Moscow Salt Riot, 1648To make sense of the goings on at Zuccotti Park, I do what my temperament inclines me to. I draw back and look at the event from the perspective of history. And what does history tell me? Are there analogs in the past to the stirrings of popular discontent in the present?Are there ever.
A quick review of several Wikipedia entries reveals a wide variety of “popular” uprisings; some of these were successful, many were not. Of the uprisings that failed, most were localized and highly specific, though they might have been spawned by a generalized phenomenon. Usually that phenomenon was economic.
Across cultures and centuries patterns of popular resistance can be discerned. The great 1848 political sea change in Europe, for example, was rooted less in civic idealism than in economic need. An article in Wikipedia cites “pauperism” and “undernourishment” in German states; a worker revolt in France; and a financial crisis in England. The number of people affected by economic dislocation was great and remedy through conventional political action unavailable. So people took to the streets and demanded political change.
In the sense that change came, the popular movements in 1848 were successful.There seem to be four elements present in this and other successful popular uprisings: foremost is frustration, the sense that the usual avenues for resolving complaints are not productive.
A second common element in successful uprisings is the existence of want. Most of these uprisings are not fueled by idealism but by need.
A third common factor is the sense that the dire circumstances exist because of a fundamental injustice. Although this in itself does not appear to be enough for most widespread actions to succeed, the unifying principle of a shared wrong focuses the attention of a group and enhances its effectiveness.
Finally, in order for the uprising to bring about change and have a lasting effect, the distress must be generalized. The more generalized, the greater the chance of success. Localized uprisings can be dealt with quickly and completely. Thus, for example, the Baltimore Bank Riot of 1835 had many of the essential elements of an effective popular campaign: people were desperate because they had lost their money in failed banks; the usual channels of redress were not working (depositors had waited docily for compensation for more than a year); there was a sense of injustice, because the bank directors had misdirected and badly invested depositors’ money. However, the Baltimore Bank Riot ultimately failed because it was a localized campaign. Although the mayor’s and bank directors’ homes were attacked by the rioters, the riot was eventually put down and its leaders jailed.
So what does this say about the Occupy Wall Street/Zuccotti Park action? How many of the four elements are in this popular protest?
For one thing, Zuccotti Park is the epicenter but by no means the extent of the movement, which is organic in nature, much as the Revolution of 1848 was organic. The activists who comprise the Occupy Wall Street protest are the most visible and vocal expression of a widespread, even global, economic despair. Though much of the U. S. economy is still puttering along — putting food on the table and paying rent — despair in growing numbers has certainly taken root in a significant segments of the population.
Another of the four elements present in this protest movement is frustration, the sense that conventional civic remedies are not available. The name of the movement sums it up: Occupy Wall Street. The belief exists that an impenetrable wall has been constructed by the allied interests of government and money (i. e., banks and brokers). Despite the popular will to correct errant behavior of the financial industry, Washington has taken no action to pass or enforce major reforms. It is evident to those in Zuccotti Park that their interests are not represented in government; so they take to the streets.
The fourth element, want, is also present in this movement, though perhaps not yet to the degree necessary to tip the balance of the protest to one of violent upheaval. Many bellies are still being filled through programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps. And though homelessness has reached alarming levels, the foreclosure process is sluggish and people who would be without homes exist essentially as squatters on their own property. However, the sense is palpable among the Occupy Wall Street protestors that their futures have been stolen and that the promise of a good life has evaporated.
Those assembled in Zuccotti Park and in parks and plazas across the globe are at the moment relatively peaceful, for the most part. They are simmering, though, and the climate is ripe for the simmer to erupt into virulent action (as it has in Greece).
These protestors call themselves the 99 percent. The other one percent — and the governments who serve them — would be well advised to heed the lessons of history. If this privileged elite does not remedy the gross economic imbalance that grows worse each day, there will indeed be class warfare. And on a scale never before seen. For there is more that unites a formerly middle class Greek, American and Spaniard than there is that divides them. Once the dispossessed recognize their common circumstance, the economic and political stability of the developed world will be undermined, and in ways that no one can predict.
Moscow Salt Riot
Boston Bread Riot
Baltimore Bank Riot