When Tea Party rallies first attracted attention, there was much discussion about whether the rallies were organic or whether they were the instrument of organized political interests. Whatever the outcome of those discussions, their significance was in trying to distringuish between a rally that was a political construct and one that rose up spontaneously from a discontented populace. Generic discontent, it was tacitly acknowledged, has legs; a political construct is effective only in the short term.
It has become common, in recent months to compare the Occupy Wall Street movement ( or, more precisely descriptive, I believe, the 99%) with the Tea Party movement. Striking in these discussions is the difference in charactization of the two movements. Few, even on the right, challenge the generic nature of Occupy Wall Street. While opponents of the protests color the various demonstrations with charges of rabble rousing and mob action, these colorations only emphasis the intrinsically organic nature of this current round of protests.
Classically, few who are swept along on the tide of history recognize the direction of those tides or even that momentous events are occurring. However, there is the sense today, in news reports and among an increasingly anxious public, that seismic ruptures in the economic landscape of the world are about to take place. This sense is more palpable among the 99% than among the 1% — which fits the historic model. The 1% are insulated from premonitory anxiety by the structural dynamic of their lifestyle. They travel in private aircraft, shop in exclusive boutiques, vacation on remote isles. They clip dividend coupons and direct the fortunes of large organizations from remote, paneled boardrooms.
The insulating force of the 1%’s power has dulled what should be an instinctive response to an existential danger. As the saying goes on the street, they should wake up and smell the coffee.
Dismissing the 99% as a mob of rabble rousers is dangerous, as is any effort to suppress their spontaneous expressions of discontent. It is not the expressions that are dangerous: it is the discontent. Right now, in most developed countries, the means exist to correct the source of that discontent: egregious imbalances in the distribution of resources. Adjustments have to be made, but this can be effected with modest rearrangements to income and capital distribution.
However, if the times are read incorrectly, if the strength of a sleeping giant roused to action by hunger is ignored, then the inevitable corrections to the currently unbalanced economic system will be chaotic. There’s no telling who the winners and losers will be. But history teaches that an elite minority can cling to power only temporarily if resistance to that power is widespread and deep.
Dwell on nomenclature for a moment: Occupy Wall Street. An occupation is not passive or polite. It does not wait for an invitation or accommodation. Although actions in Zuccotti Park have for the most part been civil, this civility has not been mirrored in companion demonstrations across the globe. The 99% in Zuccotti Park is the first ripple in a swell. Those 1% who look down from their lofts in the Wall Street canyons would do well to recognize that what they are facing is the potential for profound social and economic upheaval. And this upheaval will not look like anyone’s idea of a tea party.