Occupy Wall Street: hopeless leaders, perfect catalysts.

Let’s put it plainly. The demands of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular. The people occupying Wall Street are total flakes. The second fact in no way discredits the first. The people in Zuccotti Park aren’t the best people to carry forth their message—but they don’t need to be. They’ve already catalyzed others to do the job.

I’ve been reading a lot about Occupy Wall Street.  Last Saturday, I visited Zuccotti Park and took a look for myself. I think it’s time we recognized a clear but complex set of truths.

The demands of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular; Democrats and Progressives of all tendencies should endorse them. The people actually occupying Wall Street are total flakes. The second fact in no way discredits the first. The people in Zuccotti Park aren’t the best people to carry forth their message—but they don’t need to be. They’ve already catalyzed others to do the job. Like Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, their impotent flamboyance can inspire others to fight the battle that they started but won’t take part in.

Dances with Wolves : Suicide Attempt or see more Kevin Costner Videos

 Taking these theses one at a time:

1. Occupy Wall Street’s demands are popular. The evidence on whether people support Occupy Wall Street is equivocal. Depending on the poll, people’s feelings are largely positive but very confused. (This is actually very good news; Republicans hoped that OWS’ unorthodox style would turn people off, but to a surprising degree it hasn’t: as Greg Sargent has noted, it’s particularly popular among blue-collar whites.). The evidence on whether people support its core message is not equivocal. That message is wildly popular.  According to a Time poll, of those who claim familiarity with the protests (three-quarters of the sample), 86 percent agree that “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington”; 79 percent agree that “the gap between rich and poor in the United States has grown too large”; “71 percent agree that “executives of financial institutions responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 should be prosecuted”; 68 percent agree that “the rich should pay more taxes.”  Specifically, the protests have led to rightful mockery of the Republican line that profits at the top produce great benefits for everyone. When Bill Galston (“History shows that when elites fail to discharge the responsibilities their privileges entail, they sow the wind. America’s elites ignored this time-honored truth, and they are now reaping the whirlwind of their heedlessness”) starts to sound like Harold Meyerson (“the Wall Street banks over the past quarter-century have done none of the things that a financial sector should do. They have not helped preserve the thriving economy that America once enjoyed. They have not funded our boldest new companies”), we can tell that sympathy for the Devil investment banker has become a marginal position.

2. The people running Occupy Wall Street are flakes. There is no other way to put it. The people in Zuccotti Park are Rousseauian fanatics: sincere (in fact, prone to worship, cloyingly and off-puttingly, a cult of sincerity) and often eloquent, but opposed in principle to anything that might give them any power: alliances, membership lists, the authority to endorse, or withhold endorsements of, anyone or anything. While it looked for a while as if they might formulate demands, they have now come down in favor of never doing that, on principle.  They have come to see the protests as ends in themselves.  Their official blog disavows the right of any working group to produce demands. On the contrary, saith the blogger, “[w]e are our demands. This #ows movement is about empowering communities to form their own general assemblies, to fight back against the tyranny of the 1%. Our collective struggles cannot be co-opted.”  (Jed Brandt and Michael Levitin in the Occupied Wall Street Journal echo this: “What it is, the demand the 1% can’t comprehend, is us. It is the individuals and villages, the cities and peoples across the world who are seeing each other on the far side of appeals and petitions. It is the world we are becoming.”)

Here the contrast with the civil rights movement could not be starker. SCLC, CORE, and SNCC marches, freedom rides, and sit-ins always had a clear target: the Jim Crow laws and practices that the protestors were decrying (and often flouting). When they marched on Washington, it was in support of civil rights legislation and, admittedly more vaguely, economic change. With a view to actually getting what they wanted, they gathered as many allies as humanly possible—perhaps a few more. In contrast, OWS proudly calls itself 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” (emphases in original). Well, they might not need politicians, but the people whose interests they claim to represent sure do.  I’m all for construing politics broadly, to include union campaigns and grassroots organizing as well as the corridors of power. But OWS doesn’t like union or grassroots politics any more than the legislative kind. There’s a fine line between participatory democracy and collective narcissism. OWS has not only crossed it but made it a rampart, and they’re standing on the wrong side.

