Friday, October 21, 2011

Iron law or ironic message?: thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

Simon Jenkins is pessimistic about the effectiveness of Occupy Wall Street:

The iron law of insurrection holds that it must grow in menace or lose momentum. Once it subsides into encampment, it becomes mere scenery. By last weekend, St Paul's displayed what looked like pilgrims come to worship or the homeless looking for soup. With their tenancy conceded by the cathedral authorities, the protestors face the bind of every invading army: you can establish a bridgehead but moving out of it is the hard part.
Governments have seemed immune to calls for higher taxes on the rich. The managers of the euro have drawn no sense of urgency from the marches that have thronged their capitals. Argument in government these days is between interests, factions, lobbies and ministers. As its participants retreat behind ever higher security, the noise of the street is just noise. The banker told "You Will Go to Hell" as he strolls past St Paul's may feel unsettled, but he smiles at the quaintness of it all.
There are serious gaps in the transparency of modern democracy. Between elections, the traditional mediators between electors and those in power have withered. The "customary associations and little platoons" have dwindled. Power over policy has been removed from parties in parliament and at the grassroots, from trade unions, from the professions, from local government, from intellectuals, even from the formal civil service. These conduits have been replaced by thinktanks and lobbyists working in private collusion with ministerial staffs. When David Cameron in opposition said that lobbyists were "the next big scandal waiting to happen," he was right. But that was before he came to power.
The cliche holds that America's constitution is so cumbersome as to make federal government virtually inoperable. All it can do with relative efficiency is fight wars. Britain is moving in the same direction. The elimination of intermediate government and its replacement with interest-group lobbying has brought chaos to health, education and planning reform. It has polluted defence cuts, housing finance and energy policy.

Here's the dilemma stemming from Jenkins's 'iron law': without large numbers and perceived dangerousness, a populist uprising cannot succeed in forcing out the elites. But with perceived dangerousness, there will be no large numbers. The question I have concerning Jenkins's 'iron law': would large numbers themselves be menancing? Or does menace require Athens style rioting?

But against Jenkins's 'iron law' is the power of ironic messaging. Currently, the NYPD has been aggressively policing OWS in New York. But sooner or later the police will get the message that their pensions, budgets and jobs are threatened because Wall Streeters took public and pension money to play financial games for their own benefit. How long will police protect the Wall Streeters who have looted their funds?

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