Libertarians are missing out on a powerful social dynamic. The protest movement called Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is bursting onto the streets in an iconoclastic surge that has continued for weeks, spreading from Manhattan to cities across America. Demonstrators are being met with police brutality and arrest. They are also being contemptuously dismissed by the mainstream media and by most libertarians.
The contempt revolves around the perceived message. Yet there is a multitude of messages. Indeed, initially the “leaders” (if that word applies to such a self-consciously democratic group) seemed opposed to imposing any meaning on the demonstrations beyond protesting Wall Street. Instead, they encouraged local organizers to define themselves.
Many messages have been ascribed, however. Some come from interviews with protesters on the street. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post stated, “Some of the people . . . want to End the Fed. Others want to tax Wall Street. One woman assured me that ‘very few’ of the top one percent live in New York, or even in the United States. ‘They’re in gated communities all around the world,’ she said. Someone else saw this as a cultural revolution.”
Other messages derive from lists of “demands” posted on forums even though the organizers claim the lists come from detractors who wish to make OWS look silly. Indeed, the “leaders” are currently working on an official message to counter what they view as widespread misunderstanding.
It is clear, however, that the original and most vocal protesters are left-wing and anti-capitalist. This aspect of OWS is what makes libertarians so derisive even though no similar depth of derision seems directed toward the right-wing aspects of the Tea Party.
A Place for Libertarians?
Why should libertarians be interested in OWS?
In the Salon article “What’s Behind the Scorn for the Wall Street Protests?” Glenn Greenwald explains, “Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power — in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions — is destroying financial security for everyone else?”
This powerful message is drawing in average people who are enraged. Thus the demonstrations have swelled far beyond hardcore ideologists. Many demonstrators now call themselves “the 99 percent,” meaning they speak for the vast majority of Americans. The 99ers carry signs that tell their stories in brief. In another Washington Post blog post, “Who are the 99 percent?” Klein explains, “These are not rants against the system. They’re not anarchist manifestos. They’re not calls for a revolution. They’re small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it.”
Currently, the left is standing in the street beside outraged average people who are desperate to tell their stories. The Industrial Workers of the World has endorsed OWS ,and labor unions have joined the protests. And yet there seems to be no censorship of other messages; nothing prevents libertarian voices from joining the mix. If they did, the 99ers could see that it is not only the left who cares about injustice. If they did, at least some messages would be against state capitalism or the corporate state.
It is not a difficult thing for libertarians to do. In the 1980s the economist Jeff Hummel and I arrived at a protest in Westwood, California, only to find it was largely anti-capitalist although it had been advertised as antiwar. Blank signs were provided on which people could write their own messages. I wrote “Make Profits, Not War.” While we marched, I argued with and explained myself to other participants, including one of the organizers. OWS offers a similarly blank slate for those willing to write their own messages and march.
There is yet another reason to refrain from derision; protesters have been maced, beaten, and arrested by the police for peacefully exercising their right to free assembly and free speech. The content of their speech is secondary to their right to speak out. “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is famously attributed to Voltaire. Libertarians who put their disapproval first and foremost are missing the proper emphasis.
They are also missing an opportunity. The left-wing rode a surging anti-Vietnam war movement into prominence in the decades that followed. The left marched with a cross-section of American society from priests to mourning mothers, from hippies to veterans. In doing so, it earned credibility. How much more credibility could be earned by libertarianism, a movement that actually gets the argument correct?