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Occupy Wall Street as a Left Movement

Just to show that not everyone at the New Republic is a reactionary anti-hippie member of the elite establishment, here’s Jonathan Cohn and John Judis on Occupy Wall Street. I think this is actually a pretty good insight about the difference between using the political system to make progressive change and going outside of it:

Like the labor movement, or the old Populists and Socialists of Eugene Debs, liberalism arose in the early twentieth century as a reaction to the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. But instead of trying to overthrow capitalism, as radicals did, it sought to create a more egalitarian version of it.

In that way, liberals and the left have always had a complicated, symbiotic relationship. Franklin Roosevelt disdained Huey Long’s Share the Wealth movement and was probably not excited about armed farmers preventing foreclosures or about striking workers. But unlike Herbert Hoover, who turned to Douglas MacArthur to drive the Bonus Marchers out of Washington, Roosevelt responded to these pressures from below not with troops, but with positive legislation—indeed, it was precisely Roosevelt’s liberalism that inclined him to do so.

The movements saw it as their task to force Roosevelt’s hand; he, in turn, understood his mission as the transformation of their sometimes unreasonable demands into the great reforms of the Second New Deal. And that is how it was throughout the 20th century. Social security, the minimum wage, Medicare, environmental protection, the government’s commitment to civil and sexual equality—all these came out of liberalism’s interaction with the left.

This is essentially an expression of how the Overton Window works. And whether you think capitalism needs to be fundamentally rethought or that there need to be some technocratic changes to make the nation a little more egalitarian, what’s happening in Zuccotti Park can serve those ends. Either step is a move in the same basic direction. As another TNR scribe, Tim Noah, writes, “American capitalism is overdue for reform more drastic than anything under current consideration within the polite mainstream.” A movement that points out the severe inadequacies of American capitalism can lead to needed reforms. Occupy Wall Street is about teaching, in this respect.

Matt Taibbi, acting unusually sober and practical, offers five possible solutions, mostly focused on reducing the power and influence of the financial industry. Breaking up the banks is a no-brainer, and so is a financial transaction tax so the industry can pay for their own bailouts. The carried interest tax break is a minor tax reform in the grand scheme of things, but worthwhile. Lobbying reforms seem like campaign finance reforms, in that influence, like money, is something of an inevitability in politics. And changing executive pay structures seems absolutely right to me.

These are heavy-lift items, things that won’t happen overnight. But they have a chance if the left actually becomes a movement in this country rather than a funnel for donations to the Democratic Party.

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David Dayen

David Dayen