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Are the Peasants Revolting? Occupy Wall Street’s Foreign Policy

Occupy Wall Street (and This, That, and the Other Place) might seem, at first video streaming glance, to be singular among protest movements. But—with its vaporous ends and its grounded means—“Occupy” is recognizable as yet another outbreak in history’s long list of peasant revolts.

During Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in 1381, the radical priest John Ball preached to angry members of the ninety-nine percent at Blackheath, an open space near London that sounds as insalubrious as Zuccotti Park would become. Ball’s words could be, with some lessons in vocabulary and explanation of biblical reference, spoken by one of Occupy’s non-leaders today:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?

Of course the nature of peasantry has altered. To judge by the Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, blog entries, YouTube uploads, and the nearly interminable scroll of the OccupyWallStreet website, modern hewers of wood and drawers of water can be fairly said to “serf the Internet.”

Related Essay

The Occupiers, Seen from Europe

Two decades after Communism, rallies for free people decrying their free societies look suspiciously retrograde—or worse.

Yet the underlying causes of revolt haven’t changed since Sparta’s fifth century BC helot troubles or the Roman Republic’s First Servile War of 135–132 BC. The few have a lot. The many have little. Click reset.

Political revolutions are famous for their revolutionary effects on foreign policy. The foreign policy effects of peasant revolts are, like peasants, less obvious. Peasant revolts are different than political revolutions the way college football games are different than budget fights pitting a school’s athletic department against its a cappella choir. Rather than a struggle between the powerful there’s a struggle with the powerful, by those who proudly announce themselves to be powerless.

We know that when the peasants lose, as they usually do, things turn out badly for all concerned. Shakespeare’s Richard II was the head of state who had John Ball hanged, drawn, and quartered. And when the peasants win, as they arguably did with Chairman Mao, things turn out worse.

There isn’t much good to be said about the origins or the outcomes of peasant revolts, but there are good reasons they keep happening. Economic distress equals political unrest, on the perfectly reasonable assumption that politics and economics are joined at the hip. No matter if the wrong Siamese twin often takes the beating—any political unrest will have some influence on foreign policy.

 

As political unrest goes, the Occupy movement would seem insignificant. There’s something too smug, ironic, and self-admiring in the way it quotes the styles of protests with more substance, protests against racial discrimination, war, and dictatorship. A November 17th blog post at OccupyWallStreet.org claimed, “This is the climax of a decades-long battle for the soul of humanity itself.” But, according to the New York Daily News, when Joan Baez sang at Zuccotti Park many of the sleep-in’s youngsters didn’t know who she was. (And Occupy has more bongo drums than even an old beatnik like Joannie could tolerate.)

But we live in a virtual world. Action increasingly takes place in our imaginations. And Occupy Wall Street has tweaked the imagination of America even if most Americans can’t quite imagine sitting under tarps in front of the local T. Rowe Price office, talking about it all night.

The opinion polling data, at least as of October, is somewhat confusing about how much of the American imagination Occupy Wall Street has captured. A Time magazine poll found that fifty-four percent of Americans had a favorable impression, while a CBS/New York Times poll posited an approval rating of forty-three percent; Rasmussen said it was thirty-three percent, and Gallup put the figure at twenty-two percent. But even the Gallup number is impressive considering that Gallup’s twenty-two percent claim to “agree with the protest’s goals”—and the protest has categorically denied having any.

Nancy Pelosi said she supports the occupiers. Mitt Romney said, “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my view is, boy, I understand how these people feel.” Confusion and consensus are not mutually exclusive.

A dissatisfaction with the American business and financial system has made its way into the American mind. In this—as in so many things—John Maynard Keynes had it backward: When minds change, we change our facts. A change of facts has consequences for international relations. We can see it in the increasingly questionable fact of the euro.

