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Symbolism and Social Change: More Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

with 11 comments

by David

David getting ready to join Occupy Wall Street protest

I went to protest with Occupy Wall Street yesterday. I was not alone. Peter, a veteran of protests, came too. In fact, he helped organize the NYU student walk out yesterday, and has written about the protest eloquently here. Read him, and also Ezra Klein, who’s been doing a good job of covering OWS.

It’s easy to be cynical about big public protest movements. It’s also easy to overly romanticize and glorify them. It’s true that some conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers are tarnishing the movement’s good name. It’s true, the protesters don’t represent 99% of Americans. It’s true that they are targeting oil companies, and prisons, and military efforts that many not be directly associated with Wall Street. But the people who wore “I am Troy Davis” shirts weren’t all Troy Davis. “We are the 99%” is a slogan. It refers to the top 1% of American earners, but that should not be read literally. It simply implies that many people, people on the left, are angry. Wall Street is not their only target. But Wall Street is a convenient symbol, and not an inappropriate one, for their ire.

It’s true that the protests have radical, anarchist roots. I don’t consider myself a radical, or an anarchist. I’m not even one of the 99%, because I’m Canadian. But from what my friend and fellow protester and I saw, the bulk of the protesters aren’t after radical change. Of course, change is a funny word. It was the big tent mantra of “Change” that saw radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates and even some conservatives unite behind Barack Obama in 2008, never knowing what the word really meant to the campaign. These protesters also have disparate demands. But they are different. They are moving the conversation to the left. That is a good thing. The question is: how far left?

To be sure, they want significant change: a reduction of inequality, a more progressive tax code, an expanded welfare state, particularly in terms of healthcare, greater regulation on Wall Street, more protection of the environment, an end to foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These would all be good, monumental changes. But they would not be radical. They would not overturn the capitalist system or shatter the market economy. They would not abolish government. They would simply make things better.

And sometimes achieving non-radical change takes radical effort. The labour unrest of the first few decades of the 20th century led to the New Deal. Many of those huge strikes and protests were led by socialists. But the New Deal didn’t bring radical change. It brought the beginnings of the modern welfare state within a capitalist framework. I think that OWS can be seen to follow in that tradition.

Eventually, protests can move politicians. These people feel alienated from the political process. Many Americans do not feel adequately represented by either party. And so they march. They occupy. Maybe the unions will help give them direction, and more concrete policy suggestions. Maybe the Democratic Party will find a place for them, like the Republicans did with the Tea Party. Maybe it will all fizzle and die. I don’t know. But I’m at least a little excited, and hopeful, that it will lead to meaningful change.

I’m especially excited because by targeting Wall Street, the movement identified an old bete noir of mine. I have complained in the past about the pernicious effect of corporate recruiting on campus, how it makes smart students mind-numbingly dull. At the protest yesterday, I held a sign, pictured above, that read: “Wall Street Made My College Classmates Boring.” I got a lot of compliments on it, people taking my photo with the sign. That made me feel good. The sentiment still resonates. What was going on at that protest yesterday was weird, sometimes hopeful, sometimes impressive, sometimes scary. But it was never boring.


Written by David Weinfeld

October 6, 2011 at 11:23

11 Responses

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  1. David, nice sign Still not as awesome as the one which read “Rondell ‘puck’ White”

    Josh Newpol

    October 6, 2011 at 12:30

  2. I have to take some issue with your sign and the implications behind it.

    1. Yes, wildcat capitalism has distorted the labor as well as stock markets, and it’s been a problem that too many of “the best minds of our generation” were sucked into i-banking between ca. 2002 and 2008, but banks and Wall St. do have important roles in the basic ways in which the world functions. If we all gunned for “interesting” jobs, society would collapse. There are already critical shortfalls of labor in necessary, but “boring” fields, like nursing, while thousands of college-educated kids pursue quixotic careers in freelance artistry, because liberal arts culture has branded these pursuits “interesting”. So while it’s one thing to criticize Ivy League grads for having dollar symbols in their eyes and following the money train to Lehman and Goldman Sachs, it’s probably not the best idea to attack them for being “boring”. After all, one of the reasons we’re in the mess we are is that the SEC and similar regulatory industries aren’t staffed with the sort of intelligent, assertive people the objects of its oversight on Wall St. is able to attract. Being an SEC regulator is really far from sexy, but without some kind of push to encourage people to try it out, it remains divested of talent and resources.

    2. The sentiment implies some level of mutual exclusivity between working in a certain career and the rest of one’s life. For every robber baron wannabe, there’s someone working on Wall St. who’s saving up for a career in the arts (or, yes, academia), or people who are pursuing their decidedly unremunerative passions on the side. By casting a wide net over all these people and condemning them, these protests may wind up alienating a lot of potentially very powerful allies.

    C. S.

    October 6, 2011 at 13:14

  3. Josh, you’re right, that was my best sign. But this is number 2. Of course, the time we wrote “biere” on our chests is also up there.

