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How Occupy Wall Street Is a Rational Response to a System That’s Failed

This article is a contribution to ‘Liberalism and Occupy Wall Street,’ A TNR Symposium.

The basic economic premise of modern American liberalism, as I understand it, is that with appropriate regulation and taxation a market economy can be made broadly beneficial to the overwhelming majority of citizens. This stands in contrast to the pure capitalist view that a rising tide will inevitably lift all boats, and to the radical claim that market economies are inherently immiserating. 

The liberal view is, I think, correct. But it’s clear that for the 20 years between 1980 and 2000 what was possible in theory wasn’t necessarily happening in practice, and for the past decade it hasn’t been working at all. The story is familiar, but worth repeating. We’re seeing not just growing inequality, but actually falling wages and incomes at the median. People are outraged—and rightly so—that the economy and economic policymakers are failing them. 

Faced with these realities, the TNR staff editorial on the subject feels distinctly like an op-ed penned eleven years ago about anti-globalization protestors, put on ice, and then re-animated with a hasty rewrite that fails to consider the actual political and economic circumstances. 

The notion that Occupy Wall Street is a fundamentally radical anti-capitalist movement is completely without foundation. Not only is it odd for TNR to take a harder anti-communist line than, say, Lech Walesa, but this view misunderstands the basic nature of a fluid and rapidly growing movement. The participation of some radicals in the initial organization of the Zuccotti Park protest shouldn’t distract from the fact that the movement has grown by attracting a diverse set of adherents united primarily by an appropriate sense of grievance. 

And judging from the We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr, these people aren’t a conspiracy to overthrow capitalism, they’re ordinary people struggling with hard times and looking for answers. The labor unions who’ve hopped on the 99 Percent bandwagon aren’t waging a battle to abolish private enterprise, they’re participating in a movement to say that what’s happening right now in the United States is unacceptable. 

Beyond a critique, any movement for social and political change ultimately needs solutions and it is true that some of the solutions offered by some protestors are unsound. This is all the more reason that liberals with confidence in liberal solutions should show up and try to persuade people to champion a more sustainable set of economic policies. 

But the alternative of staying aloof out of some kind of fussy disdain for drum circles helps nobody. On the contrary, it’s worth reflecting on the idea that the instinct toward ideological police actions represented by TNR’s editorial has had a malign influence on American politics for years. Liberalism, in its triumphant years, represented the “vital center” of American politics. The silence of further-left voices over the past decade has merely served to marginalize liberalism, creating an atmosphere in which center-left technocrat Barack Obama can be tarred as a radical socialist. 

The fact of the matter is that the American economy isn’t working for average Americans, and hasn’t been for some time. Meanwhile, the corporate executive class has gotten quite adept at standing in solidarity against effective regulation of the financial system, against solutions to our environmental problems, and against progressive taxes. The time is right for people who aren’t happy about that to stand up and be heard. 

Matthew Yglesias is a blogger and fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.