For more than three decades, the fruits of technological progress have been harvested by a tiny percentage of the population, who amassed great wealth, while the great majority worked harder, but barely held their own financially [Unger-1]. Tens of millions of Americans descended into, or remained mired in, poverty. Both major political parties, tho differing greatly in style, have been fully complicit in this process [Unger-2]. There was surprisingly little resistance by the victims. Young people were silent as their futures were strip mined via massive outsourcing.
Against this background it is exciting to see the dramatic awakening in the form of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which seems to be spreading rapidly. What are the salient issues driving the movement? What are the distinctive features of OWS? How might it succeed in wresting power from the wealthy?
The core of the Occupy movement consists of young Americans who see their country being dominated by corporations who care nothing for the welfare of the general population. They see their prospects for satisfying employment rapidly fading. The spirit of the movement is well captured by the chant that seems popular among Occupy groups nationwide: "Banks were bailed out, we were sold out!"
The growing role of money in politics, considered a key factor in the domination of both the Democratic and Republican parties by the 1%, is a principal theme [Unger-3]. ( The idea of publicly funded election campaigns is popular among OWS activists. Other concerns include the way corporate interests have been de-industrializing the US by shutting down production here, building factories abroad, and importing foreign made goods, thus eliminating American jobs in categories ranging from entry level sweepers to engineers and managers. College graduates, unable to find suitable employment, are outraged at being forced to work at jobs such as as retail clerks selling products made in China.
A longer list of Occupy issues, compiled by Occupy Washington, DC organizers, covers more ground, e.g., the endless wars and universal health care, (tho it does not include civil liberty violations, which I believe is a concern of many Occupiers) [Occupy DC]. The cited reference includes a pointer to an essay detailing studies showing that there is very strong popular support for the Occupy positions.
Quick! Name one OWS leader! A unique feature of OWS is the absence of identifiable leadership. Altho some prominent individuals such as Chris Hedges and Michael Moore have expressed support for, and participated to some extent in, the movement, they in no way can be considered as leaders or spokespeople. Nor have any previously unknown people emerged as conspicuous leaders.
It appears that OWS leadership is widely diffused, with young people playing a dominant role. There are also many occupiers who have been activists for years on issues such as civil rights, environmental matters, and opposition to wars.
Meetings are held in which "facilitators" act only to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak. Groups of people make various decisions largely by consensus. There are numerous committees organized to perform such functions as food preparation and distribution, medical treatment, security, and the formulation of goals. The claim by OWS people is that, rather than being leaderless, they are all leaders.
Despite this lack of conventional organization, OWS was able to react quickly and effectively to compel Mayor Bloomberg to reverse his decision to evict them from Liberty Park on October 14. When, a month later, the mayor sent in police, at 1:00 am, to clear the park, the response was a series of demonstrations all over the city involving over 32,000 people.
Unlike radical groups of the sixties, OWS has taken a strong position prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol in their territory. They are also strongly committed to nonviolence and have exhibited great discipline in the face of a number of attacks by police. This has not been easy, as they are also following a policy of inclusion, allowing participation by people with many different backgrounds.
In at least one Occupy camp site, in Washington, DC, those wishing to become part of the group must pledge (by signing a statement) not to carry weapons, use alcohol or illegal drugs, or vandalize or steal property. They must agree to be reasonably quiet from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m [McCartney].
OWS has, thus far, not compiled a specific set of demands or goals, altho it is clear that its central concern is with the control of our government by corporate interests, and the gross economic inequality that this has produced. OWS activists have also spoken out against the wars and violations of habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights, racism, and environmental abuse.
The ideal of being open to all makes it difficult for OWS to avoid distractions from immature or unstable people, or from those with hostile or far-out views. When such people post irrelevant or antagonistic items on Occupy websites, it is counterproductive to respond. The best tactic is simply to ignore them.
Perhaps even more serious is the danger from provocateurs sent by government agencies or by political groups trying to discredit OWS, perhaps by instigating violence. Thus far, OWS has been successful in minimizing damage from this quarter, tho there have been some unpleasant incidents.
A more subtle hazard is Democrats trying to "harness" the movement to help them defeat those terrible Republicans [Greenwald]. Of course, a major theme of the Occupy movement is the way Republicans and Democrats engage in mock combat while both are firmly under the control of the corporate elite [Unger-2]. This co-option effort is thus far being successfully resisted.
Perhaps the single most important factor is adhering to nonviolence in the face of rough treatment by police. So far, in most places, OWS has been quite successful, and it is clear that the contrast between violent police action and the disciplined nonviolence of the protestors has been an important element in the growth of the movement. Many people, seeing videos of police deliberately pepper spraying an 84 year old woman, and a number of young women, none of whom were actively resisting, were moved to think about what was going on.
Formulating proposals and demands is a complex matter. Including some specific item might alienate some potential supporters, while omitting that item might alienate others. Probably it would be wise to limit the number of "official" OWS platform planks (if indeed such is needed at all) to a compact set of fundamental items.
There is some satisfaction to be gained by speaking out publicly to protest injustice and to demand a redress of grievances (to use the terminology of the US constitution). But it would be far better to see these demands producing real results.
The Occupy movement has already had a significant effect in stimulating public discussion of issues such as corporate domination, unemployment, and the endless wars. It has almost certainly affected public opinion in a positive way.
But those now running this country as servants of the corporate elite are not going to change direction merely because a lot of Americans are expressing unhappiness with the status quo. Saying "pretty please" to these people will not be effective. Nor will threats that are not credible. So eventually, after demonstrations of various kinds have built up sufficient popular support, action of some sort will be necessary to effectuate actual change.
Violent revolution is not a viable tactic, for several reasons. First, even if successful in overthrowing the government, the use of such means would almost certainly corrupt the outcome. We are not likely to achieve a just and peaceful society by slaughtering a lot of people. Furthermore, the current rulers feel quite comfortable with violence. They are the experts, and would have no difficulty coping with rock throwers, or even gun toters.
It seems to me that the best chance for the overturning the clever system whereby a small elite effectively rules the country by orchestrating a noisy struggle between two political parties is to develop a new political party that, if elected to office, would form a true government "of the people". Such a party might be started from scratch, or the Green Party, already in existence in most states, might be used as the foundation [Unger-2].
The Occupy movement itself might morph into the new party, or it might remain as an independent force focussing on certain core principles, and urging people to support them by voting for the new party, which must pledge to fight to implement them.
Glenn Greenwald, "Here's what attempted co-option of OWS looks like", Salon, Nov 19, 2011
Robert McCartney, "Washington's Occupy movement emerges as model for others", Washington Post, November 19, 2011
Occupy DC, "Issues", Occupy Washington, DC
Stephen Unger-1, "The Rich and the Rest of Us: Gross Inequality Versus Democracy", Ends and Means, January 13, 2009
Stephen Unger-2, "Our Fake Two-Party System" Ends and Means, January 5, 2011
Stephen Unger-3, "Money Talks, and Nominates--and Elects", Ends and Means, April 10, 2007
Comments are invited and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
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