For all its social snootiness, Wall Street has suffered far more from the meddling of members of its own class than from intrusions by those outside it. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, an aristocrat, who held the lords of finance responsible for the Great Depression—securing legislation to establish the Securities and Exchange Commission, asserting federal authority over the stock exchange, and appointing a wealthy stock trader, Joseph Kennedy Sr., to ride herd. Not much better, from Wall Street’s perspective, was FDR’s Cousin Teddy, who as President prosecuted trusts as illegal monopolies. Or Louis Brandeis, a Harvard-trained corporate attorney turned crusader against the concentration of wealth and power.
These men changed the system from within, as have the ablest regulators in recent times. Arthur Levitt Jr., a vigorous SEC chairman under President Bill Clinton, was first the president of Shearson Hayden Stone. (Levitt is a member of the board of Bloomberg L.P., owner of Bloomberg Businessweek.) Paul A. Volcker cut his teeth at Chase Manhattan before running the Federal Reserve and becoming the gruff animating voice behind the Volcker Rule, which bans commercial banks from engaging in proprietary trading. It’s hard to imagine any of these “opponents” of Wall Street mounting a barricade. They didn’t need to storm the castle to know where the secrets were hidden.
In its very amateurism, Occupy Wall Street represents something new. Although it’s attracted some celebrities and well-heeled supporters, participants come chiefly from outside Wall Street. Many are unemployed or poorly employed. These are not bankers or reform-minded professors; these are also-rans in the capitalist race, upset with the system itself. Their chief weapon is neither eloquence nor argument, but their physical presence.
As critics have noted, the protesters are not in complete agreement with each other, but the overall message is reasonably coherent. They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards. They also want to reduce the influence that corporations—financial firms in particular—wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.
In its grassroots and leftist character, Occupy Wall Street bears a superficial resemblance to protests from the ’60s and early ’70s. But the Woodstock Era was different in ways that tell us important things about the current siege. Then, radical students preached an affinity with the “working class,” but it was rare that the students and any members of the working class actually joined arms...
There are now protests flourishing around the country, including my hometown. Occupy Boston is at the foot of the financial district in Dewey Square, which is given over to scores of closely packed, brightly colored camping tents. On the same day I toured the site, Ben S. Bernanke visited the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, right across the street, though no one on the square seemed to know it. Nor did Bernanke wander over.
The message in Boston is the same as in New York, but with a more desperate edge. Stan Malcolm told me he had been working in flooring—an industry hit hard by the real estate slump—until 18 months ago, when his employer shut down. “There ain’t no work anywhere,” he said. Since then he has been doing day labor and eating at soup kitchens. I asked what he will do when the cold weather comes. Wasting not a syllable, he replied: “Bundle up.”