward swing we're still living with. The '60s students had a major effect on the political Zeitgeist, but voters -- including young people -- went overwhelmingly for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Lambert insists on emphasizing the economics: that OWS symbolizes a deeper economic dissatisfaction. That may well be true -- though he raises an old Marxist "superstructure" debate: Which drives change, politics (OWS) or economics (the media and commentariat)? When he declares that "capitalism may be reaching a tipping point," what does he mean? A revolution? A series of reforms like belt-tightening and re-regulation, which has already begun and elicited charges of socialism from the right? With communism seemingly gone, what is the alternative to capitalism? Efficient markets may be a crock, but in a world run by economists and their technocratic fellow travelers -- what do we have to replace it with except tighter regs and safer banks? Lambert doesn't offer an answer. The demos does not care about efficient markets or direct democracy; it cares about growth, jobs, after-tax incomes. Let's face it, the mass of Americans care about buying stuff, educating their kids, getting healthcare and retirement, and still feeling like No. 1. Despite their travails, they do not seem prepared to launch great experiments -- in large measure because those experiments would be shaped and executed by the folks who brought them 2008. (OWS shares that sentiment with the Tea Party.) In America, at least, with its increasingly surreal and polarized politics, there is no indication that the country is about to tackle the problems of a winner-take-all society; it's not even clear who will be in the White House next time. If there were a true perturbation of the Zeitgeist, there would be a larger reaction to OWS's temporary eviction.