Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

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The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests are now five weeks old. They have mushroomed from the OWS home base in New York to dozens of cities across the U.S. and overseas.

At first, media coverage of OWS was sparse, likely because many outlets thought the protests would quickly lose steam and fade away. Discussions about OWS were mostly confined to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. But by now, OWS has gone mainstream, entering popular newspapers and network and cable news shows, though a considerable amount of this coverage has been filtered through partisan politics.

Many conservatives mock the protesters. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called the protesters a "mob." Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has said that the protesters shouldn't blame others, including Wall Street, for their plight. Instead, they ought to buck up, take some responsibility, and find jobs. Overall, conservatives see the OWS crowd as misguided, lazy, entitled, troublemaking class warriors who lack a coherent message that details their grievances. Often, conservatives paint the OWS protesters as middle class hippies who want an extension of the welfare state, especially government hand-outs. Defined in this way, the OWS protesters are their political foe.  

In general, liberals have embraced OWS. They see a nascent message, if not in the words and posters of the demonstrators, then certainly in the simple act of gathering and protesting against big business. The protesters, as well as their sympathizers, claim that big banks, large corporations, wealthy financiers, and big money are having pernicious effects on the U.S. In particular, these things are harming American democracy, raising income inequalities, and destroying the idea of social/economic mobility. And Democrats are now trying to co-opt OWS, believing that they might be the left's answer to the Tea Party, a populist, bottom-up movement that's packed quite a political punch on the American political landscape.  

At bottom, OWS is rooted in anger and frustration with banks, big business and corporate bailouts, mixed with inspiration from the Arab Spring. In fact, the OWS protesters see themselves as following in the footsteps of the protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. As evidence, take a look at the OWS web site. Moreover, look at the actions and structure of OWS, which resembles the Arab Spring protest movements. The OWS movement is leaderless, almost deliberately so, employs peaceful civil protest tactics, and uses social media tools to organize, galvanize further support, and communicate with followers.  

At this point it's too soon to make definitive conclusions about OWS, despite the hue and cry from its supporters and detractors. Think about it, this is still a very nascent movement, and much could still go right or wrong for it in the coming days and weeks and months ahead. In the meantime, here's a few preliminary questions and observations to think about.

1. Isn't the civic engagement of OWS a good thing?

Yes, more participation and activism in American politics is a good thing, even if it's in the form of peaceful protest. It's healthy, even vital, when minorities seek to defend their interests and denounce perceived injustices. It's all a part of the process of thwarting tyrannies of the majority, which can occur even in democracies, especially majoritarian presidential democracies that funnel political power into a limited number of groups and people. Additionally, the OWS protests can widen the political discourse, adding new political narratives that to an arena that's dominated by the famous and powerful and wealthy. They might bring new ideas to the table that later get absorbed into political debates and policies. For instance, Nick Kristof of the New York Times hopes that the protestors' emphasis on dealing with rising income inequalities makes it into  the"national agenda" and a part of the 2012 election campaign. And lastly, based on reports, while the OWS protesters might be best categorized as part of the "far left," they are not extremists and they're not violent. There's no reason they shouldn't be heard from.

2. Will OWS become a political force in U.S. politics?

On the one hand, OWS is already plagued by organizational dilemmas. There have been reports of internal divisions. The protesters have been unable to come to a consensus on important items, such as which issues to focus on. But that's not all. The protesters also disagree over the small stuff, like whether sleeping bags should be brought into Zuccotti Park or how to limit the infamous and noisy bongo drum playing. And OWS lacks central leadership and a camera-ready message ready for broadcast to the public. These two problems are related. Without effective leadership, which could implement coherent and consistent messaging, the protesters freelance and improvise when speaking to reporters and journalists. The result? The American public has heard dozens of different messages, which creates confusion likely inside and outside of the movement, hinders its ability to grow support, and makes it easy to lampoon. Even late-night comedians have remarked that protesters have "occupied" Wall Street, but few protesters know why they're there or what they're doing. Viewed in this way, OWS has a long way to go before its a meaningful player in U.S. politics.

On the other hand, one could claim that this is the next phase of the young left fully mobilizing and interjecting itself into American politics. But unlike the energetic youth who campaigned for Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and fueled the popularity of web sites like Daily Kos and, and who maintained a commitment to the democratic party and its institutions, perhaps this is something different. Peter Beinart contends that "today’s Wall Street protests represent the left’s decoupling from ObamaBeinart's argument recalls the left of the 1960s, which actively and forcefully took on establishment Democrats, including the sitting president, on issues such as civil rights, poverty, and war, and was a potent political force. Although I'm skeptical that OWS will have anywhere near the impact of its ideological ancestors, it's certainly a provocative take and something to watch going forward.

