A Century of Our Streets and Wall Street
One young woman at the demonstration held up a corrugated cardboard sign roughly magic-markered with one word written three times: "system," "system," "system." That single word resonates historically, even if it sounds strange to our ears today. The indictment of presumptive elites, especially those housed on Wall Street, the conviction that the system over which they presided must be replaced by something more humane, was a robust feature of our country's political and cultural life for a long century or more.
When in the years following the American Revolution, Jeffersonian democrats raised alarms about the "moneycrats" and their counterrevolutionary intrigues—they meant Alexander Hamilton and his confederates in particular—they were worried about the installation in the New World of a British system of merchant capitalism that would undo the democratic and egalitarian promise of the Revolution.
When followers of Andrew Jackson inveighed against the Second Bank of the United States—otherwise known as "the Monster Bank"—they were up in arms against what they feared was the systematic monopolizing of financial resources by a politically privileged elite. Just after the Civil War, the Farmer-Labor and Greenback political parties freed themselves of the two-party runaround, determined to mobilize independently to break the stranglehold on credit exercised by the big banks back East.
Later in the nineteenth century, Populists decried the overweening power of the Wall Street "devil fish" (shades of Matt Taibbi's "giant vampire squid" metaphor for Goldman Sachs). Its tentacles, they insisted, not only reached into every part of the economy, but also corrupted churches, the press, and institutions of higher learning, destroyed the family, and suborned public officials from the president on down. When, during his campaign for the presidency in 1896, the Populist-inspired "boy orator of the Platte" and Democratic Party candidate William Jennings Bryan vowed that mankind would not be "crucified on a cross of gold," he meant Wall Street and everyone knew it.
Around the turn of the century, the anti-trust movement captured the imagination of small businessmen, consumers, and working people in towns and cities across America. The trust they worried most about was "the Money Trust." Captained by J.P. Morgan, "the financial Gorgon," the Money Trust was skewered in court and in print by future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, subjected to withering Congressional investigations, excoriated in the exposés of "muckraking" journalists, and depicted by cartoonists as a cabal of prehensile Visigoths in death-heads.
As the twentieth century began, progressive reformers in state houses and city halls, socialists in industrial cities and out on the prairies, strikebound workers from coast to coast, working-class feminists, antiwar activists, and numerous others were still vigorously condemning that same Money Trust for turning the whole country into a closely-held system of financial pillage, labor exploitation, and imperial adventuring abroad. As the movements made clear, everyone but Wall Street was suffering the consequences of a system of proliferating abuses perpetrated by "the Street."
The tradition the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have tapped into is a long and vibrant one that culminated during the Great Depression. Then as now, there was no question in the minds of "the 99%" that Wall Street was principally to blame for the country's crisis (however much that verdict has since been challenged by disputatious academics).
Insurgencies by industrial workers, powerful third-party threats to replace capitalism with something else, rallies and marches of the unemployed, and, yes, occupations, even seizures of private property, foreclosures forestalled by infuriated neighbors, and a pervasive sense that the old order needed burying had their lasting effect. In response, the New Deal attempted to unhorse those President Franklin Roosevelt termed "economic royalists," who were growing rich off "other people's money" while the country suffered its worst trauma since the Civil War. "The Street" trembled.
"System, System, System": It would be foolish to make too much of a raggedy sign—or to leap to conclusions about just how lasting this Occupy Wall Street moment will be and just where (if anywhere) it's heading. It would be crazily optimistic to proclaim our own pitiful age of acquiescence ended.
Still, it would be equally foolish to dismiss the powerful American tradition the demonstrators of this moment have tapped into. In the past, Wall Street has functioned as an icon of revulsion, inciting anger, stoking up energies, and summoning visions of a new world that might save the New World.
It is poised to play that role again. Remember this: in 1932, three years into the Great Depression, most Americans were more demoralized than mobilized. A few years later, all that had changed as "Our Street, Not Wall Street" came alive. The political class had to scurry to keep up. Occupy Wall Street may indeed prove the opening act in an unfolding drama of renewed resistance and rebellion against "the system."
Steve Fraser is Editor-at-Large of New Labor Forum, a TomDispatch regular, and co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books). A historian of Wall Street, his most recent book on the subject is Wall Street: America's Dream Palace. He teaches history at Columbia University. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.