Whatever Happened to Occupy Wall Street?

OWS is, in a sense, running for office just as hard as Gingrich, Romney and Obama. But the task is far more difficult.
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Gone but not forgotten. Occupy Wall Street has disappeared from Zuccotti Park, save for occasional gatherings of shivering souls watched over by yellow-jacketed police, but it lingers on the edge of consciousness, in the now embedded cliché "we are the 99%" and, apparently in Davos, where all things go to warm their hands on the gas-fed embers of 1% capitalism. Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach lays out in today's Financial Times a final session at Davos that allowed a branch of the local Occupy movement to do their thing. As Roach himself says, "Friday's Open Forum, in an effort to take the debate from the glitterati to the real people" featured the topic "remodeling capitalism" and was a "chance to open this debate to the seething masses." Note a few assumptions here. First, glitterati are not real people, which may well be true -- I wouldn't know. Second, the "so-called Occupy Community" represented "the seething masses." This, of course, is the argument made by the Occupy community, embodied in the 99% slogan. But based on their numbers, on polls and on anecdotal evidence, they are a small segment of the overall population at large. Lastly, why do masses always seethe?

Roach's description of this affair sounds like something out of the '60s. The affair begins in chaos, with Occupy "agitators" stationed throughout the room leading chants. The panel itself is an mélange of various points of view. Roach, as a Wall Street representative, is hissed. An hour-long discussion ensues. Roach comes to accept "a reasonable suggestion" on the need to balance growth and stability. And just before he escapes in the night, "Maria," an Occupy representative, offers her views: "The aim of Occupy is to think for yourself. We don't focus on solutions. We want to change the process of finding solutions."

That sentiment jives with what we know about the thrust of OWS at Zuccotti Park. It also sums up the challenges of the movement. Yes, it has achieved a certain amount of celebrity; and its sloganeering has been effective. But what has it become? OWS's notion of creating a political transformation -- "We want to change the process of finding solutions" -- is rooted in place, in physical proximity, like Athenian democracy. This is paradoxical, given its expert use of social media for drawing crowds, and self-limiting. Without a physical space, an encampment, where general assemblies can be held and the interminable process of achieving democratic consensus reached, this is just another protest movement, albeit one with a sense of humor and a talent for slick slogans. This explains, I think, OWS's continuing attempts to find a new home, first in the empty lot owned by Trinity Church, then this weekend, in the cozy confines of Washington Square Park, with New York University around it like a very expensive muffler. There's something bittersweet about this, with its efforts to replicate Zuccotti without turning the public against them. As The Wall Street Journal writes: "Organizers said they hoped demonstrations like Sunday would improve the movement's public image, a sentiment that comes just a day after protesters in Oakland clashed with police and more than 300 people were arrested."

Gordon Crovitz in the WSJ also took up the plight of OWS but from a more critical perspective. He argues that OWS violated property rights and as long as municipalities and the police enforce those rights, the movement will fade. He may be right; he may be wrong. (Crovitz blames "liberal city politicians" in New York for letting the movement take root. It's a sign of how conservative the Republican Party has become that the moderate Bloomberg administration could be called "liberal.") Crovitz argues that OWS was essentially an "AstroTurf" movement, started by AdBusters, and thus, in a sense, lacking authenticity, legitimacy, roots in anything real. Like Roach's "real people" we now get to tangle with what's real or not. Is the Tea Party, which also has AstroTurf roots, real? Well, its votes in the 2010 elections were certainly real; and Sarah Palin sold a ton of books to someone real. And one could say that OWS, whether its genesis was AstroTurf or not, has had "real" consequence. President Obama is taking a decidedly more aggressive populist stand than before OWS. And even the Republican primary battle between Romney and Gingrich features issues like inequality, private equity and Wall Street articulated by OWS -- or by interpreters of OWS in the punditocracy. In fact, it doesn't matter. Nearly every political movement that makes an impact began with an organizer. The notion of a true grassroots movement is mostly a myth (historically, many of them sprang from the political parties). That said AstroTurf movements couldn't sustain themselves unless troops from the grass roots sign up for duty. The Tea Party achieved that; for a few months, the Occupy movements did as well. The real question, which returns us to the importance of "place," is whether it will be self-sustaining come the spring.

That's an open question. The emphasis on fundamental political transformation is stirring but, again, decidedly self-limiting. The decision to press specific issues smacks of politics as usual. Who wants to wrestle with the kind of hard economic issues Roach laid out in his Davos remarks: inequality, global income disparities and growth? Besides, the greatest threat to OWS is that it becomes familiar and boring: toward the end of the Zuccotti phase, that, plus a certain loss of patience in a group that was increasingly viewed as parasitic, began to limit the tolerance of the surrounding community toward the affair. The real challenge for the OWS core group is to devise a fresh and inspiring new shtick -- a new Zuccotti or effective slogans that paper over the underlying incoherence of the movement -- knowing full well that to resort to public spaces is now probably off the table. To get anything done, to get any attention (to "occupy" the media), OWS needs to mobilize large numbers, and that will depend in part upon the economic situation with its large numbers of unemployed and indebted young folks. How they'll pull that off will be fascinating to watch. One thing to keep in mind: The one solution to the fear of becoming boring and irrelevant is to become more aggressive, to confront the authorities more brazenly. That, however, has nothing to do with democratic transformation and consensus and will lose the still-accepting nature of the larger community. Meanwhile, media and public attention will be increasingly focused on a presidential election.

OWS is, in a sense, running for office just as hard as Gingrich, Romney and Obama. But the task is far more difficult.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.

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