November 21, 2011
Wall Street Symbolism
by Akim Reinhardt
On the morning after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the New York City police expel the Occupy Wall Street Protestors from Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night, I wrote that the next 24-48 hours could very well be pivotal. Well, it’s now been forty-eight hours since I woke up to hear that Bloomberg had sent in riot police to clear out Zuccotti Park, supposedly in the name of a molly maid cleanup of the park; I’m writing this on Thursday morning since I will be traveling as of Friday.
The protestors have responded. Several hundred of them gathered this morning (last Thursday) and tried to prevent workers on Wall Street from working. Of course that literal action failed. But as far as this movement is concerned, it’s the symbolic actions that are most important, at least for the time being. Their presence was felt. Bloomberg’s actions have not put an end to this, far from it. And so the symbolism of Occupy Wall Street remains vital.
Why is the Occupy movement’s so important? The movement’s now famous horizontal organization, as opposed to a more typical top-down vertical structure, has created many opportunities for many people to participate. But it also means that specific agendas and specific action proposals have been sometimes slow to form. Consequently, in some way the real importance of the demonstrations thus far has been it’s ability to influence the national discourse and provide a symbolic stance against the corruptions and ethical shortcomings permeating American society.
It seems to me that of all the Occupy demonstrations that have emerged around the country, and indeed around the world (including the one right here in Baltimore where I live), that Occupy Wall Street is vitally symbolic for several reasons. Of course it was the first, the one that kicked off all the rest. But much more important than that, Occupy Wall Street is, well, at Wall Street. And I believe that matters quite a bit. To that end, Occupy Wall Street is central to the Occupy movement because nothing represents the current economic system in all its sodden disarray better than Wall Street.
And it seems that the protestors have responded. Several hundred of them gathered this morning in an effort to prevent workers on Wall Street from working. Of course that failed, but again, as far as this movement is concerned, it’s the symbolic actions that are most important, at least for the time being. Their presence was felt. Bloomberg’s actions have not put an end to this, far from it. And so the symbolism of Occupy Wall Street remains vital.
The symbolism of Wall Street, however, is just as vital and of much longer standing. For nearly four centuries, in one form or another, it has represented separation and elitism.
When the Dutch first settled on Manhattan Island in 1630, they did so starting at its very southern tip (for a nice south-facing view of the island, check the 3 Quarks Daily banner at the top of the home page). They inched their way northward then erected a large earthen wall stretching the width of the island. It went from river to river and cut across the established Indian path that would eventually become Broadway. A little league version of other failed population control walls like Hadrian’s or China’s, it served as border control on both Indians and English imperial rivals. During the 1640s, the Dictatorial Dutch governor Peter Suyvesant helped coordinate a strengthening of the wall. Both lower class free colonists and African slaves were used to raise it up to about twelve feet in height.
After the English defeated the Dutch in the Anglo-Dutch War of the 1660s, they took control of the high seas, began to dominate the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and seized some Dutch colonies, turning New Amsterdam into New York. In 1685, they added road along the inside of the wall, and in 1699 they took the wall down altogether. As the 18th century opened, all that remained of the wall was its name.
By then merchants and traders had started to gather by the wall. In addition to hawking wares, some traders bought and sold speculative items, particularly bonds and shares of business ownership. This practice continued throughout the 1700s, with a button tree that had sprouted up along the lane serving as a communal gathering spot for speculators. The 1792 Buttonwood Agreement helped formalize the market by regulating manipulations and instituting commissions.
Wall Street’s symbolism as the home of the elite took a political turn when George Washington became the first U.S. president when he was inaugurated on the balcony of its Federal Building. Washington’s intelligence has been sometimes unfairly maligned because of his quiet demeanor. In truth, he proved himself to be a brilliant politician. It’s also worth noting that he was the only founder to free his slaves, albeit after the death of himself and his wife Martha.
However, another reading of Washington is that he was an aristocratic planter who enjoyed fox hunting and held over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. And fittingly perhaps, he was also an avid and accomplished land speculator, and one of the wealthiest individuals in the new United States. Indeed, when the nation’s capital was moved south, Washington insisted that the new district to be carved out Maryland and bearing his name and, include the nearby town of Alexandria, Virginia. Why? The town was only eleven miles upstream from Mt. Vernon, Washington owned land there, and including it in the District would presumably help its value. Congress acquiesced, though they forbid the building of any public structures in the town. The new president might profit from his position, but only so much.
So in some ways then, George Washington’s first presidential inauguration on Wall Street was the symbolic dovetailing of a young nation’s reckless pursuit of wealth.
Wall Street itself rose to national power as a result of publicly funded infrastructure projects; private profits from public spending is nothing new. First came the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 and connected New York City to the Great Lakes. Since waterways were by far the most important trans-continental transportation system, farmers throughout much of the Midwest began shipping their produce to New York instead of down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Commodities trading on Wall Street exploded.
During the 1830s, the first modern big businesses rose in the form of railroad companies. The investment capital needed to get a railroad going was far beyond the scope of any individual or even syndicate of investors. Government handouts were vital. In particular, the federal government offered companies low interest loans and large grants of free land, upon some of which they could lay track while selling all the surplus, often to land speculators. But even with that, more investment capital was needed, and Wall Street played a vital role. Public stock offerings raised millions, and shares changed hands daily as investors sought fortunes on the unstable tides of these new, mammoth businesses. Many would eventually go under, and some of them would be bailed out. Sound familiar?
For nearly two centuries since, Wall Street has been the symbol of American free market capital. Whether it’s the real and imagined fortunes of profiteers ranging from robber baron Jay Gould to Daddy Warbucks, or the economic calamities of countless crashes, epitomized by apocryphal stories of distraught traders leaping to their deaths in October of 1929: Wall Street is the symbol for Americans’ unapologetic and wildly erratic pursuit of wealth.
And so to the extent that the Occupy movements have an impact through their symbolic opposition to a ferocious financial system that seems to enjoy transferring its debts to the public while privatizing its profits, the Occupy Wall Street will remain at ground zero. For Wall Street remains the world symbol for this economic system, as it has for centuries.
Posted by Akim Reinhardt at 12:40 AM | Permalink