“Occupy Wall Street” and the History of Democratic Finance Protest

This is a rallying cry?

Given some of my key subjects, I can’t help but be interested in the “occupy” movement that, at the moment, has a few hundred protesters [UPDATE: Now a lot more; I was there on Tuesday] more or less living in Zuccotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan, and is apparently starting to engage in similar protests in other cities. You can’t find out much about this action via “mainstream media,” and even much of the left media, such as it is, has been critical in some cases, and outright dismissive in others, regarding the movement’s evident formlessness and absence of specific goals.

That absence is pretty much undeniable. Still, in Salon, Glenn Greenwald has shrewdly criticized liberal-Democrat scorn for Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, Mother Jones criticizes the movement on bases other than those that Greenwald attacks. . . .

But I write about the deep, founding roots of rowdy, American populist protest and insurrection, often visionary and even utopian, yet informed and practical too, specifically over money, credit, and the purpose and nature of public and private finance. And despite my pop-narrative books on the subject, and despite my articles here, and in such place as Newdeal20.org (articles picked up by AlterNet, Huffington, Salon, Naked Capitalism, and others), key indicators of my relative impact (like royalty statements!) give me a sneaking suspicion that most people still don’t connect the American founding period with a rugged drive on the part of ordinary people for equal access to the tools of economic development and against the hegemony of the high-finance, inside-government elites who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution and made us a nation.

Sometimes people even ascribe democratic ideas to the famous upscale American Revolutionaries, who to a man actually hated democracy and popular finance. Paine, the exception, was ultimately rebuked and scorned by all of the others. [UPDATE: Anyway, Paine wasn’t one of them; I threw him in defensively because consensus-history types like to “include him in” on the basis of “Common Sense,” while including his social/economic radicalism out.]

The difficulty in dealing with our founding battle for democratic economics arises in part because the movement was not against England but against the very American banking and trading elites who dominated the resistance to England. That complicates our founding myth, possibly unpleasantly. Also, it was a generally losing battle. With ratification of the Constitution, Hamiltonian finance triumphed, and people looking to Jefferson and Madison for finance and economic alternatives to Hamilton are barking up the wrong tree, since what those men knew, or even really cared, about finance could be written on a dime. (Anyway, in pushing for creating a  nation, Madison supported Hamiltonian finance down the line. Their differences came later.) When Occupy Wall Street protesters say “It’s We the People!”  they’re actually referring to a preamble, intending no hint of economic democracy, to a document that was framed specifically to push down democratic finance and concentrate American wealth for national purposes. Not very edifying, but there it is.

The Tea Party, meanwhile, has taken up founding economic issues from a right-wing point of view, associating itself with the upper-middle-class Boston patriots (often mistaken for populist democrats) who led a movement against overrreaching British trade acts in the 1760’s and were important to the impulse toward American independence. I’ve written fairly extensively about where and how I think the Tea Party goes wrong on the history of the founding period. But at least they’re framing their objections to current policy, and framing the historical roots of their ideas, not mainly in cultural but in economic terms.

Like it or not, though, it is Occupy Wall Street that has the most in common, ideologically, not with those Boston merchants and their supporters but with the less well-known, less comfortably acknowledged people who, throughout the founding period, cogently proposed and vigorously agitated for an entirely different approach to finance and monetary policy than that carried forward by the famous founders.

Amid horrible depressions and foreclosure crises, from the 1750’s through the 1790’s, ordinary people closed debt courts, rescued debt prisoners, waylaid process servers, boycotted foreclosure actions, etc. (More on that here and here.) They were legally barred from voting and holding office, since they didn’t have enough property, so they used their power of intimidation to pressure their legislatures for debt relief and popular monetary policies. Their few leaders in legit politics included the visionary preacher Herman Husband, the weaver William Findley, and the farmer Robert Whitehill.

