Think Before You Occupy

The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) seems to have the support of this campus and, generally, the support of those with liberal sensibilities and concerns about the current distribution of wealth. Though the instincts behind it may be good, this support of OWS is a mistake. But it is not a mistake because OWS puts forth wrongheaded or dangerous proposals. Regardless of your political leanings, support for this movement is a mistake because OWS has no clear, constructive position at all, no set of policy recommendations that can be assented to (or dissented from).

The reasons for this lack of a clear position will be familiar to many. The most important of these is that (like the Tea Party) OWS is a grassroots movement that (even more than the Tea Party) prides itself on its lack of hierarchy and institutional structure. Though there are likely a number of concrete policies that the vast majority of OWS would support – say, repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts or heightened corporate environmental responsibility standards – the movement as a whole remains gloriously non-specific when it comes to governmental or corporate policy recommendations. The semi-official “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” consists of a list of grievances caused by an ambiguous “they”; it does not contain policy recommendations or concrete proposals for change. Though the specific problems with this document are many, I will focus only on the two largest and most significant issues – issues manifest in the Declaration that are also indicative of OWS’s problems more broadly.

First, the ambiguous “they.” The Declaration’s “they” appears to be directed almost entirely at corporations, though some of the complaints (e.g., “They have used the police force and the military to prevent freedom of the press”) seem to implicate government as well. OWS does not have a coherent policy vision, but neither does it seem to have a clear target for its complaints. The deployment of an “us versus them” vocabulary is both ugly (pointless, wrongly divisive) and fundamentally misguided. Corporations are not single, gigantic, decision-making entities. Like every other human institution, corporations are collections of individuals making individual choices to further both personal and common interests. Even as OWS asks for the “people of the world” to join in, it decries many of those same people: after all, corporations employ the vast majority of those Americans who have jobs (and even a substantial proportion of self-employed Americans are technically Incorporated). Does the declaration’s “they” mean every individual who works for, invests in, or consumes products from any corporation? (This “they” is probably even more than 99% of Americans, actually.) If not, OWS needs to clarify – for itself, most of all – who, specifically, this evil “they” is.

Second, and much more importantly, the Declaration, and OWS more generally, currently consists entirely of grievances. And grievances are not, in themselves, constructive. Identifying societal problems (complaining) is important, but the far more significant and difficult task is determining whether and how to craft solutions to those problems without causing more harm than good. OWS does not have those solutions, or at least it has not presented them. Their laundry list of society’s imperfections does very little good on its own, and it is certainly not grounds for moral or political righteousness.

Indeed, without constructive recommendations and careful justifications of those ideas, OWS may itself be doing more harm than good. OWS vilifies those somehow involved in corporate society (which, remember, is nearly everyone) and makes charges of deep corruption between our governmental and business leaders. But vilification of this sort is justified only if a better alternative can be proposed. OWS seems to hate bankers, but it has yet to propose a viable alternative to the banking system. OWS seems to hate the rich, but it has not presented a coherent societal model that will generate and distribute wealth in a preferable way. The occupiers have no cohesive or justified policy recommendations to agree with or vote for, but they nonetheless seem to have myriad supporters. The question is: what, exactly, is everyone supporting?

Many people support OWS simply because it is a grassroots movement starting a conversation, an instance of energetic civic engagement much needed in a nation of increasing political apathy and alienation. If this is your reason for supporting OWS, you should support the Tea Party (and many other grassroots movements) for the same reason.

Many other people – particularly on this campus – support OWS because they sympathize with the general sense of frustration that occupiers express. This is a weak reason for support. Feelings can be shared or acknowledged, but they cannot be agreed with (any more than they can be disputed). And a feeling is nearly always a bad reason (if it is a reason at all) to offer or withhold political support. The issues OWS broadly mentions are too complex and important to be dealt with by anything but thoughtful reasoning and consideration of evidence. Everyone is frustrated; everyone knows society is imperfect. Unless a careful and concrete alternative is presented – a proposal with a good chance of resolving problems without creating larger ones – a movement focused entirely on expressing frustration does not seem to bring anything new or useful to the table. The Tea Party is frustrated, too; if shared feeling is sufficient reason for support of a movement, why not join the Tea Party also? In supporting OWS (or any movement), sympathy and shared feeling are not justification enough.

And many others, I’m sure, stand behind OWS because they understand and agree with some or all the claims in the Declaration and have specific solutions in mind. If this is your reason for supporting OWS, it is a good one, but it also puts you in the tremendously difficult position of needing to clarify the grievances and set the goals of your movement. You need to better define the Declaration’s “they.” You need to justify the Occupation itself – the inconvenience to city residents and strain on under-funded police forces. You need to defend your vilification of banks, corporations, the government, and the wealthy. And, in order to do this, you will need to develop constructive solutions to the problems you identify and make a case – to the world and to OWS itself – for your specific proposals over others (or the status quo). But these solutions will be yours, not OWS’s, at least until OWS unites behind them. (And then aren’t they really supporting you, instead of the other way around?)

In a certain sense, to justifiably support OWS you must strive to become the leader of a movement that does not want one. OWS is currently happy to remain nebulous and unclear in both its complaints and its recommendations. Until this is substantially altered – until specific proposals or candidates have the endorsement of the occupiers – it will remain a movement that cannot really be supported, because it vilifies huge swaths of society without justification, because it promotes a faulty and dangerous “us versus them” mentality, and – most importantly – because its ideas and proposals are not developed enough even to be wrong.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply