The Bonus Army veterans stage a mass vigil
on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in 1932.
During the death throes of Herbert Hoover’s presidency in June 1932, desperate bands of men traveled to Washington and set up camp within view of the Capitol.
The first contingent journeyed all the way from Portland, Oregon, but others soon converged from all over - alone, in groups, with families - until their main Hooverville on the Anacostia River’s fetid mudflats swelled to a population as high as 20,000.
The men, World War I veterans who could not find jobs, became known as the Bonus Army - for the modest government bonus they were owed for their service. Under a law passed in 1924, they had been awarded roughly $1,000 each, to be collected in 1945 or at death, whichever came first. But they didn’t want to wait any longer for their pre-New Deal entitlement - especially given that Congress had bailed out big business with the creation of a Reconstruction Finance Corporation earlier in its session.
Father Charles Coughlin, the populist “Radio Priest” who became a phenomenon for railing against “greedy bankers and financiers,” framed Washington’s double standard this way:
The echoes of our own Great Recession do not end there.
Both parties were alarmed by this motley assemblage and its political rallies; the Secret Service infiltrated its ranks to root out radicals. But a good Communist was hard to find. The men were mostly middle-class, patriotic Americans. They kept their improvised hovels clean and maintained small gardens.
Even so, good behavior by the Bonus Army did not prevent the U.S. Army’s hotheaded chief of staff, General Douglas MacArthur, from summoning an overwhelming force to evict it from Pennsylvania Avenue late that July.
After assaulting the veterans and thousands of onlookers with tear gas, MacArthur’s troops crossed the bridge and burned down the encampment.
The general had acted against Hoover’s wishes, but the president expressed satisfaction afterward that the government had dispatched “a mob” - albeit at the cost of killing two of the demonstrators.
The public had another take.
newsreels of the riotous mêlée fanned out to the nation’s movie theaters,
audiences booed MacArthur and his troops, not the men down on their luck.
Even the mining heiress
Evelyn Walsh McLean, the owner of the Hope diamond
and wife of the proprietor of the Washington Post, professed solidarity with
the “mob” that had occupied the nation’s capital.
Three years after our own crash, we do not have the benefit of historical omniscience to know where 2011 is on the time line of America’s deepest bout of economic distress since that era. (The White House, you may recall, rolled out “recovery summer” sixteen months ago.)
We don’t know if our current
president will end up being viewed more like Hoover or FDR. We don’t know
whether Occupy Wall Street and its proliferating satellites will spiral into
larger and more violent confrontations, disperse in cold weather, prove a
footnote to our narrative, or be the seeds of something big.
And so for the first three weeks, the protests were alternately ignored, patronized, dismissed, and insulted by politicians and the mainstream news media as a neo-Woodstock for wannabe collegiate rebels without a cause - and not just in Fox-land.
Those who did express sympathy for
Occupy Wall Street tended to pat it on the head before going on to fault it
for being leaderless, disorganized, and inchoate in its agenda.
The week after a Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that “no one seems to care very much” about the “collection of ne’er-do-wells” congregating in Zuccotti Park, the paper released its own poll, in collaboration with NBC News, finding that 37 percent of Americans supported the protesters, 25 percent had no opinion, and just 18 percent opposed them.
Apparently some of those dopey kids, staggering under student loans
and bereft of job prospects, have lots of parents and friends of all ages
who understand exactly what they’re talking about.
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators asleep in Zuccotti Park.
Coverage increased and politicians ran for cover.
Mayor Bloomberg, who had initially (and preposterously) portrayed the occupiers as a threat to the financial industry’s lower-income service workers, gingerly observed that some unspecified “people” are “very frustrated.”
Mitt Romney, who had first called the protests “dangerous,” executed another of his patented flip-flops to assert that he, too, identifies with America’s 99 percent, not the top one percent where he’s always dwelled.
Even Eric Cantor, who’d described
the protesters as “mobs,” started talking about - what else? -
But the crisp agenda demanded of Occupy Wall Street will not be forthcoming.
The inchoateness of our particular class war is central to its meaning. America is not Tahrir Square or the riot-scarred precincts of North London, where everyone knows at birth who is in which class and why. We pride ourselves on being a “classless” democracy. We abhor ideology. When Americans left and right, young and old, express anger at an overclass, they don’t necessarily agree about who’s on which side of that class divide.