They had high hopes for American independence. In the 1770’s, their “out-of-doors” collaboration with the famous elites was critical to enabling the Declaration of Independence — even though none of their names appears there (well, Benjamin Rush’s does, but by then he’d become unradicalized). Their democratic, egalitarian hopes dashed, in the 1780’s, in western Massachusetts, they marched on the state’s armory in Springfield to reverse regressive finance policies that had again plunged ordinary people into debt peonage and foreclosure while bailing out rich creditors (elites called that populist action, reductively, Shays’s Rebellion). In the 1790’s, with the Constitution in force, and Hamilton’s economics the law of a powerful new nation (partly in direct reaction to the Shays action), populists took over the militia and debt-court system throughout western Pennsylvania and western counties of neighboring states, flew their own flag, and tried to secede from the United States and form an economically egalitarian country. Hamilton dubbed that action, again in a successful effort to reduce it, the Whiskey Rebellion, and he and President Washington responded, naturally enough, by occupying western Pennsylvania with federal troops.

It is my possibly vain hope that reading up on such historical matters might inspire efforts like Occupy Wall Street to greater cogency and a deeper, more solid foundation in longstanding (if embattled and problematic) American values than they now seem to possess. You don’t have to look as late as the 19th-century Populists and the 1930’s labor movement, for example, to find an American left deeply immersed in both economic issues and an ambitious vision of a better country. Those things were present at the creation.

Occupy Wall Street probably doesn’t, when you shake it down, want to secede from the union like the whiskey rebels — happily enough. But those rebels didn’t start out by wanting to secede, either; they’d fought in the awful front lines of the Revolution in hopes that those sacrifices might lead to something for them and their families; it didn’t. Occupy Wall Street does seem to want to secede, somehow, from the hopeless-feeling regurgitation, through the two political parties, of elite finance theories and policies that never seem sincerely dedicated to any fundamental improvement of opportunity for what they call, not wrongly, “the 99%.”

The problem for Occupy Wall Street is that their founding-period political ancestors, who were indeed good at “occupying,” almost always accompanied their efforts with, for one thing, published resolutions registering specific demands and objections (not “this situation sucks” — which of course it does —  but “replace a regressive tax with a progressive one,” “give us access to the franchise,”  “issue paper money,” “take away Robert Morris’s bank charter,” etc.). On Twitter I’ve tried to collect some specific goals from Occupy people. Generally those who respond seem interested not in anarchist dismantling of government or sweeping stuff like ending capitalism but, say, real regulation. Which is cool if only because my early American democratic-finance activists called themselves “regulators”!

But a lot of efforts to state a goal for the protest itself devolve in sloganeering about the economic situation and self-admiring paeans to the virtues of protesting. Wouldn’t galvanizing this stuff require… leadership? Our founding democratic-finance activists weren’t such communitarians that they refused to have leaders and set achievable goals. They were used to being rank-and-file — even though as miltiamen, they elected their leaders.

And they knew where they’d succeeded and failed. This thing in Zuccotti Park is open-ended. It has no declared closing date. How can it ever declare victory, get the hell out, build its organization, and come back to fight another day?

20 thoughts on ““Occupy Wall Street” and the History of Democratic Finance Protest

  1. Pingback: Links 9/30/11 « naked capitalism

  2. The outrage is genuine and the objectives in whichever way they are formulated are noble. I would not underestimate the importance of these protests. Often has history shown that such movements can, in a potentially instable situation, explode into a real national force. I do think that all what is missing is a match to light the fire as a great many people are prepared to just do anything in order to change the present corrupt system.

  3. Very interesting article. This history especially.

    I think the point most people are missing about occupy wall street( and this has been mentioned in no article I have read on the “movement”) is that the “movement” is attempting to be or create a catalist for a larger movement. Just as in the arab spring, their was a catalist, and in london a catalist for the events that unfolded their

    The specifics of motive or demands will take care of, or unfold and become more specific as the history of this “movement” unfolds.

    They are more interested in getting people of their couches. But really, to criticize the movement because lack of specific demands shows just how concerned the media elite and the elite in general are taking this.

    We all really know what occupy wall st. is about, and it is an obvious and blatant lie by those who choose to question the validity of it based on lack of focus. The have’s have pushed to far and taken to much. This is in and of itself a bubble that must and will burst. History shows us this also.

    • Unfortunately London cannot be classed as a political action. Sadly the looters will be remembered for being victims to the kind of materialism that capitalism preaches. This wall street action though, does intrigue me, can they keep it up, can there be national strikes to back their action, international solidarity, after all, it wasn’t just american bankers. Our British ones were just as culpable.

