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Six Things Liberal Critics Don't Understand About the Occupy Wall Street Protests

Unlike in Egypt or Libya, there's no one bad guy to direct one's rage against. There's not even a single act that is the problem. The system is the problem, and that's abstract.
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"And these children, that you spit on, as they try to make their way... are immune to your consultations; they're quite aware of what they're going through."

Bowie was right, of course: it's precisely what those of us over forty (or thirty) don't get that makes youth movements so powerful. That is as true today as it was forty years ago, and yet judging from the cascade of contempt raining down on the Occupy Wall Street protests, you'd think that older folks like me hadn't learned a thing from their youth. Here are six lessons we ought to have learned by now:

1. Specificity is Overrated

"Grown-up" liberals like me gnash our teeth at the apparent vagueness of the Occupy Wall Street protests. But were the protests of the 1960s any less vague? Sure, they had the Vietnam War, but that war didn't end until 1974, under a Republican president. Does that mean all the social unrest of the Sixties was a flop? No -- what was powerful, then and now, was less about platforms and more about shifting consciousness. However vague that may sound, history has shown that eventually, it has profound effects.

2. The Protest Is a Work in Progress

Moreover, the vagueness is, in part, temporary. One of the things mainstream coverage of Occupy Wall Street has consistently missed is that the "General Assembly" of a few hundred core protesters is a working body. Read the minutes of their meetings. They are dividing into working groups, operating by consensus, and slowly coming to agree on certain shared principles. This takes time, as anyone who has engaged in mainstream or alternative political organizing knows. So, yes, the protests' agenda is currently half-baked. That's because the protest itself is the oven.

3. Naivete Can Be Powerful

Personally, I would've preferred the OWS GA to adopt one of the myriad progressive agendas that others have already thought through and put out there. The Network of Spiritual Progressives' "Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment" (ESRA) is one good example. It's radical, profound, well thought out, and directed at precisely the inequality that OWS is all about. There are dozens of others. (The laundry list of liberal legislative items put forth recently by Nicholas Kristof is appealing to me, but surely far too incrementalist for the protesters.) If I were king of the OWS protests, I'd go for up-or-down votes on the ESRA and similar fundamental proposals.

But, of course, that's the point. Not only am I not king of the protests, no one is. The protesters have seen the results of top-down leadership, and they don't want it. Is that naïve? Sure, but naivete can be powerful, especially in the hands of the young. And semi-leaderless, open source protest movements worked effectively in the Arab Spring, the obvious and stated inspiration for OWS. What older people see as the narcissism of Web 2.0 and the "You Generation," younger people see as empowerment. This is a generation that doesn't want to be told how to order their playlists -- let alone their political agendas. And they're especially wary of being coopted.

4. Hive Mind Takes Time

I co-founded and ran an open source software company for several years. Generally, the first products of an open source project are pretty wobbly. Open source development utilizes the wisdom of the "hive mind": groups of people working together and eventually coming up with solutions that an individual would be less likely to find on her own. This is a trial-and-error process, and beta releases (let alone pre-beta) are going to be buggy.

This, at least, is what I hope is true about the "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," adopted by the GA on September 29. This document is a huge disappointment that seems to miss its own point. Its preamble rightly addresses corporate power as the Problem. But its litany of corporate ills is an overly inclusive laundry list of special interest gripes -- not unlike the wide range of on- and off- topic handmade signs I saw when I visited Zucotti Park this week. What's wrong about Wall Street isn't animal testing or workplace discrimination (actually most Wall Street firms have very progressive policies, since studies show those policies increase profits). No -- what's wrong about Wall Street is corporate personhood, the widening wealth gap, the control of governmental agencies, and so on.

Viewed as an open source project, though, the Declaration is exactly what you'd expect from a pre-beta release. Hopefully the list of grievances will be narrowed down, and thus amplified. Hive mind takes time.

5. Times Really Are Different

Having said that Occupy Wall Street shares much in common with past, successful "consciousness shifting" movements, it also bears noting that times today really are different. When I was in college in the 1990s, we all scoffed at the Socialist Worker types who seemed to be from another era. Then again, at that time, the average income of the top 1% of Americans was about $750,000. Today, it's $2 million -- while everyone else's has been flat or declined. Today, the richest 10% control 2/3 of America's net worth. From 2007-2009, Wall Street profits increased 720%, while home equity decreased 35%. (All these statistics are just from a single Mother Jones post, complete with graphs and sources.)

So times really are different today. There hasn't been this much inequality in two generations. And while the majority of Americans have no idea how bad it is, many of the people in Zuccotti Park do. Not all of them, of course -- but many.

6. The Enemy is Vague

As I have written about in these pages before, one of the challenges of contemporary politics is that the "enemy" is less a black-hatted, Voldemort-like villain than a structure of inequality that enriches the most powerful and feeds on itself. This is doubtless why the shyster Bernard Madoff became the face of the 2008 financial crisis, even though he had nothing to do with it: he was a good villain. In contrast, most people working for Wall Street firms are basically good people. A little greedy, perhaps, but not as they're depicted in films (think Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche in Trading Places) and not evil like Osama Bin Laden. There's not even a General Westmoreland or Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.

This makes it hard to protest. Unlike in Egypt or Libya, there's no one bad guy to direct one's rage against. There's not even a single act -- the invasion of Iraq, Apartheid -- that is the problem. The system is the problem, and that's abstract. It's hard to put on a poster, without looking vague and idealistic, which is exactly how the protesters tend to look. But what choice do they have?

No doubt this is why many protesters and sympathizers have been distracted by the occasional outbursts of police brutality -- which, OWS participants say, are far outweighed by the generally professional and even sympathetic behavior of most of the police. A bad cop pepper spraying innocent kids is an easy target for rage. But he's not the enemy. The enemy is a faceless machine of inequality, and that cop is as much caught up in it as the rest of us are.

Personally, I am an incrementalist, not a revolutionary. For fifteen years, I've worked within the system for incremental change on issues I care about. But that doesn't mean I disdain more radical voices, such as those on the streets of downtown Manhattan. The protests are imperfect, the participants are unsophisticated, the agenda far too 'left' for mainstream appeal. But maybe they're just what America needs -- not a policy prescription, but a good kick in the pants.

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