Occupy Wall Street Could Be Beginning Of Social Movement: Experts

"Occupy Wall Street" may be the beginning of a major social movement, but its ultimate impact will depend on the group's ability to produce a focused agenda and get organized, experts say.

The protesters, who have no official leaders, recently released a broad list of grievances, ranging from the wars in the Middle East to student debt and high bonuses for Wall Street executives. But those grievances shared a common theme: discontent with the power of corporations and alarm that the economic future of a broad swath of the population appears in jeopardy.

Some experts on social movements say the protests on Wall Street and across the country tap into widespread public discontent. But, they emphasized that protesters will only be able to influence public policy if they recruit new members and create their own institutions, ranging from media outlets to grassroots organizations.

"I don't think that any existing institutions are going to leap to the leadership of the movement," said Sidney Tarrow, emeritus professor of government at Cornell University. "If this movement is real, and if it's powerful, it will create its own institutions."

Tarrow said there has been "very little leadership from the left" in terms of expressing solidarity with the protesters, which he attributed to Democratic political fears and a focus on narrow policy questions rather than broader reforms.

Now, he said, the new generation of young people occupying Wall Street will need to expand and become self-reliant.

Michael Kazin, history professor at Georgetown, said in order to effect change, the protesters need to create institutions that channel the discontent in U.S. society. Kazin recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times detailing how he believes the American left lost much of its effectiveness: as the right wing spent decades sharpening and spreading its anti-government philosophy with think tanks, lobbyists, manifestos and talk radio, he argued, unions and other liberal organizations weakened. Kazin warned that without strong institutions, this latest social movement could fall flat.

"Protesters and organizers are not the same thing," Kazin said. "Protesters are people who express how they feel. Organizers help to build something large."

No social movement guarantees any policy changes, Stanford history professor Joel Beinin said. A movement's effectiveness depends largely on its influence on the mechanisms that shape government policies, he said, recommending Keynesian economic principles centered around additional government spending.

"We know what to do," Beinin said. "But we don't have the political vehicle to do it, and that's not the same as a social movement in the streets."

Nonetheless, the spectacle of protests against income inequality could inspire similar action, as those in New York already have in cities ranging from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Denver, Chicago and Los Angeles.

It will be important for organizers to remember that fighting for a better future is in their own self-interest, said Paul Ortiz, a history professor at the University of Florida. He said that self-interest has played a major role in the most successful social movements in the past, such as the civil rights movement, because the prospect of a better life has given organizers the courage to stand up to authority and risk arrest.

For now, Ortiz said, protesters need to organize under the assumption that established institutions will not swoop in to help.

"People will have to build institutions as they move forward," Ortiz said.