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Social justice
3 October 2012

One year on, what can conservatives learn from the Occupy movement?

Last month saw the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street – a protest that mushroomed into the global Occupy movement. In Britain, the most prominent manifestation was an attempt to occupy the Stock Exchange, which degenerated into the farcical siege of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Things didn’t go that well for the movement generally, with middle class activists fleeing protest encampments once the homeless moved in. Clearly, the poorest 1 per cent were no more to their liking than the richest 1 per cent. And, yet, for all these misadventures, the Occupy movement has undoubtedly had a lasting impact on mainstream politics – not least by raising awareness of the very real imbalance between the genuinely wealthy and the rest of us (the 99 per cent).

Though generally perceived (correctly) as a leftwing movement, Occupy has some rather surprising ideological roots – in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for the Presidency. Maureen Tkacic tells the story in a piece for Reuters:

  • …[following their landslide defeat] the most radical of the right-wing radicals, Goldwater’s beloved speechwriter Karl Hess, moved into a houseboat, renounced politics altogether and dedicated the rest of his life to peacefully protesting the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the new aristocracy he dubbed ‘the one percent.’
  • “You read that right: The first guy to call the 99 percent to arms was the author of a speech that claimed: ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater had fondly referred to Hess as ‘my Shakespeare.’”

As Tkacic puts it, “[Hess] refined his lifelong distrust of big government into a more considered opposition to bigness generally”. Or to quote the man himself (from his 1975 memoir-manifesto):

  • “1.6 percent of the adult population owns 82 percent of all stock, and thus actually owns American business and industry. In a very real sense, that tiny 1 percent of the population faces the other 99 percent across a barrier of very real self-interest. That tiny 1 percent has been accumulating more as the years go on, not less. The key to that accumulation is assuring that the people who make up the other 99 percent are sharply restricted in what power and privilege they accumulate.”

It would be easy to dismiss Hess as a political extremist who swung to the other extreme, but as the Republican commentator Reihan Salam argues (also for Reuters) there’s an agenda here that mainstream conservatives cannot afford to ignore:

  • “Millions of households that had hoped and expected to be climbing the ladder to middle-class prosperity instead find themselves burdened by debt. If the political right and center can’t find a way to revive economic growth and to create shared prosperity, the future might very well belong to Occupy.”

To emphasise his point, Salam quotes a truly astounding statistic:

  • “…household debt has climbed from 50 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent just before the financial crisis. Yet… this sharp increase does not primarily reflect an increase in borrowing. Had interest rates, growth and inflation remained the same in the three decades following 1980 as they had in the three decades preceding 1980, household debt levels would have actually decreased.”

Can this really be true? If it does stand up to scrutiny, then it surely demonstrates the extent to which fortunes of the ‘strivers’ are shaped by forces beyond their control.


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