Christopher Ketcham’s essay “The Reign of the One Percenters,” published on Orion’s website and forthcoming in the November/December 2011 issue of the magazine, calls for a swift kick to Wall Street’s pedestal of profligacy. We’re excited to hear that people are listening and, thanks to the brave citizens behind #OccupyWallStreet, taking action. So what’s next? Christopher Ketcham reflects.
When I wrote the first draft of “The Reign of the One Percenters” in the autumn of 2010, I had little hope that the kids in New York would pull off anything like the growing revolt in Liberty Square and beyond. I am delighted to be proved totally wrong.
Some thoughts, then, for present and future Occupiers everywhere. I’d suggest they take a page from the Populist movement of the 1890s. Like Occupy Wall Street, Populism was a broad, economics-driven revolt that targeted a predatory elite of corporate capitalists—the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age—who had captured government and established monopoly power over the political economy.
The Populists were social visionaries, anticipating and driving the Progressive Era of reform of the early 1900s. They sought to dismantle the centralized power of corporations in the economy and return economic liberty to individuals and small business. Long before anyone else, they envisioned the graduated income tax, the secret ballot, the regulation of banks, the right of workers to set the terms of their labor. They transformed the political discourse of their time.
In the midst of this our Second Gilded Age, the Occupiers need to remember that the Populists also formed a political party—the People’s Party—and they ran candidates who won office, and they formed real-world cooperatives between business and labor to challenge the hegemony of corporate capitalism. Theirs was not a platform of quixotic revolution, but one of radical reform that took decades of hard labor to bear fruit.
In the meantime: the politics of radical protest; the politics of turmoil and disruption; the politics of ridicule and shaming; the politics of the rhetorical rotten egg smashed in the eyes of the criminal banking class—these are the orders of the day. The protest in Liberty Square, the protest of the Ninety-nine Percenters, is currently driven by no mere platform of demands, nor should it be. It is driven by moral outrage, as a challenge to the authority of an immoral economic system.
Christopher Ketcham is working on a book about political rebellion in the United States. He lives in New York and Utah.