The often confusing
fluidity of class definitions, especially in an America as polarized as ours
is now, may make our homegrown class war more volatile, not less.
The real America, as she defined it, was in small towns.
In other words: It is the middle class (or at least its white precincts) that fell behind while the rich got richer.
The Über-class she and her angry followers would take to the
guillotine, however, is not defined by its super-wealth. It is first and
foremost exemplified by potentates in the federal government, especially the
Ivy League cohort of Obama - closely followed by the usual right-wing
populist bogeymen, the pointy-headed experts in fancy universities and the
mainstreammedia royalty with their “gotcha” questions.
A Harvard-educated former Massachusetts governor, especially
one who embraced the social engineering of health-care reform, inspires
class anger from his own party to the same degree that his private-sector
record as a leveraged-buyout tycoon provokes class anger from Democrats.
Indeed, the near-universal over-the-top emotional
response - more commensurate with a saintly religious or civic leader, not a
sometimes bullying captain of industry - brought Americans of all stripes
together as few events have in recent memory.
Yet those demonstrators who celebrated Jobs were not necessarily hypocrites at all - and no more anti-capitalist than the Bonus Army of 1932.
If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius - in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on - was his ability,
The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured.
Those in Palin’s “real America” may not be agitated about the economic 99-vs.-one percent inequality brought about by the rise of the financial sector in the past three decades, but, like class warriors of the left, they know that “financial instruments” wreaked havoc on their 401(k)s, homes, and jobs.
The bottom line remains that Wall Street’s opaque
inventions led directly to TARP, the taxpayers’ bank bailout that achieved
the seemingly impossible feat of unifying the left and right in rage against
government - much as Jobs’s death achieved the equally surprising coup of
unifying left and right in mourning a corporate god.
Finance long ago supplanted visionary
entrepreneurial careers like Jobs’s as the most desired calling among
America’s top-tier university students, just as hedge-fund tycoons like
Steve Cohen passed Jobs on the Forbes 400 list. Americans sense
that something incalculable has been lost in this transformation that cannot
be measured in dollars and cents.
Like Jobs, Edison wasn’t just a brilliant fount of technological breakthroughs but a businessman as well (albeit a less savvy one). He was the official founder of General Electric - known as Edison General Electric at its inception in 1890, before Edison was strong-armed into an early merger.
G.E. was created to maximize the profits of his many inventions and businesses, Apple style. And like Apple, the company flourished as an exemplar of American capitalism at its most creative and productive, even in a downtime.
During the Great Depression, it produced an astonishing array of Jobs-worthy innovations,
the job-creating, profit-making, America-empowering corporate behemoth,
spewing out refrigerators and jet engines, that would ultimately
Ronald Reagan as its television pitchman in the fifties.
In 1990, G.E. Capital accounted for just a quarter of G.E.’s overall profits, but by 2007, on the eve of the crash, it had gobbled up 55 percent of the bottom line. Its sophisticated gambling strategies, like those of the big banks it emulated, amounted to an ingenious get-rich-quick scheme for high-rollers until the bottom fell out, taking shareholders and employees, not to mention the country, down with it.
dependence on short-term credit was so
grave that it forced G.E. to cut back its dividend for the first time since
the thirties and to turn to Buffett for a $3 billion emergency cash infusion
in the dark days of October 2008.
These days he heads the president’s ineffectual Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, despite his own corporation’s record of job-shedding in America and the revelation that G.E. paid no American taxes in 2010 (on more than $14 billion in profits, including $5.1 billion in the U.S.).
Immelt is a Republican, but that didn’t prevent Palin this fall from calling G.E. “the poster child of corporate welfare and crony capitalism.” (Bill O’Reilly and Newt Gingrich joined this class-warfare chorus.)
On this point, once again,
there is no air between the right and Occupy Wall Street. And as both camps
condemn Immelt, so they are also united in the conviction that the godfather
of Obama’s economic team, Robert Rubin, is likewise a poster child for
corporate welfare and crony capitalism. Rubin, whose useful cronies included
his former protégés Geithner and Lawrence Summers,
encouraged reckless greed
and risk at Citigroup during the bubble much as Immelt did at G.E. Capital,
ultimately requiring the taxpayers’ rescue of TARP.