  4. Pingback: Links 9/30/11 | Jackpot Investor

  5. could you post some links to some secondary source academic books or some primary source documents about these protesters? i own your whiskey rebellion book but unfortunately don’t have it with me at college…

  6. We already have “real regulation.” It is known as the Securities Act and the Securities Exchange Act. They were ignored, and layered over with masses of irrelevancies and exemptions and waivers. By the very regulators who supposedly protect the public. They were spun by their charges, lacked sufficient resources, and were clueless. When they weren’t directly in their pockets corrupt. Both left and right (Tea Party) revolutionists have the same sense of it all. The people were rooked by Uncle Sam’s business partner. Who decided, once granted its cartel and guaranteed profits, to ditch the whole fiduciary duty to the nation thing, and go for ripping off its face instead. The value of people’s investments in anything including banks are beyond the power of the State to control, monitor, anticipate, or prevent. It can’t even manage to prosecute fraud. That’s because the government and Wall St are partners in crime, literal oligarchic cronies. Too Big to Fail is monopoly, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The real thing to read on this is David Einhorn’s Fooling Some of the People All of the Time, esp the recent paperback edition. Better than Rolling Stone, by far.

  7. Visible leaders can be discredited. Specific demands can be met with bait and switch tactics. Starting a movement for direct democracy may best be done by offering an ongoing, public demonstration of democracy in action. Figuring out logistics and purpose while warding off the formation of a leadership class is the challenge. We need to practice.

  8. Pingback: “Occupy Wall Street” and the History of Democratic Finance Protest « A Lord of the Night is Wandering – CARPE NOCTEM

  9. Pingback: Daily Digest for October 3: A Well-Earned Failure Bonus » New Deal 2.0

  10. Hlogeland’s anxiety about the new movement’s lack of leaders and a point-form agenda suggests that his mental distance from the 18th-century elitists he deprecates is not as great as he thinks it is.

  11. Representational democracy is a perfectly good system. Direct democracy would suck, even if mob action is just fine as speech. The problem is the Congress needs to be subject to the same laws everyone else is and it never has been. Once Washington’s corruption issues are dealt with, if necessary by pitchfork, and the masses of special interest corporate welfare it serves up are cut out (since law has nothing to do with economic subsidies and competitor kneecapping that’s all they do these days, under other pretty names, to be sure), and after we get back just a tad of that old equal protection under law and not arbitrary rule of man the Constitution promised us—then and only then might the nation work semi-decently again.

  12. Occupy Wall Street still contains many problematic aspects, but it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation. To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies

  13. William,

    I am part of OccupyPittsburgh and we are in the process of creating a statement of purpose. Some are arguing that it is too early to list demands and only focus on gaining support for the idea that we need a change. Others, such as myself, are arguing that universal principles for economic rights should be expressed. It was messy during the first meeting where there were anarchists and communists. But the majority did not like their nitpicking over universal principles. I really do think, by the effort put in the statement group, this movement is serious and genuine.

  14. Pingback: Some Other Interesting Perspectives on OccupyWallStreet « EconProph

  15. The Occupy movement is accomplishing great things already. Just the fact that the DIALOG is ABOUT CORPORATE GREED, INCOME INEQUALITY, and a RIGGED-FOR-THE-WEALTHY political system means we are agents for change. The Occupy movement is #1 on national TV, on local TV and in all forms of media. This is a fantastic feat in educating the public. THANK YOU!

  16. Re: “declare victory” … There is no “victory” … just ongoing struggle against the financial powers that corrupt government and economics to their benefit. They never stop and we cannot let our guard down EVER!

    What we need are public forums to follow and comment on the day to day business of government and economic powers … and mass communication to alert huge swathes of the population when we feel our institutions are going awry and victimizing people instead of working on our behalf.

  17. Pingback: Waves of the Anti-Greed Movement in the United States « Interesting Blogger: Reporting to benefit the commoner

  18. Pingback: #Occupy Wall Street and the American Revolutionaries | Reinventing Life at 64

  19. Pingback: Sarbanes and the bipartisan neoliberal bargain | Beyond the Barricade

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