3. The incompetence of the messengers does not discredit the message—but does show the need for better messengers.  Some focus group work cited by Suzy Khimm already suggests that swing voters warm to “we are the 99 percent” as a cause more than to “Occupy Wall Street” as a movement. That insight needs to be expanded and radicalized. Progressive groups’ wary sympathy towards the Occupy Wall Street movement, based on a suspicion, totally justified, that it doesn’t really know what it’s doing, should transform itself into a wholehearted commitment to its message—under leadership frankly superior to anything OWS itself will provide or can provide.  While OWS would like to claim ownership of its message—rage against financial malfeasance and corruption and against lack of economic opportunity for the vast majority—that claim is absurd. The whole point is that these sentiments are widely shared.  But if they’re widely shared, anyone can act on them. They can, in doing so, leave OWS itself behind if they like, and they should like. Others can carry on the battle that OWS has, in its eloquent vagueness, more or less called for. And those others can, to be blunt, carry it on much better than OWS does.

Remember Lieutenant Dunbar again. The prospect of losing his foot to a wound made him determined to end his own life gloriously, in a suicidal ride across enemy lines. He not only didn’t fight the Confederates himself; he felt free to do what he did because he couldn’t fight. But his ride, actually desperate but seemingly brave, inspired a somnolent, scared Union line to get up and do battle—and, crucially, provoked the Rebels to focus on Dunbar, and expose themselves, to their great cost in that battle.  Occupy Wall Street, whose post-political stance makes it as unfit for political struggle as the post-martial Dunbar was for military struggle, has likewise infuriated conservatives (and led them to foolishly expose themselves) while inspiring progressives. It is not even a matter of progressives finishing a fight that OWS started.  Rather, we need to begin the fight that OWS, having sparked, is deliberately and permanently sitting out.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

48 thoughts on “Occupy Wall Street: hopeless leaders, perfect catalysts.”

  1. I’ve been down there myself. I pretty much agree with Andrew, but think that he has made two slightly inconsistent statements: “The people actually occupying Wall Street are total flakes” and “The people running Occupy Wall Street are total flakes.” I agree with much of the second statement, pretty much for Andrew’s reasons. (However, they are a pretty shrewd bunch of flakes, and are doing a fine job of running OWS, if not creating a broader movement for social change. You can run a park, if not a society, on Rosseauvian lines.)

    I strongly disagree with his first statement. There are quite a number of people in the park who agree with Andrew that OWS can’t take us over the Jordan. But its a good start, and may have a good run before something else will replace it.

  2. Greenpeace learnt from the Yippies (remember their testimony before HUAC?) the power of the stunt in the television age. But Greenpeace’s organisation is Leninist: you can’t join the core group, only support what it comes up with.
    The technical problem is that good stunts require secrecy in planning. So I’m afraid it’s either anarchism (no decision-making structure for foes to to penetrate) or Leninism (concentrated, disciplined, security-conscious decision-making structure designed to resist penetration).
    Of course, you could argue that the stunts are no longer necessary. They would in any case have to be abandoned by a proper democratic mass movement.

  3. A most thoughtful and relevant post! OWS will only succeed politically if those “non-leaders” acquiesce and make sure they are duly registered to vote, and then vote in 2012 against the force that is bringing us our current economic miseries – the Republican brand!

    I am a 99%er, but I am also a bit more of a realist than those I’ve been reading about at the center of the Occupy movement. Changing the national rhetoric is an important beginning, but without an organized effort to coalesce the actual vote to change directions, the 99%ers are not engaged in practical politics.

    To forego such opportunity is to represent your observation they may just be too Rousseauian for their (and our) own good!

    1. kevo, I totally agree you and Andrew…I believe the beginning of OWS was organic/authentic, but what is happening in Oakland (right now) is anything but…Oakland OWS has been hijacked…I don’t know what the percentage is, but there are a lot of people who are vandalizing, using drugs, drinking, partying…these people are not there to make a political statement nor protesting for any kind of change…most of these people have never voted and probably won’t vote in 2012! It is nasty and filfthy…Oakland has NO MONEY, but now we have to spend money we don’t have, to clean up after these fools…and we don’t have enough police to deal with the crime and now they have to deal with this mess…I don’t have a love affair with the Oakland Police (some leave a lot to be desired, I do believe in (meaningful) peaceful protest/demostrations, but I don’t believe in what OWS has now become in Oakland. And it disgust me when people compare the Civil Rights Movement to this craziness.

  4. With regard to 2 above) Check out this post of Doug Henwood’s. He asserts that the the person(s) running the blog do not speak for the the whole bowl (of flakes), at least with regard to the demands group.

