Revolt: The Meaning of 'Occupy Wall St'

In 1999, I was lecturing at the Smithsonian Institution (The Smithsonian Associates), on The History of Revolutions. At the end of the series, a question was put to me, namely: which country was poised for revolution? My answer was “this one”.

Why? came the inevitably anxious reply.

Again my answer was not comforting. ‘Here in the most economically significant and militarily powerful nation in history has blossomed, an endemic entitlement attitude which has fomented a dysfunctional culture. This culture encompasses not merely welfare mavens or dead-beats, so to say. But also corporations and politicians; the latter whom in a zero-sum, future-be-damned spirit, have fed and fostered this culture for their own perceived advantages’.

Such was my view then as now. The ‘fallout’ from such mendacity often results in social upheaval. However, Americans tend to watch public apoplexy in other countries with a gyroscopic fascination, expressed in the mirthful assumption that “such things cannot happen here”.

Yet, they can, have and are; perhaps now, increasingly.

The occupation of Wall St. – with additional vigils planned for additional cities – appears tame enough for the moment. However, as these things go, there will be confrontations. Between the local constabularies and the ‘street campers’, invariably, tempers will overheat and the naughtiest provocateurs from both sides will override the restraint which marked the initial days of the protests. It is in the flame of public distemper that we discover, at last, that we have lost the means to relate to each other; barking instead ideological bromides from the fray, each side in hopes to valorize their respective political evangelisms to a public which finds the entire ordeal incomprehensible and dispiriting.

One wishes against such happenings. But that is mere wishfulness. We are witnessing a distress that goes deeper than joblessness, fiscal irresponsibility and fear of the future expressed as a fear of each other. No. We are witnessing a nation that has lost its self-confidence. What we observe now, from almost every quarter of society, is a loss of the capacity to act from principles and to paraphrase Edvard Munch’s caption from his infamous painting ‘The Scream’: ‘It appears now that we shall never again be comfortable in the nation we have – of late – created’.

If you are not convinced and you are resolved that ‘this too shall pass’, perhaps you will take note of a visceral, more pernicious flourish, which has swept across this country, largely unnoticed. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, a growing number of homeowners – backed by emergent populism – have abandoned their mortgage obligations. (More than 10.7 million families hold mortgages greater than their homes are worth).

The inducement to sell obligations of false value by the banks and the abandonment of voluntary obligations by homeowners is evidence of a simmering revolt, for which the occupation of cities is merely symptomatic. For me – when I consider the meaning of America – I find these occurrences disturbing.

I take no sides in the matter, as you will discover about me. The banks cheated their customers. The customers – in many cases – were in the grip of insatiable greed. And the politicians and regulators facilitated the entire affair; undermining the value and meaning of contractual obligations and the practices of “good faith”, which has been the “given” in American commercial practices.

Let me end in this way: the very values that would put the street campers back to work, or would keep people in their homes are the ones that would see the right sort of politicians come to office; by which means, the work of putting America right again can begin. These are: intellectual honesty in public discourse; personal responsibility in citizen action and fiscal discipline in the management of the affairs of state.

For now, sadly, the willowy figure in a terrifying painting, against the Zeitgeist of which America arose in opposition and as relief 235 years ago, seems a more accurate expression of our current condition, increasingly.

Gilbert NMO Morris

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