Occupy Wall Street and the Delusions of the Left

What strikes me about the Left's coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement is the total delusion about its meaning and the scope of its reach. I do not dispute that there is justified grievance about the bailout of the big banks by the Obama administration and the failure to get the economy moving and to create new jobs. But on this score, the OWS shares its estimate with that of the Tea Party, which made cutting the deficit and doing something about our growing entitlements a primary goal.

But where the OWS is different, is in its apparent characterization of itself as radical or revolutionary, terms coming from the utopian and highly unrealistic hopes of its participants. In his column today, David Brooks rightfully writes that they have “nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization. They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent,” including the 99 percent they claim to represent. These folks are anything but radical, says Brooks. Their redistributionist claim to pay for everything by taxing the rich at the highest rate possible is a chimera. As he puts it,

Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. If you confiscate all the income of those making more than $10 million, you reduce the debt by 2 percent. You would still be nibbling only meekly around the edges.

These protesters may look radical and think of themselves that way, he adds, but the truth is that

its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club. Its members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these "radicals" really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

Brooks takes them a tad too seriously; these protestors are all poseurs, more interested in getting attention than in being serious. They have no sense of the economic reality in which the world lives; hence their magic solution to everything is “tax the rich.”

The truth is that they are would-be revolutionaries who perform for the TV news, which if it went away, would quickly find that the Liberty Park encampment would disappear in one day.

So here are three of my favorite examples of the radical delusion, in all of their multifold patterns:

I: Hendrik Hertzberg’s “Talk of the Town” in the latest New Yorker. Hertzberg is too smart to take the protestors seriously. Taking off from Chairman Mao’s well-known aphorism that a revolution “is not a dinner party,” he writes that the protest is in fact “a dinner party of sorts, albeit one with donated, often organic food served on paper plates,” tea that is of course “mostly herbal,” but no marijuana! New York City, evidently, is not Berkeley, California, circa 1968.

Hertzberg therefore questions “the meaning of it all,” and emphasizes with humor that whatever it amounts to, it has become “one of the city’s most interesting bargain tourist destinations.”  Also, what drew crowds at first was not pure protest, but a false rumor that the mega rock band Radiohead would appear there and play for free!  Yet Hertzberg took heart when “transit workers, teamsters, teachers, communications workers, service employees” all heeded the call of their union leaders and packed the area with 15,000 more people. The dream of the working class making the revolution real still lives.

Yet he understands that OWS does not have a “traditional agenda: a list of ‘demands,’ a set of legislative recommendations, a five-point program.” Of course they don’t. Writing a five-point program takes some work -- which clearly these people don’t know how to do. They prefer what he calls “constructive group dynamics,” a feel-good time on the street to real politics. And of course, Hertzberg loves it. He writes:

There’s something oddly moving about a crowd of smart-phone-addicted, computer-savvy people cooperating to create such an utterly low-tech, strikingly human, curiously tribal means of amplification—a literal loudspeaker.

Nevertheless, as a good radical, Hertzberg has hope. The “greed and fraud” that  “precipitated the economic crisis” is now being protested, and that is enough for now. The “Republican right willing and usually able to block any measures…that might relieve the suffering” is being challenged, and for him, that will do for now. I guess Hertzberg does not know about the Community Reinvestment Act, ACORN, the bi-partisan repeal of Glass-Steagall and the Dodd-Frank law -- all of which Democrats have supported and which led to the housing bubble and the market collapse. So he sees a great future, as long as it is not hijacked by “a flaky fringe.”

I’ve got news for you, Hertzberg. You were witnessing the flaky fringe in all its glory. But I guess for you, what you saw doesn’t meet the criteria for flaky.