 

To understand the kind of foreign policy thinking that Occupy Wall Street might lead to, we need to think with the peasant mind, employ the thought process that has been behind every peasant revolt. It isn’t hard. Beneath our thin cosmopolitan skulls we all have a peasant mind. We use it to watch reality TV. Or we can Google Occupy Wall Street.

It’s wrong to think of the Occupy movement—or the vassals or the villeins or the sturdy plowmen—as inchoate. Their guiding ideas are clear enough. Foremost is zero sum, the belief that there’s a fixed amount of material goods. What the one percent has was taken from me.

In the rustic world from which we all so lately came, this was an item of true faith. Pasturage and arable land were the source of wealth, and their ownership was indeed zero sum. But chemical fertilizers, mechanized farm equipment, irrigation pumps, hybridized seeds, and cheap transport of crops to markets made even clod-hopping infinitely expandable. The Industrial Revolution turned the notion of fixed amounts into a heresy for anyone able to think better than a Marxist. Supposedly ninety-nine percent of people can’t.

Then there is the assumption that the rich and powerful run the world, an assumption that the rich and powerful share. Perhaps they do run the world, though evidence—from Richard II to Jon Corzine—indicates they aren’t very good at it.

“We are speaking out against the corporate interests that have taken over our political and economic systems,” says the “Welcome to OccupyDC” flyer I picked up in McPherson Square at a moment when the political system in Washington was utterly deadlocked. And if the men who control corporate interests really had the law in the palms of their hands, their inevitable divorces from their embittered first wives wouldn’t be nearly as expensive.

Implicit in a mass uprising dedicated to pointing out the unfairness of everything is a vision of what fairness is. There’s no use pointing out that fairness doesn’t exist. Anyone who’s raised kids remembers the stage small children go through when they begin to acquire a sense of self and others and an awareness of the uneven distribution of possessions and prerogatives between the two. The results are fierce declarations of “mine!” and equally fierce insistences on sharing. It’s a stage none of us truly outgrows.

Two items from the OccupyWallStreet website:

Supposedly, all the stuff that was taken by the police from the square will be available for people to pick up at noon EST today. WE NEED PEOPLE TO GO TO MIDTOWN MANHATTAN AND HELP THE OCCUPIERS GET THEIR STUFF BACK TODAY!

To occupy is to embody the spirit of liberation that we wish to manifest in our society . . . Liberated space is breaking free of isolation, breaking down the walls that literally and figuratively separate us from one another.

But the most important part of Occupy’s political and economic thinking is not doing any. A November 19th blog posting from OccupyOakland shows about as much brain disconnect as can be packed into two sentences:

Occupy Oakland calls for the blockade and disruption of the economic apparatus of the 1% with a coordinated shutdown of ports on the entire West Coast on December 12th. The 1% has disrupted the lives of longshoremen and port truckers and the workers who create their wealth . . .

And an October 30th New York Times article about the cold weather travails of the Occupy movement displays the occupiers’ magnificent cluelessness about political reality. After a Denver snowstorm “which organizers said sent five protesters to the hospital,” Occupy Denver went on the Internet and “urged followers and supporters . . . to call the governor and mayor to express outrage for allowing conditions to persist that protesters said were dangerous.”

Not to bring Richard II into this yet again, but after the mobs of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion had sacked London, Richard granted all their demands. He drew up and signed elaborate charters abolishing serfdom, lowering land rents, granting general amnesty, etc. When the rebels still failed to disperse, the young king (only fourteen but already wise in the ways of spin control) took a few retainers and rode into the middle of Wat Tyler’s encampment. Tyler was killed in a scuffle with Richard’s guard, and the rebels moved to attack Richard. He said, “Sirs, will you kill your king? I am your king, I your captain and your leader. Follow me into the fields.” They did.

The rebels, of course, were rounded up and arrested by Richard’s army, and the charters were thrown away.