    With regard to 3 above) Are you absolutely certain, in light of current copyright and patent law, that they cannot claim ownership of that message? (Just askin’).

  5. I have much more sympathy than Andrew for the character of OWS. As an involved citizen in a tiny city (North Adams, MA), I’m aware that our major limit as a local democracy is the lack of involved citizens. We have a couple of gadflies, sure, but not much habit of widespread, independent thought. I think that OWS addresses this head-on, by getting people to congregate in a public place and talk in person, and, importantly, establish that doing so is a public right and obligation.

    Too much of our local conversation here is centered on a) things we heard somewhere but didn’t fact-check or spin-check and b) the assumption that we can’t fix things, only complain. Establishing a culture of respectful, informed, and responsible (i.e. leading to a practical response) discussion is a worthy goal in and of itself. OWS is creating this atmosphere – if it also picks positions and candidates, it loses the more general authority.

    I think it’s a worthwhile note that OWS has managed to state certain *problems* as a group while successfully claiming to represent 99%. Anyone proposing solutions and candidates will necessarily represent a smaller constituency. That’s why I support OWS in all its non-specificity.

    1. The spirit of the list is quite reasonable, but the letter of the principles can get pretty flaky. Exhibit:

      4. We affirm the right of human beings to choose where they live and work, and to engage in these activities free from intimidation or harassment from the state, employers, employees, financiers, or the community.

      They really can’t mean what this statement implies. Can a person decide to take a job without the consent of an employer? Can a person decide to live in another’s home? Does a person have an absolute right not to be fired?

      This is why OWS is wise to avoid manifestos.

      1. I wouldn’t read too much detail into these sorts of things. It’s the sentiments that count for now more than the specifics. FWIW, you could say they’re against the sort of practices Wal-Mart engages in with respect to their employees, like pressuring them to work overtime without pay or forcing women with families to move if they want to go into management.

  6. “in fact, prone to worship, cloyingly and off-puttingly, a cult of sincerity”

    Hmm. That sounds like the sort of person who would criticize a politician for being a flip-flopper…
    ie the model of the best way to judge politicians across the entire US spectrum, from the Tea Party to the media to most blogs.
    ie I’m not sure exactly how it makes “The people in Zuccotti Park” different from the rest of America.

    You have some valid points, but these particular one seems to me remarkably flimsy. Obsession with sincerity is one of the pathologies of American politics as a whole, a pathology of the entire society.

    1. President Obama is doing an amazing job. You just have to actually know what it is he’s done and is doing instead of listening to the profiteering so call left and the facist insane rw via the coporatemediawhore$$$.

      1. Agree Cha, he is doing an amazing job. He still has a few loonies like you who believe he is capable of doing a job he doesn’t even begin to understand. I would never underestimate the talent that can pull that magic act off.

    1. If the mission is to have a lot of people sitting in a park chatting, yes, mission accomplished. Kind of like Pres. Bush on the battleship. The real hard work has yet to be done. It sounds to me as if this movement is encouraging people to disengage from political action and that will only lead to more control by banks, billionaires and corporations because the ‘conversation’ won’t affect them at all. They are occupying a park, not a bank or a stock exchange or the halls of Congress or Eric Cantor’s office. They are not pressuring the Republicans to do the job they were elected to do and help govern the country, pass the jobs bill protect consumers or anything else.. They are sad and angry about being arrested, but that is the point of demonstrations – using a peaceful protest to provoke an overreaction. They need to change or become irrelevant and leave us all worse off than we were.

  7. I went down there on monday, with my parents, who did a lot in ‘Nam , and knew people who got the crap beaten out of them by white sheriffs during SNCC events.
    I think total flakes is way off base, and more then a little snotty; they at least are doing something.

    Yes, there are some flakes mixing in, but there are always some flakes mixing in
    Yes, they are young, and poorly organized.
    Sort of like most of us.
    Instead of being snotty and superior, why don’t you go down there and launch a teach in (S Lynd, E Weinberger, etc ring any bells ?)

    1. Andrew is one of those oh-so-sensible liberal centrists who helped get us to where we are today. Juast as many economists and pundits hate Krugman and will never forgive him for being right, many of these people will never forgive OWS for doing what they didn’t have the b*lls to do.

