Where OWS departs from precedent is in the breadth of support from the get-go for its overarching critique in the electorate at large. A November NBC–Wall Street Journal poll found that more than three quarters of voters agree that America’s economic structure unfairly favors the very rich over everyone else, and that the power of banks and corporations should be constrained. “It took three years from the start of the anti–Vietnam War movement to the point when the popularity of the war sank below 50 percent,” observes Columbia professor and social-movement historian Todd Gitlin. “Here, achieving the equivalent took three minutes.”
Capitalizing on this support is the central issue facing OWS, and its ability to do so will depend on myriad factors, including the behavior of plutocrats, politicians, and police. (In terms of presenting shocking and morally clarifying imagery, the recent pepper-spraying incident at the University of California, Davis, struck many as reminiscent of Bull Connor’s goons dousing civil-rights protesters with fire hoses in 1963.) But it will also depend on which of two broad strains within OWS turns out to be dominant: the radical reformism of social democrats such as Berger, who want to see a more humane and egalitarian form of capitalism and a government less corrupted by money, or the radical utopianism of the movement’s anarchists and Marxists, who seek to replace our current economic and political arrangements with … who knows what? “My fear is that we become the worst of the New Left,” Berger says. “I don’t want to live in a fucking commune. I don’t want to blow shit up. I want to get stuff done.”
In the beginning, the idea that what became Occupy Wall Street would amount to much at all, let alone become a vehicle for getting stuff done, struck Berger as unlikely—and he was not alone. One of the unifying sentiments among many of the prime movers was skepticism about the protest in the weeks leading up to it. After a call in July by the Canadian magazine Adbusters for a “Tahrir Moment” in lower Manhattan on September 17, a series of general assemblies were held in places such as Tompkins Square Park to plan the occupation. But the early gatherings were dominated by antiquated far-left fringe groups, such as the Workers World Party, and marred by internecine squabbling.
Vlad Teichberg was one of those in the crowd turned off by what he saw, at least at first. “It was problematic,” Teichberg says. “The groups wanted to control the process. But no consensus could be reached. So eventually a lot of the groups dropped out, but individuals stayed. When I came to the last two or three GAs before September 17, it was actually amazing, because suddenly you had a group that was easily finding consensus.”
Today, Teichberg spends much of his time in a small, dark, second-floor room in a clapped-out building on Lafayette at Bleecker. (His neighbors include the War Resisters League, the Socialist Party USA, and the Libertarian Book Club.) This is the original home office of globalrevolution.tv, which channels vérité video from occupations around the world through hosting sites such as Livestream.com.
Teichberg is a 39-year-old Russian immigrant with stooped shoulders and a mop of brown hair who grew up in Rego Park and is so jacked in to the electronic grid that he comes across like a character out of Neuromancer. But what makes him so interesting is that you could just as easily imagine him making a cameo in The Big Short. A math prodigy who was a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist before matriculating at Princeton, he left college (temporarily) after his sophomore year and went to work for Bankers Trust, the first in a string of Wall Street gigs at firms including Deutsche Bank, Swiss Reinsurance Corp., and HSBC. And what did he do in those places? He created, modeled, and traded derivatives, including some of the first synthetic CDOs. As he told the London Times, he was “one of the people [who] built that bomb that blew up the whole economy.”
Teichberg’s time in the Wall Street armament factory gave him a close-up view of everything wrong with the place: the culture of greed, the insane levels of risk, the corruption of the credit-rating agencies. “By 2001, it was obvious to me it was going to blow up,” he says, “and I wanted to be nowhere near it.” But he didn’t leave. Instead, hopping from job to job, he tried to put brakes on the process, devising new ways to value risk more accurately, only to be rebuffed by his bosses. At the same time he starting taking the money he was making on Wall Street and funding ways to undermine it.