It isn’t that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are dunces, it’s rather that they have an intellectual conundrum. How an economy of perfect fairness would work is unknowable. And what kind of political authority would be needed to effect such fairness is unthinkable. So the protesters are exercising what economists call “rational ignorance”—when the cost of educating yourself about something exceeds the benefit of the learning you acquire. Fully educating yourself about all the ramifications of a completely fair economic system would probably cost you your sanity. It happened to Noam Chomsky. And learning about the nature of the political power necessary for such a project could be done only at the cost of finding out things you don’t want to know, such as how Pol Pot ran Cambodia.

 

I went to where Occupy DC has pitched its tents and asked the occupiers what they thought about foreign policy. McPherson Square is on the K Street main drag of Washington influence peddling and only two blocks from the White House. But, as of this writing, there has been no attempt to clear the park.

When I was there in mid-November, police presence was minimal, the campground was reasonably tidy, and the attitude of neighbors and passersby ranged from cordially indifferent to perfectly oblivious. This is Washington, after all, where the slightest American gripe or even Stephen Colbert can fill the Mall. Occupy DC is about 999,700 people short of a Million Man March.

Due to a business lunch, I happened to be in the garb of the one percent, but nobody mentioned it. Every protester was friendly and forthcoming. And every protester made sure I understood that he or she was speaking strictly as an individual, not as a voice of the protest.

A clean-shaven man in his late thirties, wearing the long wool overcoat, big scarf, and knit watch cap of the more serious kind of graduate student, was manning the Information booth. But I was not to take what he had to say as information, officially speaking—which he couldn’t do anyway, because Occupy doesn’t have officials.

“I’m just a node,” he said. “But foreign policy is kind of a paradox. As an occupier I want the US to deoccupy its military/industrial complex—deemphasizing military spending and applying resources to America, to the ecological system, housing, jobs, education, and standard of living.” I asked what effect this would have internationally. “Say Occupy did take over government. Other countries that had an extremely bad relationship with us would be drawn into a dialogue with us because we didn’t represent the interests of the elite.” He noted that a lot of our military aid is used “to support the one percent around the world. Although, really,” he said, perhaps in deference to my suit and tie, “it’s more like one quarter of one percent.”

So far this sounded like standard, predictable left-wing foreign policy. Except there is no standard, predictable left-wing foreign policy, as President Obama found out when force of circumstance drew him into a foreign policy nearly indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s. Even when force of circumstance might be withstood, the left can’t always bring itself to do so. The German Socialist Party went German at the last minute in 1914, voting in the Reichstag to give war credits to the Kaiser.

And the man in the overcoat did give a nod to Realpolitik. “We can’t undo history,” he said. “Kim Jong-il might feel we aren’t posing the threat that previous leaders did. But we would be hesitant to remove US forces until we had an agreement with him. We’re not fools.”

That said, he gave utterance to the usual leftist foolery about the Middle East. He suggested (with a smile, it should be noted) “digging a channel around Israel and towing it someplace.” (To be fair, it’s a thought that has occurred to people more pro-Zionist than he.) He decried “dual loyalties to other states,” said “support for Israel is unsustainable,” and “Netanyahu is not to be trusted.” Although, he added, “Not that the other leaders in the region should be.” Then he fretted that any statement opposing Israeli policies could be construed as anti-Jewish. He said, “I’m not anti-Jewish.”

What is it with the left and Israel? The little state was set up as a sort of leftist experiment, and the attempts at socialism in neighboring Egypt and Syria were a lot less successful than the average kibbutz. Does the left have something against not just the successful one percent but success itself? Is success too full of difficult responsibilities and burdensome obligations? It’s beyond me. As was the man in the overcoat’s response to my question about a nuclear Iran.

“They have good reason not to like the US,” he said. “We’re painting them as warmongers. How many countries has Iran invaded?”

Well, there was the entire known world west of the Indus, plus Greece. And yet, as much as left-wing ideology seemed to permeate the man’s opinions, there was something else as well. He said, “We don’t necessarily want to spend more money. But we want to reclaim America, locally. Defederalize it. The federal government functions as a tapeworm inside America, sucking resources from local authority. We had a Palin supporter here the other day. She realized that in Occupy she found a lot of things to support. Ninety-nine percent is a huge tent.”

