Philip Delves-Broughton

Diary - 22 October 2011

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I arrived at the Occupy Wall Street protests on Monday morning, their one month anniversary, at 7 a.m. raring to go. That’s when the subway stations of Lower Manhattan are spewing out their banking spawn, when the streets are full of capitalist pillagers swarming off to suck what blood is left in the western economies. I was looking forward to a confrontation, some fist-shaking, at least some graphic shouting and argy-bargy. But at Zuccotti Park, I found everyone huddled beneath blue tarpaulin, fast asleep. Four weeks in, the radicals are exhausted. Surrounding the park, half the size of a football pitch and dotted with honey locust trees, stood groups of policemen, television vans and food carts all waiting for the protestors to get up.

• I’ve attended some good protests over the years — G20 riots, anti-Pinochet marches in Chile, anti-National Front protests in Paris — and they’ve all had a certain ravey zest to them. Watching Occupy Wall Street over the past month, there’s none of that. They’ve got a powerful central idea, which has caught on around the world, but here at base camp it’s all a bit wan and chippy, especially against the backdrop of this urgent, restless city.

• Occupy Wall Street is said to be the Democratic party’s answer to the Tea Party. Not so, say the occupiers. They are lovers while the Tea Party are fighters. They are Facebookers and Tweeters, while the Tea Party is a bunch of Bible Belt Alf Garnetts. The Tea Party harks back to the Revolutionary War, when America was ruled by landed elites while the Occupiers claim to derive from the ‘abolitionist movement, the workers’ rights movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist and queer liberation movements, the environmental movement’. Both abhor centrism, and express primal urges on the left and right. But the Tea Party has been treated with more respect by Republicans than Occupy Wall Street has by the Democrats, which reveals much about the tolerance of dissent in each party.

• Rich Americans aren’t afraid of protestors or even a Democratic president threatening tax increases — that’s what accountants are for. What scares them is violence, the pitchfork wielders storming their homes, manhandling the womenfolk and ransacking the sub-zero refrigerator. The anger is out there, they fear. All it needs is a trigger. A much worse financial collapse, or perhaps some diabolical Chinese electromagnetic pulse which brings down America’s power grid. This is the premise of One Second After, a thriller by William Forstchen, revered by the paranoid and libertarian rich. What happens when the lights go out, it asks? What good will your money be then? No use having a media room or a home gym. The architectural must-have these days, I hear from the lawyers, doctors and others who service this class, is a well-supplied bunker.

• Class warfare of a very different kind while fishing for striped bass off Montauk. October is when migrating bass swim past the tip of Long Island. There are two ways to fish out here, standing on the beach, or from a boat. The blue-collar beach fishermen think the boat fishermen are phonies. I must have looked particularly phony standing in a boat in a new pair of waders. Each time our guide, the sun-bleached Cap’n John, pointed towards land, the beach fishermen yelled profanities at us. They’ve been known to cut the boat fishermen’s lines or hurl their own lines, laden with heavy wooden plugs and hooks, right over the top of the boats. They made the boiling scrums of feeding bass seem quite genteel. There is nothing classless about American society.

• Each month I head to Kansas City, Missouri, for several days to work at the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship and Education. Mention Kansas City to New Yorkers and most say is, ‘barbecue?’ But America’s small cities are some of its greatest. Kansas City, which has a population around that of Sheffield’s, has a world-class art museum, the Nelson-Atkins, great food, barbecue included, beautiful urban parks, a terrific university and just opened the eye-popping Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a $326 million theatre for ballet, opera and a symphony orchestra, funded entirely by private money in the teeth of the recession. Anyone wanting reassurance about America’s deep reservoirs of affluence and ambition should visit.

Philip Delves Broughton is the author of What They Teach You at Harvard Business School.