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What's wrong with Occupy Wall Street

  • Friday, October 28 2011 @ 10:02 AM CEST
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A number of different people have asked me about my negative views on "Occupy Wall Street", so it seemed a good thing to try to set them down in some more or less coherent form.

To start with, I should point out that I agree that there are some serious problems facing the USA and the world, and further that I don't object to the goals of those involved in OWS -- at least to the extent that I know what those goals are. I agree that the concentration of wealth, particularly in the USA over the last 30 years, is a serious problem; I agree that money has too much influence in American elections; I agree that there should be more and better regulation of banks and financial markets. Further, I agree that health care and productive work should be available to all, and strongly support very strongly redistributive tax policies. Indeed, I suspect that my own views are in many ways more radical than many of those involved in OWS.

All that said, I am also a "systems" guy, and that means, among other things, that I am constantly attending to questions like: "What are you really trying to accomplish?" and "How does doing X really serve to achieve your goal Y?"

And my basic problem with OWS is that I don't see how anything OWS has done serves to solve any of the problems that exist. Worse still, OWS seems to be channeling energy that could be productive into an entirely non-productive direction.

. . .

I know that there are many who disagree with me on this, and it is common to compare the OWS demonstrations to the "Arab spring" demonstrations of earlier this year, but I submit that this comparison is mistaken, and that the cases are different in all the important relevant aspects.

To understand why I say this, it is necessary to consider what "protest" (demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, occupations, or any other form) achieves, or can achieve, politically, and recognize that protest is a very poor political tool, or at best a very limited one. Protest is a blunt instrument, its message largely limited to "we want X!" or "we don't wan't Y!" In some cases, protest may be the only tool in a population's kit, such as was the case in North Africa earlier this year, or in the DDR or apartheid-era South Africa, as suggested by Mary Elizabeth King in her article at Alternet. But that simply isn't so in the USA at the present time: the US government is not authoritarian, and free elections are held regularly. Regardless of what anyone might think of the quality of the "major party" candidates or the influence of money on elections, "the people" are free to vote for the representatives who represent their own positions, to promote those candidates, or even themselves to run for office, or form their own political party, should they so desire. To be sure, none of these guarantees that anyone's position will actually carry the day, but all have the opportunities to make their case and attempt to convince the majority of its validity.

In an authoritarian state, such is not the case, and the simple message of protest, such as "Mubarak out!" may be the only political tool there is. Such was also the case for the American civil rights movement of the 1960's: denied the vote, black citizens marched, demanding their right to express their will via the ballot. But that just isn't so for the OWS protesters.

That said, there may be a point to "protest" even in a democracy. But it is a limited point. I submit that in a liberal democracy, protest is useful either a) to call attention to something that is not yet recognized; or b) to galvanize the protesting group for political action. Note, though, that these are not directly political actions, but a sort of "pre-political" activity: if there is a problem that is not yet recognized, calling attention to it must be followed by some possible political solution; if one is galvanizing one's own "base", then that must be for some form of following political action.

OWS, unfortunately, satisfies neither of these criteria. Those involved do point out problems, but these problems are hardly unknown; they are not in need of additional attention. Certainly solutions are needed, but the existence of problems is not secret. And those involved in OWS seem either unable to cohere upon even any goal for political action (let alone any action), or even actively to reject any specific further political action. Which means that OWS fails as any sort of pre-political activity.

There are some who suggest that it is too soon for such things, that OWS is a broad-based movement, like other historical movements. The problem with this line of argument is that the "movements" people reference -- such as abolition, civil rights, etc. -- were movements built around a goal. A "movement" pulled in all directions at once doesn't end up going anywhere.


I noted above that OWS may actually have negative results, which may seem a bit extreme. But if one considers how change actually occurs in a "democratic" society, then it may not seem so strange.

In a "democratic" society, the people effect change in policy via the political process. Various parties or persons propose their plans and policies, and "the people" vote their wishes. At least in theory, if not always so clearly in practice. Nonetheless, it remains so that, unless one rejects the political process entirely (preferring instead the overthrow of the existing political order, for example), then changes in policy come via the political process. Any real change, in taxation, in banking or other corporate regulation, in the provision of health care or education, or anything else, will occur based on new legislation, which in turn will occur based on who is elected to office. The reinstatement of Glass-Steagall in some form, for example, will not come about under the existing Congress, nor under a future Congress of like makeup. Which is only to say that such reinstatement will come about -- if it does so at all! -- not through protest or occupation, but through electing different legislators.

This means that, unless one advocates actual revolution (which some involved in OWS may do[1]), any action on real change, in the direction advocated by what seems to be most of those involved in OWS, must mean changing the makeup of the legislature.

Unfortunately for those desiring such an outcome, while the "right" (or "the 1%", if one prefers) is actively preparing its strategy for moving the legislature further in their preferred direction[2], the "left" (at least as embodied by OWS) is busy drumming while the country burns.

What is particularly depressing about this is that "the 99%" really can change the direction of the country, by electing different legislators. It is true that money has a large (and growing!) influence on elections, but that is, at least to a great extent, because "the people" are no longer organized to affect who is elected, and the result then depends on who has the most or best television commercials.

Consider the fact that US House districts are sufficiently small that a group of 1000 people could quite literally go out and talk to every voter in a given district. Then consider what would be the effect on policies favored by progressives (or 'the left' or -- one supposes -- 'OWS') if just 25 members of the House switched from TEA Party conservative to progressive.

But instead, OWS says:

We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don't need Wall Street and we don't need politicians to build a better society.
from OccupyWallSt.org on 1 November 2011.
... which supposedly someone thinks will accomplish something, somehow, sometime.

[1] "the only solution is WorldRevolution" appears on the main page of the OccupyWallSt.org web site, at least as of November 1, 2011.

[2]See the NYT article Outside Groups Eclipsing G.O.P. as Hub of Campaigns of October 29, 2011.


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