I got the short version of all of the above from a young woman affecting a drabness so thorough that she seemed to be trying out for a part in a small-budget, independently produced movie about people who read the Nation. “It’s all one big thing,” she said. “Politics. Economy. Foreign policy. It’s all connected.”

A man in his forties was dressed as a bike messenger but was rushing off to do something involving, he said, “coordination of Occupy’s interface with the media.” Although that would be me, he could only talk for a minute. He added an oddly establishmentarian note to a consideration of Occupy’s foreign policy. “I used to work for a think tank,” he said. “There are think tanks all over DC with foreign policy recommendations not being enacted—about troops, oil, agriculture. There’s something wrong! We need to fix it!”

Imagine doing so by enacting all the recommendations of all of Washington’s think tanks all at the same time.

I talked to a very young man who looked exactly—in his beard, hair, clothing, and spacey hand gestures—like a hippie in 1967. It took me back. Then it took me aback. I realized this fellow hadn’t been born in 1967 and, quite possibly, neither had his parents. It was as if Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love had been filled with kids in fedoras and bobbed hair doing the Charleston.

The hippie said, “I have very simple ideas about foreign policy. All this war is for one thing. People aren’t getting what they need. Foreign policy should be based around getting people everything we need. Increase production. We’re almost there. We’re producing enough that people can live off the waste.”

The hippie was sitting by a tent decorated with an anarchist symbol. With him was a rough-looking but very amiable guy who said, “I’m a homeless vet. I live comfortably off waste.” Noting my glance at the spray-painted “A” in a circle, the vet said, “We’re not anarchists, we’re just using their tent.” Anarchism in a nutshell.

The hippie said, “Give people not only what they need to be healthy, but to be happy—distribution of resources.”

“Why not send them seeds so people can grow their own food?” the vet said. “We have the technology.”

“People are too interested in paying for things,” the hippie said. “We need to concentrate on distribution. People are too worried about the unemployment rate. Most jobs don’t need to be done. We should be trying to get the unemployment rate as high as possible.”

The hippie had another thought. “No monopolies,” he said.

“They’re supposed to be illegal,” said the vet.

“It’s like a Monopoly game,” the hippie said. “Well, the Monopoly game is finished. You won. Let’s start over.”

The hippie and the vet declared themselves to be apolitical. “I’m not voting for anybody,” the vet said.

“I voted for Al Gore,” the hippie said. (So he wasn’t as young as I’d thought.) “When Gore won and still lost . . .” His voice trailed off. “I’ll never vote again.” Then the hippie made as apt and concise a description of the former vice president’s character as we’ll ever have: “Al Gore would have at least pretended to try.”

“I’ve been to six occupations,” the vet said. “We have to force people to start thinking. The Tea Party people—we have the same thoughts but different ways of going about it. I object to taxes.” He told me he owned a couple of acres in Arizona, and the property tax made him mad. “I buy a piece of land then have to pay to own it.”

The hippie had a foreign policy strategy. “If we distributed US wealth to the world, they’d love us. America has everything the whole world needs and won’t give it away. We’ll waste it instead.”

The vet corrected him. “Two things everybody in America is willing to do—feed you and get you drunk.” That forced me to start thinking. Maybe our humanitarian aid programs have been, heretofore, only half right.

“If,” said the hippie, “we lead people in the direction of giving things away, wouldn’t the whole world fall into line behind us? America is the greatest country in the world.”

“A country,” the vet said, “founded on the idea that everybody could come here and do what they want.”

The hippie said, “I believe in the power of America’s leadership.”

Perhaps there is something singular about Occupy Wall Street: It’s one hundred percent American.

P. J. O’Rourke is an author and correspondent for the Weekly Standard.

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