Are the protesters really opposed to capitalism as we know it - or just cross that they haven't come out on top?

So, did you go and occupy Aotea Square? It seems a strange choice as a symbol of rampant capitalism. With its leaky underground carpark, I'd have thought Aotea Square was more an embodiment of what is wrong with socialist-type centralised planning.

Then again, I don't have much of an inkling of what the Occupy This and That movement is really wanting. Do they have a clue? As some wag quipped at a few hundred ragtaggle people with signs saying "We are the 99 per cent", it seems they are rather bad at maths.

On that measure, I could have joined in. I like a good protest. I was 14 when my family and I protested against the Springbok tour and it all seemed quite glamorous. Activists are exhilarating with their righteous anger and idealism, but the Occupy movement seems to be something different.

It has a good point about bailed-out bankers' ginormous bonuses: even the unoccupied Wall Street Journal admits that. So why is it that I find myself thinking the protesters seem not inspirational but a bit brattish? It's not just that the ubiquitous Susan Sarandon turns up for a photo opportunity or that there seem to be more college-educated Pilates instructors on the front line than unemployed auto workers.

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A protest is like a third-party testimonial: it carries so much more weight if you are altruistically demonstrating on behalf of someone else. Otherwise it is not so much a dignified dissent as simply whingeing. Or as Al Gore called it, "a primal scream".

Anyway, I suspect many of the Occupy protesters are not so much against capitalism per se, as feeling miffed that they personally are not rich capitalists. But however the global economy works, these people do not feel it works for them; they don't feel they have a chance. Income inequality seems to be a valid issue when the top 1 per cent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 per cent.

But the crucial issue is about social mobility: whether it is possible for anyone to move from the bottom to the top. How fanciful is the notion that with hard work and a hunger to succeed, anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and live the dream?

Ironically, it has been the left which has championed the romanticism of meritocracy. Leftie New York Times writer Deborah Solomon expressed the left's view when she said: "I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything." Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve and a hero of right-wing social policy-makers, responded drily: "You're out of touch with reality in that regard."

Back in 1994 when The Bell Curve was published, Murray sounded a warning, arguing that those with high intelligence (the "cognitive elite") are becoming separated from the general population of those with average and below-average intelligence, and this was a dangerous social trend. He was right, but it is probably not a conclusion the protesters in Aotea Square would like to hear. As T.S. Eliot said, humankind cannot bear much reality.

The truth is, the world cannot be made perfect: the protesters are like toddlers having a tanty. "It's not fair!" Why should some people be born into money while others are born into poverty? Why should some people be healthier or prettier or more charismatic than others?

I know how they feel, but let us try to face this reality together, like adults, rather than running away from home and setting up a tent at the bottom of the garden like sulky children.

dhc@deborahhillcone.com
* Illustration by Anna Crichton. Email Anna: illustrator@annacrichton.com

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