Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party

Bloomberg Businessweek cover, October 31, 2011. The Guy Fawkes mask is considered one of the symbols of OWS.

Bloomberg Businessweek cover, October 31, 2011. The Guy Fawkes mask is considered one of the symbols of OWS.

The reactionary right defenders of plutocracy have many reasons to fear and loathe Occupy Wall Street, but a major motive results from OWS having broken the Right’s monopoly on economic protest that recently held center stage for too long. OWS also has illuminated the galloping economic inequality that has made the U.S. more unequal than almost all developed countries. And one of the last things that right-wing media such as television’s Fox (Faux) News and the Rush Limbaughs of bloviating radio want to discuss is the obscene accumulation of wealth – aided by tax avoidance and corporate welfare – among the 1 percent. Hence the right’s smears of OWS.

The Tea Parties did indeed exploit outrage over Wall Street bailouts, but guided by inclination at the grassroots as well as from above by behind the scenes billionaires, such as the petrochemical industrialists and financiers Charles and David Koch, they redirected popular anger away from reckless financiers and against the federal government. The fury of the Tea Parties hardly singed The Masters of the Universe. On the contrary, the Tea Party has ignored CEO malfeasance and greed, while convulsed with paroxysms of wrath against President Barack Obama. But OWS – unlike both the Tea Parties and, ironically, President Obama – has been willing to hold responsible those who wrecked our economy and made enormous profits doing so.
“We are the 99 percent” harkens back to the progressive populists of the 19th century who spoke in non-Marxist terms of a broad producing class. In the 1880s the Knights of Labor and in the 1890s the People’s Party – the latter gave us the term “populist” – appealed to a huge swath of the population across occupational, class, ethnic, religious, gender and even racial lines to denounce concentrated wealth. They may not have seen themselves as the “99 percent,” but did believe they spoke for the great majority of “the American people.”
Indeed “99 percent” connects – more authentically than the Tea Party – to the political culture of the American Revolution and the early republic. The town of Boston’s 1773 Tea Party was an act of “the whole body of the people,” a people who believed not only in individual liberty but also in collective rights and individual responsibility to the public good.
During the imperial crisis leading up to the revolution (1765–1776) colonial resistance in the form of crowd actions, economic boycotts, and popular rebellions cut across classes, occupations and even gender. For decades after independence, similar local insurgencies broke out routinely against policies enacted by the new federal or state governments, but perceived by many citizens as unjust. These popular mobilizations saw themselves replicating revolutionary era popular protests to keep government close to the mass of ordinary people. Occupy Wall Street thus reenacts demonstrations of people peacefully assembling to remind governing elites of the people’s sovereignty and their right to petition for fairness and justice.

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