October 26, 2011

What does the Occupy Wall Street movement want?

The goals of most American protest movements have been obvious. Consider those of the last sixty years. The Civil Rights movement wanted black people to have the constitutional rights that they had been promised. The anti-war movement of the 1960’s wanted an end to the Viet Nam war, or at least an end to the draft. The Equal Rights movement wanted equal rights for women. The Gay Rights movement wanted equal rights for gays and lesbians. The Tea Party movement wants a reduction in taxes and, more generally, a reduction in the size and power of government. But what exactly does the Occupy Wall Street movement want?

The initial demand around which the Occupy Wall Street movement coalesced, the only demand the movement has ever articulated more-or-less clearly, was that President Obama “ordain” a commission tasked with ending the influence of money in Washington D.C. On its face, this is unworkable to the point of being quixotic. The framers of this demand have apparently never read the President’s delineated constitutional powers. This is perhaps a minor objection, since neither Obama nor his immediate predecessor seem to have read them either. A worse oversight is that they don’t seem to have taken note of who the Presidents friends are. I doubt that either Tim Geitner or Larry Summers are big proponents of the removal of money from politics. One might as well demand the Federal Highway Administration “ordain” a subcommittee to abolish cars.

The protestors are not, it seems, a coherent, well-organized movement with a succinct objective. They are a vague mass of human beings whose interests cannot really subsumed under is single slogan. They rally around certain websites and internet entities (such as Adbusters and Anonymous) but do not appear to be under any organization’s actual direction. This is contrary to what both the liberal and conservative media establishments would have us believe. The Occupy Wall Street movement is not an energetic junior branch of the Democratic Party, no matter how many Democratic politicians and liberal academics rhapsodize about them, with a timidly raised fist and a twinkle of nostalgia in the eye. Neither the movement the tool of American communists and socialists that Fox would have you believe it is, notwithstanding that a handful of communists and socialist have pitched tents among the protestors and are carrying out their usual desultory recruitment efforts. As of now, at least, this is a youth movement plain and simple. If you watch the protests on TV, you will see plenty of interviews with older people in the crowd. If you watch the more random, less crafted clips on YouTube that were shot by the protestors themselves you will rarely see a person over thirty.

Unlike the anti-war youth movement of the 1960’s, in which at least the young men involved had an obvious goal – to avoid being thrown into the senseless meat grinder of Viet Nam – this protest’s connection to its object is far more abstract. While it is true that money has greatly, perhaps even irrevocably, distorted the American political process, the young are probably the group least equipped to detect and understand that influence. It isn’t as though they have seen their purchasing power steadily eroded over decades, or worry much over the potential collapse of Social Security. They grew up in a world where rapid change was the norm, and tend to believe that any person over thirty years old, any idea over ten years old, and any gadget older than last Thursday is not only worthless but contemptible. They have only just begun to notice that events outside of their circle of friends might be important. Fine comprehension of political and economic matters is simply not the hallmark of the young, in this generation or any other. Action and enthusiasm are. Accordingly, to stand with one’s friends and chant at a very old building down the street full of detached, wealthy, middle-aged men seems like a possible way to change the world – especially if the commercial media has told you every day of your short life that yours is the smartest, best, and coolest generation that ever existed. Youth has always been an uncomfortable mixture of na├»ve innocence, passion, and not-quite-insufferable narcissism. And courage too, if only born of blind belief. This has not changed. The protestors are there because they have been promised more than the real world can give them, or, to put it another way, because the difference between how cool they think they are and how indifferent the raw world of economics is to their aspirations is intolerable. Maybe shouting and making a nuisance of oneself will work. It sometimes does with adults.

I show my age, I know, but I will not give the young, en masse, more credit than they deserve. Some are more precocious than others. Most will become more circumspect and practical if they live long enough. Few if any are capable of sifting the details of such enormous questions as they are confronting with anything approaching wisdom. None of us would be willing to let a twenty-year-old perform surgery on us; it should be no less worrisome to imagine a large number of them dictating the future course of the nation – or the world. Not, I will admit, that their elders have been doing much better.

A restive population is an animal in search of a head. It may find one, or create one, but it is usually better off if it does neither. The jeering, absurd face of Anonymous is not a much more comforting entity than anything it claims to oppose. Only a teenager could want the world to be ruled by a cartoon, generated by nameless hackers from the depths of cyberspace. Adults generally prefer computer games they can turn off, and at least want leaders who will lie to them in honestly televised flesh. Anonymous and similar groups have basically brought phishing to politics, as if things were not already illusory enough.

Like the Iranian and Egyptian movements from which it derives some inspiration, Occupy Wall Street is bound to the culture of texting and tweeting that have become the modern norm. This is likely to give it both staying power (as any kid with a cell phone can be an organizer now that he or she knows how) and vulnerability (as anyone who wants to either monitor or infiltrate the movement’s activities can easily do so). It is likely to also keep the movement vague and unconcerned about specifics, as it is far easier to gather a thousand people for an event than to arrive at any consensus about what the event is supposed to accomplish when they get there.

Occupy Wall Street is not, at least at this point, in any position to accomplish anything other than minor disorder and misleading press coverage. It is not a cure for a disease, but rather a symptom. Like the Tea Party movement, it is an indicator that most people are angry at having been functionally disenfranchised by political and economic processes that favor a few elites to the exclusion of everyone else. Unlike the Tea Party, it is unlikely to spawn a new class of congressmen and senators. To be a congressman you have to be at least twenty-five, and that is already the twilight years of cool. The movement can only accomplish things by scaring people with an overdose of anarchy, and that will not be pretty, nor will the results be predictable. It will not go away, however. Expect all sorts of sound and fury.


  1. Matt Taibbi has a great post on what OWS wants.


    All OWS is trying to accomplish is to start a conversation, one we've avoided having ever since the Reaganites shouted down George Bush the senior.

    The wealth gap in this country is at banana republic levels. It wasn't 30 years ago. People want to know why, and they want to know how to get back to the way it was.

    The movement wins when everyone in the country finally grasps the simple, mathematical fact: The top 1% own 40% of everything, and they didn't use to.

  2. I read the article. Matt Taibbi lists a number a valid grievances (although I find the portrayal of sheriff’s departments serving evictions as mere goons of the banks more than a little gratuitous). Unfortunately, this misses the point. The protestors aren’t making these grievances – Mr. Taibbi is. Granted, if you surveyed the protestors they probably would agree with Taibbi’s list, but even that proves nothing. You could also probably propose to them that the banks be dissolved and the loot distributed to the crowd and get a good deal of assent. My point is not that everything OWS says is wrong – but that they don’t say much. They are not a coherent organization, at least at this point. That’s why people like Mr. Taibbi can project his much more coherent program onto them. They have no such program of their own.