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When I last blogged on the Tea Party, I expressed sympathy for their goals but I believe the results they demanded were unrealistic, factually inaccurate,and that they didn’t understand the consequences of what they were saying. I also observed the rich intellectual history and tradition behind the Tea Party, a revolutionary undercurrent within the Republican Party that has always existed throughout US history. It taps into the thinking of some Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson (before, as President Jefferson he vastly expanded the reach of the executive government) or Patrick Henry. It taps into the thinking of Milton Friedman, Hayek and their ilk.

I have the same sympathy for the Occupy Wall St protests. But what’s striking is that these protesters lack the intellectual oomph that the Tea Party had. Yes, yes. It seems odd to call a movement whose mascot is Sarah Palin ‘intellectual’, but isn’t the point of a team mascot to be a party balloon filled with naught but hot air? And yes, ironic also given the scorn with which the Tea party holds for ivory tower intellectuals.

I don’t mean that individual complaints lack substance or theory. Take, for example, the complaint that “[t]hey have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation”. I imagine that if you spoke to the protesters, they would wax eloquent about the problems with privilege. Its an intellectual theory, it has substance even if I personally believe its intellectually flimsy and indefensible.

These individual complaints have yet to coalesce into a broader message which can seize the mind and thrill the heart. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington, he brought with him a dream and a Bible. He spoke of equality, tapping into the rich discourse about individual rights and about loving thy neighbour. Just as importantly, these mass movements must present a compelling alternative. The Tea Party presented a coherent alternative – a low-taxing, unintrusive government. The problem was that we were unwilling to abandon the social safety net which the government provides us. The Occupy Wall St movement has no alternative. Do they want greater regulation around each of the areas they outlined? We just don’t know.

The failure to present a plausible alternative is not a new phenomenon for the Left. Ever since Marx’s theories were discredited by reality itself, the Left failed to show its followers how to live a virtuous life. Meanwhile the Right demonstrated how a capitalist life could enrich the world. By being selfish and improving yourself, you improve the economy and lift the living standards of the very poorest in the world. How can the Left compete with that? Their current conception is to throw away your life by volunteering in Africa or by joining hippie protest movements. The answer is much simpler. It’s to present a vision of a community of peoples. People joining volunteer organisations in their local neighbourhoods – making friends whilst doing good. Becoming community organisers like a younger Barack Obama.

Many commentators have observed that the protesters have not made concrete demands about what policy changes they would like to see, or that their message cannot be reduced to soundbite format. Too true. But my complaint goes deeper. There is no broad intellectual message behind all of these disparate complaints that go deeper than “corporations are too greedy”. I knew that already.

The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall St movements have touched a raw nerve. Economic turmoil causes pain; that pain has found expression in freedom of expression and protest. Mass movements, however, cannot be carried on emotion alone for any budding film director knows the impossibility of sustaining one emotion for too long.

So far, the Occupy Wall St movement has brought out a list of vaguely worded c0mplaints. Many of these are highly contestable or outright wrong (“They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization”  – how can they have done this, if agriculture isn’t a monopoly or even an oligopoly?).

Without a message or alternative vision or facts to substantiate their arguments, the Occupy Wall St movement is vulnerable to the charge that they are hipsters, chasing the latest cause de celebre. Until they can articulate what they are protesting about, how are we supposed to know what to do about it? They might as well have asked us to imagine no possessions and a brotherhood of man.


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