There is a nebulous and intangible potential to the Occupy Wall Street movement. More ad-hoc than substance or policy, the movement nonetheless reflects an important, although somewhat misdirected, economic and political critique. Of the cast of characters that occupy Zuccotti Park, (now known collectively as ‘Liberty Park’), it is perhaps the drum circle leading, environmental advocate cum libertarian and gold-standard enthusiast who reflects just how scattered the movements participants are. Indeed, skeptics have questioned whether the array of grievances—from the poetic and arcane to the irate and ill informed—signal an unprepared collection of divergent messages or a viable and tenacious democratic force. If there is one common thread uniting the movement, it is the familiar blunt critique of global capitalism, high finance and wealth, a mantra that follows: the rich are bad, down with the elites.
Turn on the TV, read the news, or browse a blog and you are likely to see a protest brewing somewhere. From Syria to San Francisco, the world has caught a fire of collective action, albeit for vastly different reasons. There is even an occupy State Department movement afoot, in protest of a planned oil pipeline through Canada. Where does it end?
Subtle expressions of defiance can be powerful forces for change if combined with what Princeton Professor Mark Beissinger has called “negative coalitions”—the elderly shoulder to shoulder with the young, in much the same way secularists joined Islamist zealots in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Indeed, Occupy Wall Street seems to incorporate many of the elements of the Tahrir Square protests—a call for “justice” in a world defined by a financial industry so large and rich that is has corrupted our institutions of governance and oversight. At the risk of being obvious, the Occupy Wall Street Movement is different from the Arab Spring in many ways—no one has been killed, no one is calling for a Presidential coup, and crowds have never exceeded a few thousand. Yet there is an intractable disconnect between their message and the core of the problem. Indeed, if they want to make a serious critique, address what Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner make in their book “Reckless Endangerment,” that the real elites in Washington have highjacked the system to their benefit—creating an incestuous stew of politics and high finance. Beginning in the early 1990s during the Clinton Administration, and continuing under the Bush Administration, Congress has nurtured a system that provides for two wants: campaign contributions and re-election. Indeed, our Congress today feels more like a forum for legalized bribery than a deliberative and measured legislative chamber.
Nevertheless, Occupy Wall Street’s spasmodic series of demands and slipshod structure may yet prove to be an asset. The movement is nothing if not a reflection of the modern world; it has vague goals because the problems we face are vastly complex and interrelated. In the 1960s, protest goals focused on the elimination of specific injustices such as segregation and the Vietnam War. However, our generation has had the advantage of learning from the past. We now see that targeting segregation in the South did little to help end racial oppression in America, just as ending the Vietnam War has not led to a decrease in American appetite for ill-conceived military campaigns (see Iraq 2003). It is not enough to demand an end to specific injustices; to do so is to present a short-term solution to a structural and societal problem. The systems that created the problems must be addressed. It is in this vein that Occupy Wall Street may reflect a new development in civil unrest—protestors unwilling to recreate the hierarchy against which they campaign. Indeed, the movement may reflect a new form of grassroots electoral interest, perhaps even a new electoral coalition—born from the galvanized youth vote of the 2008 presidential election.
Those who have argued that the Movement lacks a coherent message and is inarticulate about its mission should note that as the protests have spread, a global conversation is starting to emerge. Yet battle cries calling for democracy to replace capitalism, have little bearing on the issue at hand, and simply don’t make sense. Calls for the repeal of NAFTA, intermingled with slogans championing state’s rights, the gold standard and the dismantling of the Federal Reserve do not add to the Movement’s coherency. Short of sparking a civic conversation in socioeconomic inequality, would victory mean a leveling of the playing field between rich and poor? Is it realistic to expect that can be achieved? Moreover, is this simply an exercise in Marxist ‘mobocracy’—a movement designed to provoke debates over class warfare, provoke the police and cause mass arrests, which the organizers can then use for propaganda purposes?
Nonetheless, Occupy Wall Street represents something tangible and real—a manifestation of the glue that has held us together—a general understanding that we were a nation founded on the ideals and aspirations of liberty and equality. Tahrir references reflect the universal and perhaps, apolitical elements of these protests. Indeed, that a movement born in a Muslim country is neither seen as threatening nor exotic is a true triumph.
The protests do seem to be more about form than content—they are earnest and know how to play for the cameras and slogans that capture emotions too often do not relate to solutions. Yet perhaps the Movement’s love of catchy rhetoric demonstrates its keen sense for franchising, while simultaneously saying something about enfranchisement.
A great plurality of the protesters are members of the Millennial Generation, born after 1981. This is key because as a Millennial, we have been told all our lives that we are special, raised to believe that our opinions matter, taught to be group oriented rather than individualist. Those who criticize the movement for being too idealistic are those who will say that these problems are unchangeable; and it may be true that inequality and despair will never fully disappear. However, the point of Occupy Wall Street, and ultimately that of my generation, is not to find a magic cure. As children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, we are uniquely positioned to fail. The bureaucracy we face, the scale of our challenges, the intractable nature of so many of our most unjust international institutions and systems—all of these add up to, what the author Courtney Martin writes in her book, Do It Anyway, “a colossal potential for disappointment.” Indeed, it feels more like a protest of kids you have been cheated than a group grounded in violence or destruction—a sense of joyful anarchy. In contrast to Generation X, the Millennials have channeled their energy against the very system that X’ers embraced. Youthful energy today is directed toward attainting real power and affecting real change.
Katherine is a Junior at Fordham College, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org