From Ethika Politika comes this piece written by R. J. Snell which succinctly links OWS protesters to Plato's tale about the debate between Socrates and Adelmantus concerning the nature of democratic governments. I think that there is a viewpoint here that probably requires some honest scrutiny by those on all sides of this current event.
Wall Street is occupied, apparently, by those at odds with the supposed avarice and dehumanizing power of big banks and traders. Coverage of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests has been extensive, including a fairly common report that while protestors claim to represent the other 99% of citizens who are not the very rich, still the protestors have no unified list of demands or a platform. Other reports highlight how many of the occupiers are college educated and so already part of the privileged few.
As in so many other things, Plato’s Republic is helpful here. While it certainly is unlikely that every protestor comes from means, reports indicate a surprising number come from privilege, descendents of those with enough means to think of college as an option. They are, if we stretch the term beyond our current meaning to include what Plato meant, the sons and daughters of oligarchs.
In the later books of the Republic, Plato suggests that from a good regime will stem a timocracy, or citizens who love honor, and then a regime of oligarchs loving money, then those democrats more inclined to pleasure than to the restraint needed for money, and finally a tyranny of uncontrolled desire.
The transition from the character of the oligarch to the democrat is described in terms strikingly familiar to OWS.
… they proceed to return insolence, anarchy, wastefulness, and shamelessness from exile, in a blaze of light, crowned and accompanied by a numerous chorus, extolling and flattering them by calling insolence good education; anarchy, freedom; wastefulness, magnificence; and shamelessness, courage.Further, governed by pleasure rather than reason, such souls are unable to bring unified order to their lives, incapable of the sort of rational capacity of distinguishing the ephemeral and the lasting, the genuinely valuable from the merely pleasant, and thus unable to seek the highest good in an ordered polity—all demands would of course be equal.
… lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing; now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him … and there is neither order nor necessity in his life.Alasdair MacIntyre suggests in After Virtue that this kind of person, one lacking reason and a compelling narrative of value, is full of indignation and protest. Believing that the lives of others are as arbitrary and groundless as their own, they cannot offer reason, merely demands, often scattered and incoherent, and so protest becomes the usual mode of discourse, rather than argument, philosophy, and reasoning together.
In many ways, OWS looks an awful lot like the lives and loves of any of the deracinated contemporary. One sees so many in our society first drinking and then reducing, first committing themselves to the body and then to indolence, and ready to believe or join almost anything that provides a little entertainment, a little meaning, and a little superiority of the protest. But all this falls away in the face of the new and interesting when it replaces the no-longer new and interesting. A terrible tyranny of fashion governs protest.
There is plenty wrong with our society, and some of it worth indignation. And there are times, perhaps, for protest and mass action, but the vast majority of the work necessary to improve our lot is done by the average person in our schools, and shops, and synagogues; by little league coaches and volunteers at the Y; by a business owner sponsoring a raffle for a small fundraiser, and so on. The good is most often dull, it is usually not publicized, and it is never indulgent. And almost always, it requires a long pull in the same direction for years and years of effort, careful planning, and cooperation.
Changing the world, for most people most of the time, is actually pretty boring and awfully bourgeois, and very little like the inconstancy of random protest.