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Occupy Wall Street: The Challenge Ahead

Movements can facilitate social change by public expressions of anger and by spreading heterodox ideas, but developing an independent source of power against elites is the real key to changing the world.

by Jeff Goodwin

Jeff Goodwin is a professor of sociology at New York University.

They Don't Know Why They Are ProtestingThe global capitalist crisis of the past few years has led to protests, rebellions, and even revolutions in a range of countries, poor and rich alike. The form that political conflict has taken has been shaped by a number of factors, including the precise nature of the crisis that impacts ordinary people at the grassroots. In the United States, for example, budget cuts and attacks on the collective-bargaining rights of public employees led to protests earlier this year in a number of states, most notably Wisconsin, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets and occupied the state capital building.

An even more important and radical social movement, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), has now arisen. This movement began last month (September 2011) with an occupation of a small park in Manhattan’s financial district, but it has subsequently spread to hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. and has galvanized protests around the world. Unlike the protests in Wisconsin, OWS is not a response to a particular bill, budget, or other specific government threat. Instead, OWS articulates a broad, angry, and compelling indictment of corporate power in both its economic and political forms. And this indictment has clearly resonated with a broad range of people among “the 99 percent” of the population the movement claims to represent. According to a recent poll, 67 percent of New Yorkers say they agree with the views of the Wall Street protesters, while 23 percent disagree. Not surprisingly, some liberal politicians in the Democratic Party are scrambling to align themselves and their rhetoric with this increasingly popular movement. More about this in a minute.

The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” drawn up by OWS activists at the end of September eloquently encapsulates their democratic and anti-corporate—as well as internationalist— perspective:

“We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies. As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members;…that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.”

Among the hand-made signs I saw on a recent trip to the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park were the following: “Democracy, Not Plutocracy”; “Wall Street Occupies Our Government—Occupy Wall Street!”; “Government is for the People, Not for Corporations!”; and “Corporations Are Not People!” Thus, while OWS has targeted the banks and financial institutions we reflexively associate with “Wall Street,” it clearly views corporate power more generally as the source of the problems of the 99 percent, both in the United States and the world at large. In a country where capitalism has only been weakly and intermittently challenged, this is obviously not U.S. politics as usual.

OWS activists in New York are not exactly Marxists, to be sure. They tend to decry “corporate greed” rather than capitalism as such. The discourse of the thousands of “foot soldiers” of the movement, who turn out for marches and rallies, consists overwhelming, indeed almost entirely, of hostility to banks, corporations, and the wealthy “1%.” Anti-war sentiment is also quite prominent. I base this on my discussions with protesters, their homemade signs, and the chants people take up from time to time at rallies and marches. Health care is not so prominent as an (articulated) issue, nor is education—though I’ve seen a few signs bemoaning student debt. Curiously, I’ve seen very few signs demanding jobs, nor is this is an issue that seems to be foremost among the concerns of the protesters’ with whom I’ve talked. Trade unions have distributed a lot of signs that say “Stop the War on Workers.” But at the big Times Square rally last Saturday, the most prominent chants were “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”; “We are the 99 percent!”; “Whose streets? Our streets!”; and “How do we end the deficit? End the war and tax the rich!”

In sum, I would describe the ideological thrust of the movement as a whole—recognizing its heterogeneity—as a kind of anti-corporate populism: It’s a discourse of corporations and banks versus the people. The 1% versus the 99%. A Wall-Street occupied government versus the rest of us. Now, just how “radical” the movement is has yet to be fully determined, of course; it’s a movement still in motion. We’ll learn more in the weeks and months ahead.

That said, many core OWS activists are clearly influenced by socialist and anarchist ideas and ideals. I saw a wonderful sign at the large Times Square rally on October 15: “Corporate Greed Is a Redundancy and Corporate Responsibility is an Oxymoron!” In this respect, OWS resembles the “global justice movement” that exploded in Seattle in 1999, the current movement of los indignados (“the indignant”) in Spain, and leftist protesters from Athens to Paris. (The tactic of permanently occupying public space, for its part, was clearly influenced by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo this past January.) Importantly, this is not simply a movement against unemployment, austerity, home foreclosures, union-busting, environmental degradation, student debt, or the corrupting power of money in politics. Instead, OWS activists embrace all these causes *and* link them to overweening corporate power, the root cause of the present crisis, which they implicitly view as both economic and political.

Is the movement succeeding thus far? Without question. Indeed, its achievements far exceed the initial hopes of OWS activists. The movement is playing a hugely consequential “counter-hegemonic” role and broadly educational function by spreading its anti-corporate message to growing audiences. The movement has been even more effective at publicizing the sheer breadth of public anger with banks and corporations. (Disinterested and even disdainful reporters from the U.S. corporate media, however, have often muddled the message, and Fox News is overtly hostile to OWS.)

OWS has performed an important public service simply by revealing to people who are angry with banks and corporations—and the politicians who coddle them—that they are not alone. This has energized tens of thousands of people in New York City alone. The movement has also sparked conversations and debates across the U.S. about matters that have hardly entered mainstream public discourse in recent years: the power and impunity of corporations, the tremendous inequality and unconscionable poverty in the United States, and the corruption of both major political parties.

