In the strange case of Occupy Wall Street, none of the usual cultural signifiers by which we’ve been conditioned to hate one another seems to be working. Where have you gone, Archie Bunker? What gives?
What gives, I suspect, is that most Americans don’t particularly care what the demonstrators in downtown New York and other cities look like or believe in. They’re not interested in the demonstrators’ attempt to build a movement prefigurative of a radically consensual society (which could end up just as gridlocked as the U.S. Senate). What they care about is that the demonstrators are confronting unmerited power and unearned wealth. They are taking on the banks.
For good, historically specific reasons, everybody hates the banks. Even New Yorkers, whose economy depends on the bankers’ ability to pay for overpriced amenities, hate the banks. In a Quinnipiac University poll this week, New York City voters supported Occupy Wall Street by a 67-percent-to-23-percent margin. Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein is a profiteer without honor in his own home town.
Whence this fall — if not from grace (a state that few of us, and even fewer bankers, attain), then from the occasional decent opinion of humankind? At its root is the simple fact that the Wall Street banks over the past quarter-century have done none of the things that a financial sector should do. They have not helped preserve the thriving economy that America once enjoyed. They have not funded our boldest new companies. (That’s fallen to venture capitalists.) They haven’t provided the financing to maintain our infrastructure, nor ponied up the capital for manufacturing to modernize and grow here (as opposed to in China). Instead, they’ve grown fat on the credit they extended when Americans’ incomes stopped rising. They’ve grown plump on proprietary trading and by selling bad deals to suckers. (Citigroup, like Goldman before it, just agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle charges that it defrauded investors.)
The original J.P. Morgan was hardly a beloved figure. But in the course of attending to his business, he helped form the American economy. He consolidated railroads, cobbled together the companies that became U.S. Steel and General Electric. In pursuit of profit, he helped build the country. By no stretch of the imagination is that what today’s Wall Street is about. The country isn’t being built; no one’s been building it for the past 30 years. Wall Street’s interests are elsewhere, in realizing huge profits and bonuses for arbitrage and paper-swapping that has brought little but debt and ruin to the larger economy.
So Occupy Wall Street espouses a fuzzy radicalism? That’s fine. At its best, American radicalism kick-starts an era of liberal reform, to which, as in the ’30s and ’60s, its zeal is essential. At its worst, that radicalism can hinder those reforms by itself becoming an object of public ire. But Occupy Wall Street, all our assumptions about cultural polarization to the contrary, isn’t an object of ire. It’s channeling ire — our ire — where ire should go: toward the banks that have fostered and profited from America’s decline.