Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Future of the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Here is a thoughtful piece looking beyond the immediate demonstration Occupy Wall Street:
The Wall Street protests seem to be gathering strength and expanding beyond the geographic limits of downtown Manhattan. The media, too, is finally amplifying the story. Whether they will grow larger and sustain themselves beyond these initial street actions will depend upon four things: the work of skilled organizers; the success of those organizers in getting people, once these events end, to meet over and over and over again; whether or not the movement can promote public policy solutions that are organically linked to the quotidian lives of its supporters; and the ability of liberalism’s infrastructure of intellectuals, writers, artists and professionals to expend an enormous amount of their cultural capital in support of the movement.

... Right now, it appears that anti-hierarchical, relatively inexperienced people are “running” the Wall Street protest. And they are doing big demonstrations really well. So far, so good. Anger can beget action. And action itself can be a battering ram that knocks down the doors of history.

But anger alone can’t sustain action. And action alone can’t sustain political militancy. Much like today’s Wall Street movement, the French students who struck their universities during the Events of May 1968 had a charming way with utopian sloganeering: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!” as they said back then. But the students couldn’t work out a sustained alliance with their working-class allies or move to making structural demands for change that their militancy could leverage. They were not, in fact, realistic. In the end, a massive Gaullist backlash cleaned their clocks.


Experienced organizers teach the less experienced and expand the circle of competent leadership. Rosa Parks was an activist veteran. Key CIO staff who organized the steel industry in the late 1930s got their start by organizing the great 400,000 worker strong steel strike of 1919. Betty Friedan was no novice housewife—she worked for a militant, leftist union in the 1940s. And today academics are learning that the Tea Party is composed not only of the newly disgruntled, but also of many people who have been politically active, some of them since the Goldwater campaign.

And what’s striking about the Tea Party after two plus years is not the Koch brother’s seed money, or the disruptions of congressional town hall meetings in 2009, but, more impressively and relentlessly, the sheer numbers of grass roots chapters around the country that regularly meet in order to implement their pressure campaign on the Republican Party.


The phrase, “we are the 99 percent” nicely encapsulates the potential of OWS to become a movement of democratic extension. But right now, the precise demands of the Wall Street demonstrators include grandiose ideas like abolishing consumerism. A bit vague, and can even Lloyd Blankfein get it done by the end of the next quarter?


Finally, the emergence of the Wall Street movement is a reminder that the liberal left has not in quite a few years actually driven anything like a mass social movement in this country. When Obama was elected, some people made the mistake of thinking that an election-bounded jolt of energy that conflated a charismatic candidate with a popular political vision was such a movement. Nobody thinks that anymore.

The left does have something important however: a coterie of several thousand intellectuals, academics, writers, and engaged professionals who articulate liberal public policy, generate empirical and analytical expertise through the Internet, the media, and universities, and staff the offices of advocacy groups and progressive politicians on the local and national level.

This is, as I said, important, but, up to now, some people have imagined that the byplay between smart bloggers and tweeters, or even the charged pen of brilliantly argumentative and intellectually courageous Nobel Prize winners, in economics actually represent a vast swell of citizens demanding substantive change. But to paraphrase a guy who understood real political power: How many troops does Paul Krugman have?

But when a movement does arise, it needs an articulate exposition, and the brainy liberal left infrastructure’s time has come. Edmund Wilson put down his Proust long enough to report from the bloody coal mines of Eastern Kentucky. College professors all over the country held public “teach-ins” to educate their students and others about the history of the Vietnam War and American interventionism.

So there’s a big job out to do explaining and defending the Wall Street demonstrators to curious Americans. Krugman’s Army may be on its way.
Let's hope that "Krugman's Army is strapping on their best militant ideas and preparing to join the ranks and fight the good fight. It will be a hard battle but the goal is worth it: win back America for the 99%!

No comments: