Putting Sorkin’s Occupy Wall Street Critique in a Larger Historical Context
In “Occupy Wall Street: A Frenzy That Fizzled,” Andrew Ross Sorkin leaped into the ongoing frenzy, which has hopefully fizzled, of proclaiming the death of Occupy as thousands of people are taking to the streets. For Sorkin, OWS has amounted to nothing more than “a fad.” In the future it will be vaguely remembered as a frivolous, fetishized, trendy hobby that “will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.”
As an Occupy Wall Street organizer and a PhD student in history, this comment grabbed my attention. If there’s one thing I know about the historical profession, it’s that there are tons of history books written about incidents and episodes that are far more obscure than the most significant American social movement in decades which spread to cities across the world. Even more, there are undoubtedly many histories of OWS in progress.
Now of course Sorkin did not intend his comment to be taken literally. He is not actually arguing that historians will never devote sustained research to the movement. Instead, he is arguing that OWS will, at best, poke its head out within the history that really matters in the long run. Fortunately, Sorkin’s article gives us clues about what kinds of history books he has in mind. He asks,
Has the debate over breaking up the banks that were too big to fail, save for a change of heart by the former chairman of Citigroup, Sanford I. Weill, really changed or picked up steam as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No. Have any new regulations for banks or businesses been enacted as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No. Has there been any new meaningful push to put Wall Street executives behind bars as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No.
As recently as January, polls showed that about two-thirds of Americans agree that there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor, the largest percentage in twenty years as a result of OWS. Clearly Americans across the political spectrum are fed up with “too big to fail.” So then who are the people having this debate that haven’t been influenced by OWS? The former chairman of Citigroup was invited to the debate. Since Sorkin doesn’t cite any polls about popular perspectives on breaking up the banks, it would appear that he is talking about politicians, CEOs, and influential columnists. In other words, people whose opinions really matter. Sorkin’s second and third questions about whether the movement has produced new regulations or financial prosecutions reinforces the impression that the criteria of importance revolve around officials and politicians.
For Sorkin, politics and history are about the elite. They are the newsmakers and the real historical actors. His hierarchical politics are complemented by his popular identification with the kind of history of the ‘Great Men’ that emerged as an academic corollary to parliamentary authoritarianism. When History emerged as a modern academic discipline in the 19th century it was oriented around the men that mattered: kings, presidents, generals, industrialists, etc. It was not really until the 1960s in conjunction with social movements around the globe that schools of social history really started to challenge this elitist narrative and demonstrate the importance of the vast majority of humanity in its own history. Women, people of color, workers, slaves, and many other subaltern populations emerged from the historical blackout.
However, if you’ve come across a public school textbook recently you can see that social history and the movements of the 1960s have only partially expanded the purview of ‘the historical.’ Predictably school curricula and many popular forms of history have retained an elitist historical narrative which reflects our class society. Sorkin uncritically adopts this dated lens when he implies that the seriousness of a social movement is determined by how it is judged by that small circle of elites whose actions and opinions represent the ‘real’ substance of history. If they listen, the movement is world-historical; if they don’t, it’s really just a ‘fad.’ The actual existence of the people who made the movement happen is irrelevant.
Like the historical legacy that he unconsciously channels, Sorkin includes two quotes from former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, supposedly “a longtime supporter” of the movement, without a single word from anyone else. Moreover, the only person associated with Occupy that he alludes to is the crazy anti-Semitic sign-holder that aggravated Occupiers while titillating conservative media last fall. To make matters worse, Sorkin references this anti-Semite as evidence of the “mixed” nature of our messaging. His article continues a long historical legacy of misrepresenting and belittling dissident and marginalized groups. This orientation is not surprising coming from someone named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum and placed on the “Next Establishment” list by Vanity Fair.
However, there are two conclusions that can be drawn from Sorkin’s rhetorical questions about why OWS didn’t compel government officials and politicians to imprison the bankers, tighten financial regulations or adjust their thinking about the banks. Sorkin’s conclusion is that OWS is a failure since politicians didn’t act. Mine is that the electoral system is a failure since politicians didn’t act. What other conclusion can be drawn when voters elect a democratic congress, the most inspirational, charismatic democratic president in generations, then spend months sleeping in parks across the country sparking an international media sensation around economic injustice and the crimes of Wall Street and, as Sorkin points out, American elites just shrug. If people have completely exhausted every acceptable form of political action within the electoral system and it continues to entrench the power of the 1% then we must follow the lead of social historians and look to each other, rather than CEOs, politicians, and social critics, as the real engine of transformative social change.
What Sorkin doesn’t fully appreciate is that history is long. Although capitalism may be perceived as the ‘natural’ system of production and exchange it is a very recent historical phenomenon, which hasn’t existed in anything approximating its modern form for more than about 200 years (many fewer than that in much of the world); a snapshot in the roughly 500,000 years that humans have existed. If the focus of historical and journalistic discourse is the product of underlying political dynamics, then the relevance of any historical episode is constantly subject to change. There is no end to history (unless we allow corporations to continue to destroy the earth, of course). So some day it might be said that Sorkin’s elitist historical and journalistic bias was –“perhaps this is going to sound indelicate”—a fad. Maybe people will look back on his penchant for fixating on the narrow sphere of policy-makers and economic experts as a historical “frenzy that fizzled” once we start to democratize our valuation of humanity.
If we can continue the process of societal democratization that grew out of the 18th century and continue to invent new forms of collective self-management and resistance there may come a day, perhaps many years down the road, when the painful legacy of hierarchical class exploitation “will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.” Then, as Marx envisioned, we might finally be able to bring “the prehistory of human society to a close.”
Mark Bray is an OWS Organizer and History PhD Candidate.