    C.S., you’re right. I didn’t mean to malign banks, which are important, nor to suggest that we can all have “interesting” jobs. I recognize that as a grad student and aspiring academic I am spoiled, as many of us are in the middle class and above, who seek “fulfillment” from their work, and hope to find their “passion” in life. I’m sure that many bus drivers and factory workers and janitors may find their work boring, but they don’t have the luxury we do. And I’m sure some I-bankers find their work interesting. And some don’t but write poetry in their spare time. And many academics and artists are incredibly boring too (I’ve met loads). All this is subjective: some people might find medicine, law, art, history, and science incredibly boring, and derivatives and credit default swaps interesting. I wouldn’t want to hang out with these people, but I’m sure they are out there, and others do enjoy their company, and would probably hate mine.

    But, C.S., I think you may have read my sign a little too literally, like those who thought the “99%” actually referred to 99% of Americans, or that “Wall Street” is the only target of the protesters. Clearly I-banking did not make all of my college classmates boring. Some of my best friends are I-bankers! (that’s not true, but there are I-bankers who I like). But the reason why so many people stopped to compliment me on my sign, to take a photo of it, why more people “liked” the photo on Facebook than they have any other status update since my engagement announcement, is because the sentiment my sign conveyed RESONATES. People understood what I meant. That had all met the stereotypical boring bankers, the dull douchebags who went through the Harvard to hedge fund pipeline without a glimmer of wit to their personalities. Are there exceptions? Tons. I made a generalization. People liked it because they saw at least some truth in it. Not absolute truth, but enough to make them agree, and smile. I could have said “Wall Street Made My Classmates Evil,” but I don’t actually believe that, and I like to approach everything, even important social protests, with a sense of humour.

    And I think you’re right that the protesters may have powerful allies among the financial sector (there might even be overlap between these two groups!) but if the protesters can forgive the finance types for crushing the economy, and for maligning our jobs as useless and indulgent (which they often are), then I think the bankers can take a bit of good natured ribbing.

    David Weinfeld

    October 6, 2011 at 15:36

  4. […] Patriots and Liberty  » Blog Archive   » Meet the Obama Link to.. Symbolism and Social Change: More Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street «  P.. Unions In for Anti-American, Anti-Capitalist ‘Occupy Wall Street&#821.. Occupy Wall […]

  5. Your comment sentence explaining why your sign RESONATES doesn’t resonate with me nearly as much your sign did. The sign resonates because there are people who go to Wall St not because it’s their true ambition, but rather because it’s the most institutionally and socially supported path available for them. The other day I was chatting with a sweet & intelligent college senior who told me, “Yeah, I would have liked to look around to see what’s out there, but I got an offer after my junior year internship, and I only had two weeks to decide…” I don’t fault the student for acting in her own interest, but the corporation I have not mentioned would not exist to provide this exploding offer had it not had so many friends in government, allowing it to maintain its gigantic profits, which in turn allows it to continue to recruit well-connected graduates from elite universities, and so on. If the incestuous relationship between said corporation and government did not exist, I expect said student would be doing something more socially valuable with her life. That’s the element of the sign that resonates with me. That’s the element of the protests that resonates with me. That’s what the platform should be — not any nonsense about inequality or capitalism or consumerism or globalization being inherently problematic.


    October 11, 2011 at 11:38

  6. DRDR, that’s a fair point, and I agree with that sentiment, though I think people probably sympathized with the sign for different reasons, which was the point. But the example you give is certainly troubling and far too common. And the connections between government, the financial sector, and the universities that you mention are bad too. On the other hand, I disagree with your last sentence: I think inequality and consumerism are problematic, as is capitalism without regulation and a strong welfare state to balance it. And I think the protests should be about that, but they should also be about the sentiments that my sign evoked, and the two are not unrelated. But part of the point is that the protests are a big tent, and eventually, hopefully, they will move in the direction of affecting policy through elections and the political process, in directions that will not perfectly satisfy everyone involved but will do enough to at least make a large number of them somewhat happy. If lots of protesters and supporters get something that they want, that’s a good thing.

    David Weinfeld

    October 13, 2011 at 14:17

  7. Sure, but we have a welfare state, and to me the appropriate role of the welfare state is second-order here. What’s most offensive and on topic is that Wall Street earnings are taxed at rates far lower than our graduate stipends, and this is but one reflection of the excessive political influence of Wall Street. Reconcile that unfairness, and then let’s debate about the proper role for government.

    If the Tea Party has been effective in pledges for refusing increases in government spending, why can’t OWS push candidates to pledge to refuse money from Wall Street and to seek a tax code that doesn’t privilege Wall Street income? OWS could build a large consensus around that.


    October 16, 2011 at 20:53

  8. […] more interesting and/or public spirited work. The piece is written in the same vein as my earlier post and the sign I held at an OWS rally that read “Wall Street Made My College Classmates […]

  9. […] though, I do think the world would be a better place if instead of seeking their fortune on Wall Street, math and […]

  10. […] protest | toddkinsey… Patriots and Liberty  » Blog Archive   » Meet the Obama Link to.. Symbolism and Social Change: More Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street «  P.. Unions In for Anti-American, Anti-Capitalist ‘Occupy Wall Street&#821.. Occupy Wall Street […]

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