'Hoovervilles' and 'Occupy': Any Shared Roots?

If Herbert Hoover deserved to have the shantytowns of the ‘30s named after him, does Barack Obama deserve the same with the “occupy” encampments now? The parallels are striking, although in both cases many factors combined to produce the misery that tears people from their homes.

Overall trends, the actions of predecessors, Congress, the Federal Reserve, state governments, and the collective decisions of millions of individuals all play a role in creating the economic stew. But fairly or not, presidents tend to get the blame for conditions on their “watch.” And it would be hard to argue that Hoover’s policies after the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 were effective. But what of Obama, who enjoyed the enthusiastic support of so many of the young people now living in Zuccotti Park and so many other ‘villes?

The people camping out around the country have issued sundry demands and generally are having an enjoyable time acting out. With the pure indignation unsullied by experience that is the hallmark of youth, they’ve indicted society, cited grievous oppression, and proclaimed that they’re not going to take it anymore.

Many commentators have pointed out that the occupy “movement,” if that’s what it is, is to incoherence what Everest is to mountains. Do they want a new socialism? A benign anarchy in which a kind of transcendent reasonableness leads to a level of cooperation hitherto unknown? The old style of coercive socialism with the iron fist just under the red glove, and re-education camps and bullets for those who don’t “get it”? Or what? Per John Lennon in “Workingclass Hero,” they seem to think they’re so “classless and free.”

Are the protests fundamentally a social or economic phenomenon? Some of the campers seem to want the heads of Wall Street types -- presumably those who received big bonuses after steering their companies into a ditch -- on pikes. If so, that would indicate a desire for justice or revenge. Were the Hooverville-ians looking for revenge? Maybe, but that’s generally not the story that has trickled down to us over the last 80 years.

Research the term “Hooverville” and you’ll find a lot of material on genuine hardship -- the builders of these shantytowns tended to be men, sometimes with families, who’d lost their homes because they could no longer afford them -- and the desperate search for work. Did they rail about punishing the “fat cats”? Some surely did, but that doesn’t seem to have been the primary point. Given how widespread stock and other speculation was in the 1920s, it’s quite possible that many of the dispossessed realized that greed is hardly limited to plutocrats.

No doubt some of their modern counterparts (assuming they are in fact counterparts) are genuinely hurting as well. But how many of the occupiers are truly destitute?