Are the Peasants Revolting? Occupy Wall Street Takes on the World

By O'Rourke, P. J. | World Affairs, January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Are the Peasants Revolting? Occupy Wall Street Takes on the World


O'Rourke, P. J., World Affairs


Occupy Wall Street (and This, That, and the Other Place) might seem, at first video streaming glance, to be singular among protest movements. But--with its vaporous ends and its grounded means--"Occupy" is recognizable as yet another outbreak in history's long list of peasant revolts.

During War Tyler's Rebellion in 1381, the radical priest John Ball preached to angry members of the ninety-nine percent at Blackheath, an open space near London that sounds as insalubrious as Zuccotti Park would become. Ball's words could be, with some lessons in vocabulary and explanation of biblical reference, spoken by one of Occupy's non-leaders today:

   When Adam delved and Eve span,
   Who was then the gentleman?

Of course the nature of peasantry has altered. To judge by the Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, blog entries, YouTube uploads, and the nearly interminable scroll of the OccupyWallStreet website, modern hewers of wood and drawers of water can be fairly said to "serf the Internet."

Yet the underlying causes of revolt haven't changed since Sparta's fifth century BC helot troubles or the Roman Republic's First Servile War of 135-132 BC. The few have a lot. The many have little. Click reset.

Political revolutions are famous for their revolutionary effects on foreign policy. The foreign policy effects of peasant revolts are, like peasants, less obvious. Peasant revolts are different than political revolutions the way college football games are different than budget fights pitting a school's athletic department against its a cappella choir. Rather than a struggle between the powerful there's a struggle with the powerful, by those who proudly announce themselves to be powerless.

We know that when the peasants lose, as they usually do, things turn out badly for all concerned. Shakespeare's Richard II was the head of state who had John Ball hanged, drawn, and quartered. And when the peasants win, as they arguably did with Chairman Mao, things turn out worse.

There isn't much good to be said about the origins or the outcomes of peasant revolts, but there are good reasons they keep happening. Economic distress equals political unrest, on the perfectly reasonable assumption that politics and economics are joined at the hip. No matter if the wrong Siamese twin often takes the beating--any political unrest will have some influence on foreign policy.

As political unrest goes, the Occupy movement would seem insignificant. There's something too smug, ironic, and self-admiring in the way it quotes the styles of protests with more substance, protests against racial discrimination, war, and dictatorship. A November 17th blog post at OccupyWallStreet.org claimed, "This is the climax of a decades-long battle for the soul of humanity itself." But, according to the New York Daily News, when Joan Baez sang at Zuccotti Park many of the sleep-in's youngsters didn't know who she was. (And Occupy has more bongo drums than even an old beatnik like Joannie could tolerate.)

But we live in a virtual world. Action increasingly takes place in our imaginations. And Occupy Wall Street has tweaked the imagination of America even if most Americans can't quite imagine sitting under tarps in front of the local T. Rowe Price office, talking about it all night.

The opinion polling data, at least as of October, is somewhat confusing about how much of the American imagination Occupy Wall Street has captured. A Time magazine poll found that fifty-four percent of Americans had a favorable impression, while a CBS/New York Times poll posited an approval rating of forty-three percent; Rasmussen said it was thirty-three percent, and Gallup put the figure at twenty-two percent. But even the Gallup number is impressive considering that Gallup's twenty-two percent claim to "agree with the protest's goals"--and the protest has categorically denied having any.

Nancy Pelosi said she supports the occupiers. …

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