Occupy Wall Street: Hopeless Leaders, Perfect Catalysts

I’ve been reading a lot about Occupy Wall Street. Last Saturday, I visited Zuccotti Park and took a look for myself. I think it’s time we recognized a clear but complex set of truths.

The demands of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular; Democrats and Progressives of all tendencies should endorse them. The people actually occupying Wall Street are total flakes. The second fact in no way discredits the first. The people in Zuccotti Park aren’t the best people to carry forth their message—but they don’t need to be. They’ve already catalyzed others to do the job. Like Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, their impotent flamboyance can inspire others to fight the battle that they started but won’t take part in.

Dances with Wolves : Suicide Attempt or see more Kevin Costner Videos

Taking these theses one at a time:

1. Occupy Wall Street’s demands are popular. The evidence on whether people support Occupy Wall Street is equivocal. Depending on the poll, people’s feelings are largely positive but very confused. (This is actually very good news; Republicans hoped that OWS’ unorthodox style would turn people off, but to a surprising degree it hasn’t: as Greg Sargent has noted, it’s particularly popular among blue-collar whites.). The evidence on whether people support its core message is not equivocal. That message is wildly popular. According to a Time poll, of those who claim familiarity with the protests (three-quarters of the sample), 86 percent agree that “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington”; 79 percent agree that “the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large”; “71 percent agree that “executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted”; 68 percent agree that “the rich should pay more taxes.” Specifically, the protests have led to rightful mockery of the Republican line that profits at the top produce great benefits for everyone. When Bill Galston (“History shows that when elites fail to discharge the responsibilities their privileges entail, they sow the wind. America’s elites ignored this time-honored truth, and they are now reaping the whirlwind of their heedlessness”) starts to sound like Harold Meyerson (“the Wall Street banks over the past quarter-century have done none of the things that a financial sector should do. They have not helped preserve the thriving economy that America once enjoyed. They have not funded our boldest new companies”), we can tell that sympathy for the Devil investment banker has become a marginal position.

2. The people running Occupy Wall Street are flakes. There is no other way to put it. The people in Zuccotti Park are Rousseauian fanatics: sincere (in fact, prone to worship, cloyingly and off-puttingly, a cult of sincerity) and often eloquent, but opposed in principle to anything that might give them any power: alliances, membership lists, the authority to endorse, or withhold endorsements of, anyone or anything. While it looked for a while as if they might formulate demands, they have now come down in favor of never doing that, on principle. They have come to see the protests as ends in themselves. Their official blog disavows the right of any working group to produce demands. On the contrary, saith the blogger, ”[w]e are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.” (Jed Brandt and Michael Levitin in the Occupied Wall Street Journal echo this: “What it is, the demand the 1% can’t comprehend, is us. It is the individuals and villages, the cities and peoples across the world who are seeing each other on the far side of appeals and petitions. It is the world we are becoming.”)

Here the contrast with the civil rights movement could not be starker. SCLC, CORE, and SNCC marches, freedom rides, and sit-ins always had a clear target: the Jim Crow laws and practices that the protestors were decrying (and often flouting). When they marched on Washington, it was in support of civil rights legislation and, admittedly more vaguely, economic change. With a view to actually getting what they wanted, they gathered as many allies as humanly possible—perhaps a few more. In contrast, OWS proudly calls itself a “post-political movement representing something far greater than failed party politics. We are a movement of people empowerment, a collective realization that we ourselves have the power to create change from the bottom-up, because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians” (emphases in original). Well, they might not need politicians, but the people whose interests they claim to represent sure do. I’m all for construing politics broadly, to include union campaigns and grassroots organizing as well as the corridors of power. But OWS doesn’t like union or grassroots politics any more than the legislative kind. There’s a fine line between participatory democracy and collective narcissism. OWS has not only crossed it but made it a rampart, and they’re standing on the wrong side.

3. The incompetence of the messengers does not discredit the message—but does show the need for better messengers. Some focus group work cited by Suzy Khimm already suggests that swing voters warm to “we are the 99 percent” as a cause more than to “Occupy Wall Street” as a movement. That insight needs to be expanded and radicalized. Progressive groups’ wary sympathy towards the Occupy Wall Street movement, based on a suspicion, totally justified, that it doesn’t really know what it’s doing, should transform itself into a wholehearted commitment to its message—under leadership frankly superior to anything OWS itself will provide or can provide. While OWS would like to claim ownership of its message—rage against financial malfeasance and corruption and against lack of economic opportunity for the vast majority—that claim is absurd. The whole point is that these sentiments are widely shared. But if they’re widely shared, anyone can act on them. They can, in doing so, leave OWS itself behind if they like, and they should like. Others can carry on the battle that OWS has, in its eloquent vagueness, more or less called for. And those others can, to be blunt, carry it on much better than OWS does.

Remember Lieutenant Dunbar again. The prospect of losing his foot to a wound made him determined to end his own life gloriously, in a suicidal ride across enemy lines. He not only didn’t fight the Confederates himself; he felt free to do what he did because he couldn’t fight. But his ride, actually desperate but seemingly brave, inspired a somnolent, scared Union line to get up and do battle—and, crucially, provoked the Rebels to focus on Dunbar, and expose themselves, to their great cost in that battle. Occupy Wall Street, whose post-political stance makes it as unfit for political struggle as the post-martial Dunbar was for military struggle, has likewise infuriated conservatives (and led them to foolishly expose themselves) while inspiring progressives. It is not even a matter of progressives finishing a fight that OWS started. Rather, we need to begin the fight that OWS, having sparked, is deliberately and permanently sitting out.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.