There’s no more full-throated a defender of property rights than a member of the anticapitalist Left asserting the right to colonize someone else’s property. “Whose park? Our park!” chanted members of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park as the New York Police Department belatedly broke up the illegal occupation yesterday morning. “This is our home!” True to form, several of the newly rousted Zuccotti squatters broke into another local park outside Trinity Church after a brief discussion about whether to “liberate another piece of property.”
While the number of people who commandeered Zuccotti Park was pathetically small—several hundred a night—compared with the weight of media attention lavished upon them, their sense of entitlement to take other people’s property, whether public or private, is unfortunately widespread. It is shown by the increasingly vocal and self-righteous members of the graffiti cult and their elite enablers; by the young gutter punks who sprawl across city sidewalks on the West Coast, demanding money for drugs and booze; by the anarchist members of the No Global movement who vandalize businesses and banks; and by squatters, who remain active in Europe, though their presence in New York City virtually evaporated during the law-and-order mayoralty of Rudolph Giuliani. The demand by student participants in the Occupy Wall Street protests that they be allowed to welsh on their student loans simply because they don’t want to pay them displays a similar sense of royal privilege over other people’s property—in this case, the assets of taxpayers who extended the loans.
Zuccotti Park had to be cleared for the sake of the businesses and residents in downtown New York whose livelihoods and lives have been severely burdened by the protesters’ monopolistic takeover. Equally pressing was the need to reassert the rule of law. Yet it’s too bad that some large piece of abandoned land in the middle of nowhere couldn’t be donated to the movement so that it could continue to show the world “what democracy looks like,” as one of the rousted protesters proclaimed.
Actually, we know what the Occupy brand of democracy looks like. In the 1980s, Los Angeles gave an abandoned rail yard to the homeless; crime became so pervasive there that the camp was quickly shut down. In the 1990s and early 2000s, L.A.’s homeless simply took over the sidewalks in Skid Row with tents and tarps. Prostitution, assaults, gang retaliation, predation, drug overdoses, and defecation on the property of struggling local businesses were rampant. No surprise, then, that as the Occupy movement spread, so did lawlessness in the encampments, which had declared their hostility to oppressive police patrols.
The maudlin self-image of the OWS occupiers is perfectly in keeping with the West’s post-sixties romanticization of protest. “We move forward in the grand tradition of the transformative social movements that have defined American history,” one protester wrote on Occupy Wall Street’s website after yesterday’s police action. “We stand on the shoulders of those who have struggled before us, and we pick up where others have left off. We are creating a better society for us all.” A fawning media heard more of the same on Tuesday morning from the shouting protesters: “We are unstoppable; another world is possible”; “We shall overcome”; “We are doing something revolutionary.” A genuinely revolutionary act might have been living for free for two months without the cornucopia of insanely cheap goodies that capitalism and free trade showered upon the OWS protesters, from laptops, iPhones, and abundant electricity for recharging them to mountains of fresh food, warm clothing, and medical supplies.
Yes, some large or politically influential businesses win wholly unjustified government subsidies, as well as exemptions from the high taxes that less connected businesses have to pay to fund the growing welfare state. (The green energy movement, of course, is as voracious a consumer of unfair government favoritism as any failing bank.) But the fact that capitalism can be distorted by politics says nothing about its unmatched power to raise the standard of living almost universally and create the wealth that is the precondition for so many modern rights, such as women’s liberation from arranged marriages. Occupy Wall Street proved incapable of making such distinctions, however. At their core, the protests represented another outbreak of that perennial temptation in bourgeois society: to take for granted the norms and institutions that make Western prosperity and freedom possible.