  8. I visited Occupy LA on Saturday afternoon, briefly. A lot of the vocal and organized activity was from the flakes and enthusiasts (birther-truthers, anti-GMO foods, pro-vegetarianism; no Larouchies while I was there). But while those people had prime spots, the best signs, and active workers, the majority of people weren’t interested in them, and the teach-in tent, the resources/organization tent, and the library had a bunch of less fringe-y people hanging about and talking. Still, there were 50-100 tents and (at midday) only a couple hundred people; unless there were a lot more at the morning and evening meetings, it’d be pretty easy for a commmitted group of organized nuts to reshape the movement.

    1. “…pretty easy for a committed group of organized nuts to reshape the movement”…this is what is happening in Oakland. Period.

  9. I figure the OWS folks don’t want to be co-opted like the Tea Party was.

    You can quibble whether or not the Tea Party started as an organic movement. I don’t think it did, but it certainly got eated by the Republicans who wanted their cachet. OWS doesn’t want that.

    I don’t care if it shuts down tomorrow. What it has already done is shift the daily meme from cutting the budget (republican talking points) to jobs & taking responsibility for tanking the economy two years ago. That in and of itself is completely worth it.

  10. Pretty much by definition the people who are on the scene day in and day out are outliers. The vast majority of the 99% have other things they have to do.

  11. A General, visiting a field unit, instructed the Colonel there to complete a certain project. The Colonel replied, “that’s impossible, it can’t be done.” So, the General pulled a lowly Private out of the ranks and instructed him to perform the job.

    The next day, when the General returned to the location, the project was completed, and to perfection. So, the befuddled Colonel asked the General, “how the hell did this lowly Private accomplish that?” The General responded, “You see, Colonel, the private didn’t have all your knowledge and education, and thus, was too stupid to know it couldn’t be done, so he simply went ahead and did it.”
    *************************************
    And Elvis Presley is a “flash in the pan and will be forgotten by next week.” And, “just wait until Cassius Clay gets into the ring with Liston, he’ll get killed.”

    While the Pundits (and Professors) keep babbling…….

  12. A lot of these comments are great and I hope to address some of them tomorrow. For now I’d like to clear up one thing: in calling OWS’s leadership “flakes” I was not (as my post should have made clear) referring to superficial lifestyle matters like how they dress or whether they drum too much, nor even whether certain fringe figures have come to the park to press their own odd views. I know that many conservative commentators have focused on such things, but I didn’t. My point concerned exclusively the OWS core leadership’s lack of strategic skill and political commitment. Agree or disagree with that point, but let’s focus on what I said, not what others may have said.

    1. “My point concerned exclusively the OWS core leadership’s lack of strategic skill and political commitment. Agree or disagree with that point, but let’s focus on what I said, not what others may have said.”

      Then stop using the word ‘flake’.

      As for strategic skill and political commitment, they’ve go plenty. To start, they’re willing to go to jail for their beliefs. That’s more commitment than you, or anybody in your social circle has.

      As for strategic skill, their initial effort has changed the national conversation, *uphill and against the clear wishes of the elites*.

      That’s a pretty f-ing good first step, and it showed more strategic skill than you and yours have shown.

      1. Piling on: from your actual post, Andrew: “The people actually occupying Wall Street are total flakes.”

      2. Despite Keith’s warning below, I can’t resist responding.

        First: willingness to go to jail does *not* represent “political commitment” if one is totally unwilling to link that willingness to engagement in *politics*. It might be commitment to an esthetic or social ideal, but “post-political” means “post-political.” If they didn’t mean that, they shouldn’t have said it.

        Second: flake (per OED 10b): “One who is ‘flaky’ or liable to act in an eccentric or crazy manner, a ‘screwball’; also, a foolish, slow-witted, or unreliable person.” I see no reference to drumming or costumes here, and there was none in my post. I call the leaders of Occupy Wall Street crazy, foolish, slow-witted, and unreliable: because, and only because, they think that through alchemy (I guess) they can, while sneering at everything that smacks of a political action or decision, accomplish political change.

    2. Absolutely clear what you meant Andrew, to anyone who actually wants to understand (never mind the rest).

      1. Keith, then why did he use the term ‘flake’?
        BTW, I’ve seen this before (which is why I gave up at League of Ordinary Gentleman). Andrew’s words speak for themselves. You pretending that he didn’t say what he said is a mark against you.