Nor do most politicians want to talk
about the depth of the crisis in present-day capitalism, since to
acknowledge its scale would only dramatize how little they intend to do
But at least politicians pay lip service to the woes of the middle class. That America’s poverty rate has risen to its highest level since 1993 goes all but unmentioned by leaders in both parties.
The poor, after all, don’t make campaign contributions and are unlikely to vote. And they have even less clout than usual now that Republican legislators and governors, fanning bogus fears of “voter fraud,” have mandated new, Jim Crow-style restrictions to scare away poor, elderly, and minority voters in fourteen states.
In the Beltway bubble, even the
local poor are out of sight and out of mind; with a 6.1 percent unemployment
rate and a median income of $84,523 (versus $50,046 nationally), Washington
is now the wealthiest metro area in the country and,
according to Gallup,
departs from all 50 states in believing by a majority that the economy is
When Roosevelt took office, he had the confidence that his leadership could overcome that level of despair and head off radicals on the left or right. In 2011, the despair is again black, and faith in the system is shaky, but it would be hard to describe the atmosphere at Zuccotti Park or a tea-party rally as prerevolutionary.
The anger of the class war across the spectrum seems fatalistic more than incendiary. No wonder. Everyone just assumes the fix is in for the highest bidder, no matter what. Take - please! - the latest bipartisan Beltway panacea: the congressional supercommittee charged by the president and GOP leaders to hammer out the deficit-reduction compromise they couldn’t do on their own.
The Washington Post
recently discovered that
nearly 100 of the registered lobbyists no doubt charged with besieging the
committee to protect the interests of the financial, defense, and
health-care industries are former employees of its dozen members. Indeed,
six of those members (three from each party) currently have former lobbyists
on their staffs.
Elections are supposed to resolve conflicts in a great democracy,
next one will not.
Just in time for election season, Obama has recovered his populist rhetoric (if not populism itself) and will say the right things about Wall Street, about that “frustration” out there, about the modest reforms of Dodd-Frank, and about millionaires who don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
It’s not clear if anyone believes it, including him. Having been a bystander to history when the tea party harvested populist rage during the summer of 2009, he may have a tough time co-opting Occupy Wall Street now to plug the so-called enthusiasm gap in his base. There’s a serious danger that the anger could co-opt him instead.
To pander to the swing state of North Carolina, the Democrats in their wisdom chose to hold their convention in a city best known as the headquarters of Bank of America, whose recent financial innovations include illegal robo-foreclosures and the $5 monthly fee on debit cards.
Occupy Charlotte could be a far more telegenic show than the one happening inside the hall. Despite all the chatter to the contrary, Obama is so far outdrawing all the GOP candidates combined in Wall Street contributions.
His best hope is that that fact is blurred by either Romney, the plutocrat from central casting (below image), or Rick Perry, a creature of lobbyists and pay-for-play government in Texas.
Herman Cain’s as yet little-known corporate history would also prove problematic to Republicans:
Whatever else is to be said about Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, and Ron Paul, they actually spent most of their pre-political careers in the aggrieved middle class. But they are all history in the presidential race, and perhaps were destined to be, given how big money plays its hand.
You don’t have to like
their views to find their earnest but misplaced faith in the free-market
efficiency of the political system a bit poignant.
The structural crises in our economy, our government, and our culture defy any of the glib solutions proposed by current Democrats or Republicans; the quixotic third-party movements being hatched by well-heeled do-gooders are vanity productions. The two powerful forces that extricated America from the Great Depression - the courageous leadership and reformist zeal of Roosevelt, the mobilization for World War II - are not on offer this time.
Our class war will rage on without winners indefinitely, with all sides stewing in their own juices, until - when? No one knows.
with capitalism’s failures over the past three decades, both in America and
the globe beyond, may well be on hold until the top one percent becomes
persuaded that its own economic fate is tied to the other 99 percent’s.
Which is to say things may have to get worse before they get better.
Though the Bonus Army was driven out of Washington in the similarly fraught
election year of 1932, the newsreels they left behind turned out to be
previews of coming attractions for the long decade still to come.