Magazine | November 28, 2011, Issue

The Church of Grievance

Occupy Wall Street’s dangerous creed

Protest and violence are like gunpowder and explosion: It is not altogether surprising when one leads to the other. This is especially so when the protest is not the expression of a particular grievance that can be easily assuaged by some specific measure, but of a general resentment and a sense of fundamental dissatisfaction requiring deep but unspecified and diffuse change. The vaguer the demand, the greater the frustration; and there is no balm to the frustrated soul like the sound of the tinkling of smashed plate glass. Destruction is the compensation of the resentful.

When people build large bonfires in places such as Oakland, they can hardly claim that they are on the side of the fire brigade. The crackling of flames is a joyful sound to those who think that their anger is a manifestation of generosity of spirit; and to burn down a city in the name of righteousness has long been among the illicit pleasures of mankind.

This is not to say that anger is always misplaced, or frustration unjustified. Who, when dealing with his bank, does not sometimes feel that he is being exploited to pay the debts of others, contracted foolishly or corruptly by both borrower and lender? Who is pleased when chief executives who have overseen, or even actively brought about, the collapse of their financial institutions depart with sums of money that most people can only dream of, having paid themselves royally in the meantime?

I have reason, then, to heave a brick through my bank’s window, just like everyone else, and in protest block the street on which it operates. But the demonstrators are not merely complaining that every time they phone their bank they are made to jump through hoops, finally to reach someone, possibly on the other side of the world, who sounds as alert as a bear woken in the midst of its hibernation. They are instead protesting the supposed root of all evil, for though secularist, they think themselves of Biblical stature:

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith. . . . But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness.

Of course, the protesters are not exactly lilies of the field either: Even if, like the lilies, they toil not, neither do they spin. They certainly do not photosynthesize, yet neither do they seriously expect to go hungry or consider it even a vague possibility. Having known no shortage, they are not grateful for an abundance that exceeds all previous abundance, nor do they enquire where it has come from. For them, abundance is natural, hardship anomalous. By the standards of all previously existing humanity, and much of humanity that still exists today, they are — in short — spoilt.

Many among them are sufficiently spoilt that they revolt against what has spoilt them, namely the regime of private property. They have absorbed and made their own a prejudice that is widespread and that they believe to be generous, namely that against the rich, though it is an open question whether this or racial prejudice was responsible for more deaths in the last century.

Now of course there is such a thing as illicit enrichment, ranging from the socially and economically deleterious to the downright illegal. Sometimes such enrichment does great harm, and it is never attractive to see. But it does not follow from this that such enrichment is the only or even the major cause of the ills of so complex a society as that of the United States. Such ills are often dialectically related: The sub-prime crisis, for example, started as liberal social engineering for the sake of partisan advantage and ended as suspect financial manipulation for short-term personal gain.

#page#If chief executive officers of corporations have appropriated shareholders’ funds, have not bureaucratic drones seized, and on a vaster scale, taxpayers’ funds? A bureaucrat who is paid $100,000 a year to do something that does not need to be done, or is actually harmful, is no more laudable than a CEO who pays himself five times as much as he would be prepared to work for. But it would be wrong to hate all bureaucrats indiscriminately, both because many really do try to serve the public interest and because such hatred feeds on itself and can lead to the Oklahoma City bombing. There is nothing quite like hatred for getting things out of proportion.

Those who see evil only in corporate greed see its symbols everywhere, for example (and perhaps especially) in buildings that, by comparison with an individual or his belongings, are huge and sumptuous. The huge and sumptuous are a provocation to the dissatisfied and anxious, who draw an invidious comparison with their own condition. They come to see these symbols almost as individuals, or extensions of individuals, whom they blame for their dissatisfaction. By causing the symbols harm, by destroying them, they are therefore acting against human evil itself. Churches, synagogues, palaces, mansions, banks, and offices have always been the object of popular outrage or resentment. To destroy leads to a relief of feelings, if never to an amelioration of one’s actual situation. How many of us have never felt the urge to destroy something in a fit of rage, though we know perfectly well that a smashed plate or cup will avail us nothing?

When these natural, or at any rate common, reactions are united to an ideology they become very dangerous indeed. The idea that our whole society is illegitimate, founded substantially on injustice, fraud, and misappropriation, justifies almost any violent or destructive behavior. Normal inhibitions evaporate; smashing a window or setting fire to a bank becomes a virtuous act, an act in favour of the people. The world, no matter how complex, has been divided neatly into them and us: them, the bloodsuckers, the parasites; us, the victims of the bloodsuckers and parasites:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. . . . Oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to each other. . . .  Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: It has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

I quote, of course, from the Communist Manifesto. If we replace the words “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” with “Wall Street” and “common people,” we recognise an attitude to be witnessed not far from the offices of National Review. Just because it is wrong, a grotesque simplification, does not mean it is not gratifying — and dangerous.

For the moment in our societies religious buildings are safe (that is one sign of the decline of the importance of religion), though there is no guarantee that attacks will not return. Much more serious and dangerous at the present conjuncture is a festering hatred of all that, whatever its defects, errors, and crimes, has made us the most fortunate and privileged people in history.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

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