OWS has also spawned a growing number of marches, demonstrations, and political initiatives in New York and beyond, by providing a focal point around which groups with a wide range of specific grievances—unions, community groups, students, anti-war groups, environmental activists—have gravitated, piggy-backing on the growing media and public interest in the movement (and thereby stimulating still more media attention). We may now in fact speak of a broad “OWS coalition” that loosely encompasses these groups. (For some people, furthermore, the democratic living arrangements and participatory politics at OWS encampments are also an attraction—an exciting alternative to life within the mainstream, corporate- sponsored culture.)

However, the key question that remains unanswered at this point is whether and how the OWS movement will transform the anger, energy, and excitement that it has helped to generate and focus into real power—into actual leverage against the corporate power the movement decries. The development of an independent and enduring source of popular power against corporations is clearly the movement’s main challenge going forward. If it fails to develop the leverage needed to successfully challenge banks, corporations, universities, and politicians, it is hard to see how the movement can sustain its current momentum for the months and indeed years of struggle its political goals demand.

Alas, most of the core OWS activists in New York—and there are not a whole lot of them, perhaps a couple hundred—are students or unemployed (or irregularly employed) youth who do not play a strategic role or have any other direct influence within the powerful banks and corporations they eloquently criticize. Whatever muscle the movement is able to muster is more likely to come from the organized groups with at least some leverage in important institutions which have begun to coalesce around OWS—that is, community organizations, student groups, and especially trade unions. In fact, it is hard to see how any anti-corporate movement can be successful that is not based first and foremost on the efforts of the people who actually work for corporations, whether they belong to a union or not.

Unfortunately, while New York City has an unusually strong union movement, trade unions and working people in general have been on the defensive in recent years, fighting layoffs, cutbacks, and home foreclosures. Unions officials in the U.S., moreover (with a few exceptions), do not share the anti- corporate worldview or militant tactics of OWS activists. And while the movement as it currently exists may provide some unions with welcome publicity and shows of solidarity, this may not be enough for them, let alone unorganized workers, to successfully resist the cutbacks and layoffs that still lie ahead. The OWS coalition, accordingly, will not only need to expand dramatically into working-class communities and consciousness, but will also need to summon all the tactical creativity it can in the weeks and months ahead in order to win concrete victories and maintain its momentum.

In the meantime, the threat of police repression against the encampments in New York and elsewhere is ever-present. Right-wing forces, abetted in some cases by local merchants who feel inconvenienced by the protests, will undoubtedly step up their calls for the forcible removal of the encampments. “Moderate” and liberal politicians may join them if the movement grows too threatening. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is known as a strong civil libertarian, has clearly been eager to remove the occupiers of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. However, the size of the occupation and especially the public sympathy for it have prevented this thus far. The short history of OWS, moreover, demonstrates that police violence and arrests can backfire, generating even more publicity and sympathy for the nonviolent protesters. I suspect city officials confronted by occupations will generally wait until the movement seems to be waning before they strike out violently against the encampments—let’s call this the Tiananmen strategy—another reason why OWS needs to maintain its current momentum.

Yet another threat to OWS comes from liberal Democratic politicians who would love to divert and channel its energy into their electoral campaigns in 2012. Of course, as Robert Reich, labor secretary under President Clinton, recently pointed out, it is exceedingly unlikely that OWS will push the Democratic Party to embrace anything like anti-corporate politics. The Democrats are far too dependent upon corporate money, media, and connections to move more than a centimeter or two in this direction.

Some Democratic politicians, however, will undoubtedly try to present themselves to the public as anticorporate populists—as even President Obama sometimes did in 2008, despite his close ties to Wall Street—in order to draw on OWS energy and enthusiasm. Democratic politicians were quite successful in channeling the energy of the Wisconsin protests into a campaign to recall a number of anti-union Republican legislators. But the campaign focused mainly on the need for civility in politics and largely avoided mention of corporate power or even the need for strong unions. In the end, the campaign failed to change the balance of power in the Wisconsin legislature but it was quite successful in getting people off the streets of Madison.

Will this strategy work with OWS? Not with the core activists, clearly, whose disdain for liberal Democrats like Obama and New York Senator Charles Schumer, another Wall Street favorite, is fairly palpable. According to one activist, “Occupy Wall Street is a *post-political* movement representing something far greater than failed party politics. We are a movement of people empowerment, a collective realization that *we ourselves* have the power to create change from the bottom-up, because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians.” This we-don’t-need-politicians attitude seems to be quite common among OWS activists.

Some of the groups and unions that are part of the broader OWS coalition, however, will certainly plunge into Democratic Party campaigns next year, along with some students and others who have not fully bought into the critique of corporate power—and the Democratic Party—embraced by OWS activists. Many enthusiasts of today will undoubtedly peel off as we head into high election season of tomorrow. This will be a pity, since OWS needs all the bodies and energy it can gather.

But this threat may wither considerably in the days ahead. As mentioned, the movement itself has been an effective educative force, and the popularity of politicians, including liberal Democrats, is unlikely to improve in the near future given the current economic crisis. Much indeed will hinge on the state of the economy in the coming months. A serious economic downturn, or even just a continuing muddling through, which seems most likely, will probably provide more fresh and angry troops to OWS than Democrat politicians can siphon away. Such troops will be necessary if OWS is to meet its unfulfilled promise of building an anti-corporate movement that is powerful, independent, and enduring.

A shorter version of this essay will appear in Le Monde diplomatique in November.