The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has captured the political imagination of the two parties and the media. The right-wing media has been both hysterical and sarcastic while much of the center and the left has been enthusiastic, indulgent, or gently critical. Yet even the most fervent find hope not in what it is now, political theater, but what it might become. After spending two hours at Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza on Sunday, October 9, I am less impressed. I think that the emergence of something like OWS was predictable, at least in retrospect, after the failure of its predecessor, Obama-mania. The first put its faith in one man and the second in the hope that the 99 percent will rise up against the 1 percent.
After the 2008 election, the president and his allies urged the social movements to allow the administration to negotiate with Wall Street and the other interests. They complied. The young people went back to school, the black organizations glowed with pride, and the labor movement tried to trade support of the president for his backing of the Employee Free Trade Act. Now, disillusioned students and those who never bought into electoral politics have their moment in the sun. The movement was initiated by the countercultural magazine Adbusters.
OWS operates less on politics than society. Participants have little faith in politics because they say the whole system is corrupt. Although they promise future demands, they spend their time attempting to create alternatives—democratic forums, alternative financial institutions, and so on. These kinds of endeavors have a long history in the United States—from the creation of utopian communities in the nineteenth century to the formation of communes in the 1960s and 1970s. But their track record as a vehicle for change is poor.
My conclusions are based on the four kinds of people I met in the park. The first two are the “occupiers,” mainly young people. One were youngsters who had worked for Obama in 2008 and now are completely disillusioned. The other were people who had never participated in electoral politics but had been in action groups like Greenpeace or local social movements. I met a college student from Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond who told me she works to raise the esteem of poor girls and other “social justice” issues. Neither group had been engaged or were conversant with the economic issues involved in Wall Street, finance, or production. Perhaps that is why the New York group’s agenda on October 11 included a lecture on how the stock exchange works and another on credit unions as an alternative to banks.
Both groups of students found common cause under the broad umbrella of Wall Street domination. The decision to name the movement Occupy Wall Street was a stroke of genius. It highlighted one of the most widely held beliefs among the American people: that Wall Street was bailed out and Main Street was not. I think that explains why there is so much good will toward the demonstrators. The umbrella enabled the numerous social justice, identity, sectarian, and other groups to come together, which of course yielded the group’s disparate qualities.
What was true of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 is true of OWS: the uprising had many causes, but no cause. Although the movement is making no unified demand, its many components are. Indeed, the only way to keep people together is to avoid specific, shared demands. This gives OWS permanence but also limits its effectiveness.
The third group of people are perennial and older dissenters. I saw Jimmy McMillan, the head of the Rent is Too Damn High party; the Reverend Al Sharpton and Susan Sarandon made an appearance on Columbus Day, and dissenting celebrities have offered their support. They keep up morale but do not play an active role.
The fourth group was ordinary people who came down to see what was going on. Some were activists from the 1960s and 1970s. One man from Westchester said to me that it was just like Woodstock although the music is not as good. Others were tourists coming to examine the exotics. Everywhere people were snapping pictures, which made me feel uncomfortable.
So what does all of this add up to? Despite its apparent permanence, OWS is mostly composed of part-time participants, who stay a few nights. There is a core of permanent campers, possibly those who run the general assemblies, the key OWS institution. The problem is that if they simply stay in parks, they prove their staying power but nothing else. They must move out. But where?
If they continue street demonstrations, they risk conflict with the police. (And the value of street demonstrations and protests may be more limited in the United States than in countries like Egypt.) If they try to hone a message then they become one more voice among many, and a smaller voice than the labor movement or the NAACP. In short, political theater can capture the imagination at a time when politics seem bankrupt, but it cannot solve political problems or short-circuit political organizing.
Judith Stein is a professor of history at the City College of New York Graduate Center. She is the author of The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism, and Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies. Cross-posted from Dissent.
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