THE SANE BURKEAN impulse when it comes to the Occupy movement is nervousness (in anticipation of Terror). If there were the slightest possibility of these protests resulting in actual regime change, believe me: I would be standing at the barricades with the Tea Party, polishing my retro musket. The chances of this, however, are nil. Occupy Wall Street is not going to kindle a revolution. The reason is not a lack of means — and they do lack the means. The reason is that most of the protestors are simply not revolutionaries.
Drum circles are irritating, no question, and the occasional masked anarchist is worse than irritating, but for the most part this movement seems to be devoted — with increasing focus — to the reform of radical capitalism. Apart from the occasional loon with a Kropotkin T-shirt, very few of these people are looking to overthrow the capitalist system; I suspect a poll of the protesters would reveal an overwhelming admiration for Steve Jobs, bordering on idolatry. (Troubling in itself.)
Edmund Burke was not much of a hippy drummer, but institutional decline on Wall Street would have disturbed him. He was a reluctant capitalist to begin with, and the idea that business should be unfettered by legal and social responsibility would have appalled him. Burke would have found the rabble on the trading floor as distasteful as the mob in the park. My guess is that he would have been happy to see the nation’s drummers and investment bankers stuffed into a single doomed ship on a one-way voyage to France.
Of course, Occupy Wall Street is not finally Burkean. It is, like the Tea Party, a messy populist movement. The concern is real that it refuses to recognize an essential tragic component of human affairs: inequality is an indelible stain; unfairness is the abiding fact of our condition; and the battle for utopia is a recipe for its opposite.
When it comes to certain forms of inequity, however, we have options between the extremes of revolution and quietism. They are imperfect options, and some of them are uncomfortable, but they can be effective: the Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.
Moreover, we know precisely which inequities are being addressed. The protest is not, as some would have it, a cri de coeur aimed at the unfairness of the universe. Nobody is proposing that we mend the cracks in the cosmos.
I suspect that most people would agree, in fact — after a minute or two of reflection — that this is a fair summary of the complaint: “The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country. America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency. The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.”
Coincidentally, that is precisely the statement tested on the American public by the most recent WSJ/NBC Poll. A full 60 percent of Americans “strongly” agreed with it. Another 16 percent of Americans “mildly” agreed. In short: more than three-quarters of Americans identify — whether they know it or not — with Occupation Wall Street.
How often do 76 percent of Americans share the same profound complaint about something this fundamental to the nation? This is hardly a trivial critique: read the statement again. Read it, in fact, as if it had just been released as an official manifesto of the Occupy movement. (Conrad Black has proposed one, but this will do nicely.)
The inequity here is not insurmountable: a structural imbalance caused by ludicrous tax ideas, and by the nation-crippling antics of a small cadre of predatory bankers. These Americans — all 76 percent of them — are not wild utopians; their complaint can be remedied by an appeal to good old-fashioned legal and financial rigor. Sanity, however, will not install itself. This will require immense pressure from the ordinary citizen.
Occupy Wall Street makes perfect tactical sense here: when you have relatively little money, the only democratic way to go up against this kind of entrenched economic power is to make noise. Preferably coherent noise, without a drum track. My initial response to OWS was irritation — youth is, let’s face it, irritating (I was one) — but I am increasingly thrilled with the less youthful face of the movement, which looks something like responsible Americans demanding a new New Deal.
Some of the young, in fact, are not so youthful, and their presence is eclipsing the feckless. Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are centuries older, spiritually, than the baby neo-hippies and the adolescent Black Bloc, but they are embracing the Occupy movement in growing numbers. Hardly utopians, they have expectations nevertheless of the nation they fought for. They have reason to be disappointed. If I were a young Marine, conservative, patriotic, homeless and suicidal, I would be on the next bus to Zuccotti Park. Despite the drummers.