Is Occupy Wall Street, with its decentralized structure, lack of strong leaders and no concrete demands, a fundamentally new form of protest?
Or does the current movement have antecedents or analogues in American history? If so, what does the past tell us about where this might be headed?
For a dose of historical context on Occupy Wall Street, I spoke with Gary Gerstle, professor of American history at Vanderbilt and a scholar of social movements.
You’ve spent a lot of time studying social movements in America. What are your first impressions about what’s going on here?
I think what’s going on is very interesting precisely because this kind of protest has been so absent for the last 25 or 30 years. We are well advanced in what ought to be called the second Gilded Age, resembling the first Gilded Age of the late 19th century when capitalism developed very quickly and powerfully and the extremes between rich and poor became very great. There was a lot of downward pressure on wages and a lot of hardship; we have seen something similar in the past few decades when it comes to growing inequality. The major difference between this Gilded Age and the last one is the relative absence of protest. In the first Gilded Age, the streets were flooded with protest movements; questions regarding economic inequality and the very viability of capitalism were the defining issues of American politics.