The 'fatal weakness' of Occupy Wall Street

Treating Wall Street as an abstract symbol of evil has helped the protests gain traction, writes Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, but it obscures the real problems

The Occupy Wall Street movement plays into a romanticized notion of Wall Street and the rich versus the poor, which is its greatest weakness says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)

Occupy Wall Street's "chants aren't aimed at Goldman Sachs and its board, or junior executives who commute in from Connecticut, so much as the average American's idea of Wall Street [as an abstraction of evil]," writes Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. That symbolic treatment "gives the protesters and their movement the bulk of its strength — and it is, at the same time, the movement's fatal weakness." It incites passionate support by tapping into familiar narratives about the rich versus the poor and middle class, but it does little to get at the root of the problems of "actual Wall Street" and the derivatives of mortgage backed securities that got us into this mess. Here, an excerpt:

What I wonder is how many of the protesters realize that the case against symbolic Wall Street is actually much weaker than the one against actual Wall Street. Symbolic Wall Street is the financial center of earth's most prosperous country. Actual Wall Street's most powerful firms bear responsibility for the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. At times, actual Wall Street violated the law. It squandered many billions of dollars, inflating the market for mortgage backed securities that the people in charge didn't even understand. Taxpayer money was subsequently redistributed to these firms. That is a powerful case that reform is needed.

There is, however, a robust market in America for ideological thinking, for turning every matter into an epic battle in the war between right and left, red and blue, "the 53 percent" and "the 99 percent." Doing so swells the profits of Fox News and the email lists of Occupy Wall Street organizers and their allies, among many others. They're all in theoretically defensible businesses; but perverse incentives are at play, and we ought to insist, regularly, that we won't go along.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Read the whole story in The Atlantic.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.