3. Is OWS a transnational movement?

The American demonstrations on October 15 picked up substantial support from abroad, as protests from the States spread to various cities in Canada, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. Surely, the foreign protesters are disenchanted with big banks and and big business, and they have tapped into the emotions and frustrations and unleashed by OWS, though the circumstances are slightly different from those in the U.S. For instance, some of the protests in Europe were in response to deep austerity cuts, which governments have had to make to balance their books.

The OWS protesters in New York have begun coordinating with their counterparts in other American cities. I wonder if OWS will build bridges to the foreign demonstrators, making the protests a truly transnational effort. Should that happen, we might see both sides working together in different capacities, including but not limited to: the formation of communication linkages, information sharing, fund raising, issue messaging, protest action, and so on. Together, the protesters in the States and overseas could create the kind of transnational networks that Anne-Marie Slaughter has touted as so prominent in contemporary world politics.

Of course, it's also possible, perhaps probable, that the foreign protests were simply an expression of like-mindedness and sympathy for OWS, and that there's no further connection between the American and overseas protests. After all, just because there's shared anger at some of the same things, this certainly doesn't mean the two sides will work in concert together. Organizational problems (for the American and foreign protesters) could act as obstacles to collective action. Both sides might not want to work together. And there might be enough different issues at play that protesters on opposite sides of the Atlantic consider their struggles too unique for much collaboration.

4. Will OWS succeed or fail?

This could be a difficult question to answer, particularly if one believes there's no demonstrable way to measure the progress of OWS. Right now, someone need not be a critic of OWS to see the movement as extremely amorphous. But for the sake of argument, let's say that it is possible to track the success or failure of OWS. In fact, let's look at the progress of OWS in a very general sense: Will OWS make an impact on the American political landscape?

First, OWS will have to manage its image. This is an important consideration for OWS. There are a number of different ways in which its name can be sullied, all of which would erode any political power it's accumulated over time. Should OWS find its power markedly diminished, the movement can rule out having much of an impact on American politics.

Most obviously, OWS will have to resist any temptation to fight or use force, even if the protesters have been unjustifiably provoked and harassed. Violence plays right into the hands of those who think of OWS as extremists and radicals, turns off sympathizers, and probably even peels away some of the peaceniks who are presently involved OWS.

OWS will also have to monitor continually how the public perceives and reacts to the protests, especially if they endure well into the future. This is a lesson OWS could learn from the Arab Spring. After the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian revolutionaries continued to hold rallies and protests of various sizes, usually decrying some statement or action by the ruling military council. But once Mubarak fell from power, many Egyptians lost their revolutionary fervor and wanted life to return to normal. They had enough of the protests. Why? The protests, especially the large-scale ones in Tahrir Square, disrupted traffic, shopping, and other daily activities. At this point, the revolutionaries risked losing widespread support, even if their causes were just and popular. As a result, pro-democracy movements like April 6 had to more judiciously pick and choose select times and issues to engage in mass protest. OWS might face a similar situation, whereby American citizens eventually get fed up with the acts of protest, regardless of what they think of Wall Street. In this case, OWS would be better served to scale back its public demonstrations and call for mass protests only on specific occasions.

Furthermore, yes, OWS enjoys some popularity among Americans, but the longer there is no message, no concrete ideas, and no visible leadership, the negative press (that the OWS crowd are lazy, entitled, radicals, etc.) from the right will likely stick and eat at this popularity. More to the point, without a clear voice from the OWS protesters, the right will write a narrative for them. It's only a matter of time unless OWS fairly quickly coalesces into a more unified functioning movement.

Another issue is the structure of America's democratic system, which channels money and power into two political parties. The barriers to enter U.S. politics as an independent entity are extremely high. And so for now, OWS's best prospect for success is to get co-opted by the Democrats, who can more forcefully advocate on the behalf of OWS. And once there, in the Democratic fold, perhaps OWS might have just enough leverage to force the Democrats to make changes it desires inside the party (policy positions, candidates, etc.).

By the way, this is exactly what happened to the Tea Party. It began as a movement to hold all of Washington--both Democrats and Republicans--accountable for America's current political and economic woes. But the ideological leaning of its members, in combination with lobbying efforts from the establishment right, has brought most of the Tea Party into the Republican camp. And from inside the Republican tent, the Tea Party has found enough temerity and power to challenge conservatives on a number of things, even going so far as to put up and support its preferred candidates for elected office over those of the establishment right.

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