Many years ago, one of the ways in which philosophy lecturers tried to get their students to appreciate the assumptions underlying the simplest descriptions of what we do was to ask them to imagine explaining everyday life to a visiting Martian. “He’s celebrating Mass” obviously takes some unpacking, but “he stopped for a traffic light” needs some explaining, too.
Anyone trying to make sense of US politics might feel like a visiting Martian who has just come upon a race of creatures who resemble textbook illustrations of Homo sapiens but - besides being bipedal and of upright posture - have nothing in common with them.
These unfathomable creatures include, but aren’t limited to, the Republican contenders for nomination as the party’s presidential candidate next November. They also include members of the commentariat, the bankers against whom the Occupy Wall Street movement has directed its astonishingly good-natured wrath, politicians of all stripes and distressingly large numbers of the American public. OWS, as it has come to be known, by contrast gives the impression of being constituted by entirely rational people, mostly young but afforced during daylight hours by writers, academics, curious bystanders and members of the Class of ‘68 eager to show solidarity with their grandchildren.
Ever since Barack Obama’s inauguration, Republican politicians have behaved like the German Communists in the early 1930s. Their motto is “The worse things get for the country, the better they get for us”. “First Hitler, then us” led the German Communists down the primrose path to the concentration camp. Republicans seem to think no further than ensuring that Obama is a one-term president; but if they inherit high unemployment, falling house prices, unaffordable higher education and no prospect of economic recovery, any victory will be dust and ashes. Whether the public really will vote for a Republican president is hard to tell.
The more interesting phenomenon has been OWS. Initially, everyone pretended that nothing was happening. The historically minded observed that Americans had seen similar things before; the first was the 1894 march on Washington by “Coxey’s Army”, a group of unemployed workers led by populist organiser Jacob Coxey. Others were reminded of the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression, when hundreds of shantytowns sprang up to house the homeless unemployed. Nobody thought that the inhabitants of Zuccotti Park had anything to say that The New York Times or anyone else needed to hear.
Two things changed all that. The first was when Anthony Bologna, a deputy inspector at the New York Police Department, decided to squirt pepper spray into the eyes of a group of apparently peaceful young women - “appropriately”, said Ray Kelly, the head of the NYPD, before deciding to hold an inquiry and send Bologna on leave. The second was when OWS hit on the slogan “99 to 1” at just the moment when a raft of statistics came out showing the extent to which the economic gains of the past 30 years had indeed been captured by the top 1 per cent of Americans. Seventy-five per cent of the economic growth between 2002 and 2008 had ended up in their hands. Allied to the realisation that average workers’ real incomes had shrunk since 1979, it restarted the debate over the causes of the shift to a distribution of wealth last seen in the 1920s.
The argument was enlivened by some enjoyable gaffes. One Wall Street investment banker complained bitterly about senator Charles Schumer’s support for OWS: didn’t Schumer remember who gave him so much money when he was running for Senate? Oh, the ingratitude of a man who having been bought refuses to stay bought! It has also brought to light some of the oddities of American opinion. It’s familiar that 92 per cent of Americans believe themselves to be middle class. It’s also unsurprising that when President Obama proposed to raise tax rates for people earning more than $1 million (£621,000) a year, he should be accused of waging class war. What’s odder is that 39 per cent of the population says they either are, or within a year will be, part of the top 1 per cent, split evenly between “in” and “will be”. It’s easy to see why the US breaks left-wing hearts.
Those with sharp eyesight have observed that if the top 1 per cent have walked off with all the goodies, it’s the top half of 1 per cent who have made out like bandits - both income and wealth statistics suggest that’s right.
The commentariat now complains that OWS hasn’t established a policy; but some make the obvious comparison with the Tea Party, which has captured the Republican Party and frightened its leadership out of its wits with a set of contradictory demands. OWS responds that it is committed to a democratic process and that it takes time to produce a policy consensus. It’s an old-fashioned, utterly non-violent anarchist movement: Kropotkin would have thought well of it.
Does OWS have implications for the UK? No and yes. The US has been free of anything like the August riots in London and elsewhere; the carnage of the 1960s riots in Watts and Newark and the 1992 Los Angeles riots provoked by the beating of Rodney King is still remembered. But one clear demand of OWS has been that if bankers can be bailed out, students suffering under the burden of unrepayable student loans should be bailed out, too. That cry is likely to resonate. Americans may be more attached to direct action than the British - the Boston Tea Party is an important part of the national myth - but unless economic recovery comes faster and more strongly than there’s any reason to expect, the camp on the steps of St Paul’s is a foretaste of things to come.