I have long held left-leaning, even near-Marxist, views on social equity and justice. Like many other young individuals, I have been left floundering by the ongoing financial crisis. I have a pretty good sense of what caused our current shared predicament – it’s more than just “corporate greed” and encompasses a wide range of deeper, endemic problems within the financial system – and have kept up with the various, better-articulated prognoses of the crisis.
Yet, despite our common ground, I cannot bring myself to fully support Occupy Wall Street. Like any aspirational political movement, OWS needs leaders, agendas, and programs.
While I am enthused that thousands of people have taken to the streets to express misgivings over the economic mismanagement of this country, I cannot rouse myself to go beyond expressing sympathy with the OWS cause. This is not an early stage sell-out on my part. I still want OWS to “win,” but I don’t know what that entails. Furthermore, despite our shared recognition that there are deep injustices within our society, I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the Occupy movement.
OWS rapidly spread across the nation and is increasingly being seen as part of a larger movement of sympathetic economic justice movements around the world. However, it is unfortunate that OWS seems to lack the coherence and ability to articulate its goals despite achieving a growing international stature. While I understand some of the deeper roots of the crisis and agree with the basic principle that social action must be taken to redress these societal flaws, I find myself unable to grasp just what is so significant about OWS and its particular methods of civil disobedience.
These are difficult financial times. And during periods of such uncertainty, it is only understandable for people to panic. A society under such pressure is prone to develop populist movements; xenophobia and communalism increase and scapegoats get identified and vilified. We adopt these positions because we are looking to make the uncertainty go away – we want things to be better. But with these vast movements, we also need to know just how things are going to get better. At present, OWS is merely expressing negative sentiment and not providing an articulated solution other than civil disobedience. While such examples of peaceful protest are arguably necessary, OWS is only contributing to the confusion.
I visited the protests in Zuccotti Park and found myself agreeing with the general principles of the protest – clear, simple signs articulated the growing disparities and disappearing opportunities for the ordinary citizen. But at the same time, there were others protesting for the sake of protesting with a flimsy grasp of the crisis and chanting the blame mantra of “corporate greed” and “Wall Street excess.” While it may be true, these ill-informed antics hurt the movement as a whole. For every articulate, persuasive individual, there is a loud-mouthed raver – fuelled by conspiracy theories and a pre-schooler's grasp of economics – who gets all the media attention through theatrics and camera-worthy antics.
I can understand the romance of the spontaneous, grassroots, and leaderless protest. It shuns the hierarchies that we witness in corporate government and America. Such protests, based upon mutual assent and a spirit of community, have a whiff of a true democracy about them.
This makes it all the more tragic when the status quo, through the media, has been focusing on the loudest fringe of OWS. Without a leader, the narrative of social justice can be easily hijacked – some have even begun to paint OWS as anti-capitalist and anti-American. Might it be so difficult to push OWS’ best and brightest to the fore, to “take charge” or at least come to represent the movement as a whole?
Having leadership – beyond the occasional celebrity visit – would be an immense improvement for OWS. The movement needs to acknowledge that it has become something permanent and possibly transformative. I met several young, brilliant leaders in New York (and in fraternal movements) who have what it takes to step up. Leadership can refute the serious and unfounded accusations laid against the movement as a whole and spread the movement’s timely message to the rest of the country. OWS claims to represent the 99%. It should actively go out and engage them too.
But the most important thing an OWS leadership can do is to articulate what “winning” might be. The current protests rally around symbols. But there is very little concrete evidence of what an OWS victory would mean – it seems at times that the movement is becoming a catchall for all of society’s grievances. While admirable, this is not how one brings about social change.
OWS promises so much. But now, it is time for OWS to also promise the public what it can bring.