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Occupy what?

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 21 October 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement has polarised public opinion: Either you regard the protestors as the new political avant-garde or as just plain silly. Either you believe they have a serious message or you think they are a bunch of nutters.

But what if the truth is a bit more nuanced than that? Perhaps the nutters have a point?

The silly stuff first: The protesters seem rather confused about what they are protesting against. They camp at Wall Street, which is fair enough if you want to object to financial capitalism. But they also protested in front of the Reserve Bank of Australia and the European Central Bank – not the usual suspects for financial excess.

It is also difficult to overlook some nasty anti-Semitic undertones in the rallies. One placard in Martin Place read ‘Occupy Sydney, not Palestine.’ From there it’s just one small step to claim that the financial crisis is the result of a Jewish conspiracy. In any case, what’s the link between Israel, Greece and Lehman Brothers?

Behind all this silliness, and frankly the utter nonsense, is a serious message: Corporatist capitalism has become a threat to prosperity, democracy and the free market itself.

The protesters no doubt exaggerate when they claim to represent 99% of the people worldwide. However, there really is public unease about the way the financial system works.

This week, I heard a representative of an anti-globalisation network complain that banks speculating in euro periphery debt should not be bailed out by the taxpayer when their investments go pear-shaped. It must have been the first time I was in complete agreement with the radical left.

There is something very wrong in a world in which heavily indebted governments have to take on yet more debt to save banks from the fallout of other governments collapsing under their debt burdens.

This is not a free market anymore. In a free market, banks have a right to speculate – and a right to go bankrupt.

What we are seeing instead is casino capitalism with a taxpayer provided safety net.

Acceptance of liberal economic policies suffers if good liberal principles can be suspended by powerful vested interests. The Occupy movement, silly as it looks, is a timely reminder of that.

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