ANALYSIS: How the Occupy Wall Streeters threw it all away

For a while there, public support for the Occupiers was soaring, Neil Macdonald writes. But they've managed to waste a spectacular amount of political capital.

Only a first-year journalism student or my most thick-headed colleagues would deny that we reporters are a largely bourgeois bunch who have trouble dealing with the unconventional.

Collectively, we appreciate the order of things, which after all has been pretty good to us. We respect institutions and we like a nice, simple narrative, a natural beginning and a natural end to the stories we cover.

This attitude probably explains the subtext of relief in the coverage of those municipalities across America that are sending in their police to eject the anarchistic, smelly, sometimes weird Occupy Wall Street encampments that took over public spaces here this autumn.

For much of the media, the OWS movement was becoming a repetitive bore, a story that just went on and on and on without ever seeming to get to the point.

At first, no question, this movement did touch the national consciousness, a rare enough feat, given the self-absorbed, capricious nature of the American public mind.

Polling now suggests that support is souring, which is probably why local politicians are sending in the cops all of a sudden.

But for a while there, interest in the Occupiers was soaring, and most of the people who noticed them sympathized with their message, such as it was.

Droning on

That public interest meant the Occupiers were newsmakers, even if they were, and are, confusing people to deal with.

Occupy what exactly? A confusing message and now the police have moved in on New York's Zuccotti Park and elsewhere.

In the months since the camps went up, the protesters have been unable to articulate a central demand, and their discussion groups and general assemblies drone on pointlessly. (I know; I spent an hour and a half recently filming one, and even the participants agreed they'd accomplished nothing.)

In individual discussions, Occupiers patiently explain their aversion to any sort of leadership, and their dedication to rejecting the entire corporate/governmental system — everything, in their view, is broken, therefore any solution that works within the system is doomed.

To me, anyway, a declaration that the U.S. government must be dismantled, or that all corporations must be "taken down" pretty much steers the conversation into neverland. Allrighty, then. Thanks.

The unbailed

In fact, it is one of the most remarkable aspects of this protest that those involved couldn't, or wouldn't, harness the power inherent in the name of their movement: Occupy Wall Street. And in their main slogan: We are the 99 per cent.

The words suggest a burning, pent-up anger at the small minority who have amassed insane levels of wealth in this country, in particular those who have done it not through hard work, innovation and ingenuity, but through a parasitic manipulation of markets, and cozy, subsidized cronyism with government.

Wall Street is just the best example. In the years leading up to the crash in 2008, its biggest players created what amounted to a giant, multi-leveled con, packaging and selling garbage, while secretly placing bets against the very products they were peddling.

When it all collapsed, these so-called Masters of the Universe turned to the politicians they'd helped install in Washington, to be rescued with a few trillion in taxpayer dollars.

The business model here, despite all the nonsense about market forces, was nakedly obvious: privatize profits, socialize loss.

Meanwhile, as just about everyone here knows by now, ordinary Americans were left unbailed to cope with the consequences of this rampant greed: recession, joblessness, personal debt, shrinking home values and foreclosures.

No wonder the public gravitated toward any protest movement with Wall Street in its name.

Big-government liberals

But if the advent of this movement created a particular moment, it is now disappearing. The Occupiers and their admirers deny it — they talk about living on in the public consciousness and changing the national discussion.

But the fact is, they've managed to waste a spectacular amount of political capital. As Pew Research pollster Andy Kohut has put it, if they aren't pursuing specific goals within the political system, they're "just another bunch of protesters outside the White House."

Will the Occupiers return? Or have they shot their bolt?

Part of this had to do with an internal tension to their rhetoric.

The Occupiers declared government broken and corrupt, but the long list of issues they want addressed — homelessness, discrimination against minorities, treatment of veterans, war, child poverty, reduction of economic inequality, social justice in general — all require even more government.

The Occupiers might talk like anarchists, but scratch them and you find big-government liberals.

They also seem to lump all corporations together, despite the original focus on Wall Street, and that just doesn't fly with many Americans.

Few people here, for example, see Apple as a parasitic entity on the level of the banks that created the subprime debacle.

As one observer put it the other day, an Occupy Silicon Valley movement would seem absurd.

The fact is, not all wealth in America is accumulated through corruption or the cynical manipulation of markets and government. Most Americans not only admire honestly acquired wealth, they aspire to it.

The Occupiers also managed to cross even American boundaries of free speech, which are probably the most liberal in the world.

Loosely, the courts here have defined speech limits as the right to swing your fist, as long as you stop at the tip of the other fellow's nose.

Setting up tent cities in public parks, denying that space to fellow citizens, leaving trash lying about or relieving yourself in public spaces impinges on the other fellow's nose. All the reports of sexual assaults and drugs didn't help, either.

The Occupiers rose up, muddled about and, in the end, neutered themselves.

If they were a threat to what George Carlin used to call the real owners of this country, they aren't much of a threat anymore. And now winter is coming.

No wonder the Wall Street Journal, the sacred text of all those smug, ridiculously rich, unpunished incarnations of greed, was sneering and rejoicing in an editorial today about the police raids on the tent cities.

The threat is disappearing. The centre holds.

Too bad, in a way.