        As for Andrew’s later criticisms, they are just as bad. These people are not willing to go to jail just for giggles, or as a lifestyle, they have actual political reasons. Of course, right now, the overwhelming first step is awareness and publicity. They are trying to be the guys who stand up in audience and say ‘you’re liar and a criminal’.

        See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till

        “Till was returned to Chicago and his mother, who had raised him mostly by herself, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing. Tens of thousands attended his funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in black magazines and newspapers, rallying popular black support and white sympathy across the U.S. Intense scrutiny was brought to bear on the condition of black civil rights in Mississippi, with newspapers around the country critical of the state. ”

        Step 1 is publicity and awareness, and breaking the silence.

  13. Thank you for your view, Andrew Sabl. I got the link from Benen’s blog..he always turns us on to great links.

    I hope those who Are into Grass Roots Activism and those supporting the Unions will be inspired even more by OWS. I would think it’s helping those in Wisconsin who are actually doing to work of getting Scott Walker Recalled.

  14. Cha: Be advised “Reality based community” is kind of like “Democratic People’s Republic”; If you are one, you don’t bother calling yourself one. 😉

  15. As usual, Brett’s view of reality is, well, wrong. The name comes from a Bush administration official naming *us* that.

    1. Thanks for the explanation; I’d always wondered. Given the context, it was clearly not intended as a compliment. While I don’t like to go in for mind-reading, I’m guessing that what he meant was an allusion to people who rely on academic theory to solve problems, as opposed to experimentation and experience.

    2. As well as reflecting the idea that, “the facts have a well-known liberal bias”, attributed to Stephen Colbert.

      The specific quote is from Suskind, New York Times Magazine “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” October 14, 2004:

      …that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

  16. “The demands of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular”

    Does this mean that you know what those demands are? I have spoken with multiple people; everybody seems to have a different idea. So far I’ve heard:
    – free university tuition (repudiated by those who run the occupywallst website)
    – everybody should form local assemblies to make decisions
    – raise taxes for the rich
    – get special-interest money (or corporate money, depending on whom you ask) out of government.

    The only thing I’m sure of is that they are upset that the rich are getting so much richer, that the economy sucks, and that they feel cheated. That’s hard to disagree with, but it doesn’t sound much like a real actionable demand.

    1. It’s unclear that Occupy has demands. They have stated grievances, but to my knowledge have made no explicit demands. They have made some implicit demands, like the right of peaceable assembly. But that (in theory) is guaranteed under the constitution in the U.S.

      So far, Occupy has the first half of the Declaration of Independence: “We’re mad as hell, and here’s why.” What is missing (and appears that it will remain missing) is the second half: “And here’s what ought to happen. And it’s what’s gonna happen if we have anything to say about it (and we do).”

  17. The lack of declaration by #OWS precisely keeps the attention focused on the grievances (which are broad, popular, widely held, and almost intuitively understood); one of the reasons that the commentariat keeps demanding “specific policy endorsements” is so that the attention can shift away from the grievances and get bogged down in particulars.

    1. I had not thought of that, but Kevin raises a really good point. I know (and have lived through) enough history to know EXACTLY what he is saying — as soon as there’s a list of specific complaints and demands, we’ll be subject to a 24/7 festival of lies and legalisms regarding why those complaints are uninformed, no longer relevant, factually inaccurate, etc etc.

      1. A friend whose father has been a professor (and up to provost) at numerous universities described it was ‘ignore, stall, negotiate’. Spend a year ignoring, then a year stalling, and then ‘negotiate’ for a year. By which time the original grievants have graduated, and the cycle can be started again.

        This also strikes at the problems with the ‘liberal centrists’, who can happily make their tenured university/think tank/lobbyist careers on long, slow, pont-by-point negotiations which don’t accomplish much.

        I believe that we’ll see as much dishonest hackery trashing OWS from these guys as from the ‘liberal’ media.

        1. Maybe there are folks who would like OWS to get to the point already so that we don’t have to waste $3 million a month on police overtime to keep them safe and the odor down (as NYC has had to do).

          Not that I care very much. The vast majority of people don’t care what these characters do or think for that matter.
          If they stay in the park until November ’12, it can only help conservatives win the elections.

          1. “Maybe there are folks who would like OWS to get to the point already so that we don’t have to waste $3 million a month on police overtime to keep them safe and the odor down (as NYC has had to do). ”

            Numeracy, please. The current mess we’re in cost several trillion.

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