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Occupy Wall Street Gets What the 'Very Serious People' Have Missed for 30 Years

The occupiers have as much chance as any organization in the last three decades to catalyze a national progressive movement.
 
 
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For all their alleged naivete, the thousands of people who have participated in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) have managed to put their finger on something that has completely evaded the "Very Serious People" for more than three decades. While the talking-heads have insisted that reforming Wall Street has little or nothing to do with getting the economy back on track, the occupiers have correctly diagnosed that the problems we now face flow almost entirely from our out-of-control financial sector.  

Even so, the question progressives are asking is whether the Occupy Wall Street movement can succeed? Well, first let's consider that those of us who haven't yet made an appearance at Zuccotti Park in New York or at the many other Occupy actions around the country have not exactly succeeded after decades following our preferred tactics. 

Progressive academics, journalists, and writers (a group where I count myself) have been documenting the growing gap between rich and poor ever since inequality began to rise at the end of the 1970s. Yet, inequality has grown, even when Democrats control most or all of the apparatus of government. 

Union activists have organized workers, led strikes, and won contracts. Legions of community organizers have fought for more jobs, better housing, and a stronger safety net. But, despite many hard-won victories, we know that, overall, the poor are still getting clobbered and a much smaller share of the US workforce is in a union today than thirty years ago. 

So, if a small, fluid, group of people want to try something different, who can blame them? They face an enormous uphill battle and they may not succeed. But, I think they have as much or more chance than any organization I've seen in the last three decades to catalyze a national progressive movement.  

As is almost always the case with underdogs, if they prevail it will ultimately be because they turned what appeared initially to be a weakness into a strength. So far, critics have focused on three seeming weaknesses of the movement: it has no leaders; it has no clear list of demands; and its tactics turn off the middle ground of American politics. Each of these purported defects, in the end, may stand out as a key strength. 

That the group has no leaders may frustrate the mainstream media and the political elite, but the Tea Party has proven that in a highly networked world, a well-defined leadership is no longer a requirement. In fact, the lack of easily identified leaders reduces the chance that the movement is discredited by a personal scandal or that the steam is let out by a few well-targeted concessions that are more acceptable to individuals in the leadership than they are to the base. 

That the group has, of yet, no clear list of demands is also a tremendous asset. The US economy has profound problems (jobs, health care, climate change, and more). For the moment, OWS appears to be channeling anger toward the principal cause of --and impediment to solving-- those problems: Wall Street. Naming the problem --the financial sector-- in no uncertain terms is a huge step forward. Once a consensus forms around this dangerous idea, there will be plenty of time to choose among the many sensible ways forward (a financial speculation tax, breaking up the big banks, a maximum-wage for CEOs, and scores of other ideas). In the meantime, keeping everything on the table helps to attract the maximum number of adherents, while keeping the financial sector and its allies in the media and in Washington nervous and guessing. 

That OWS has adopted a style and a substance that may alienate the “moderates” or “independents” or  “undecideds” of American politics may well be the movement's greatest strength. The culturally and socially confrontational tactics will undoubtedly turn off some Americans, but this same approach conveys, even if imperfectly, a passion that will inspire many others. 

But, seeing the OWS tactics as simply part of some kind of culture war misses the real issue. What gives the OWS real power, and what is increasingly striking fear in the hearts of our financial overlords and their political allies, is that the OWS tactics aim at disrupting business as usual. OWS is not content, as most of the social movements since the 1960s have been, to speak their mind and then head home to wait for a response. This is a movement that aims to make life miserable for the financial sector until the financial sector stops making life miserable for the rest of us. Like the suffragettes at the turn of the last century, the sit-down strikers of the 1930s, the civil rights marchers of the 1950s and 1960s, and, most recently, the people of Wisconsin, OWS is prepared to shed decorum, break rules, and raise hell until they get an answer. 

This is not a movement that seeks influence through favorable coverage in the New York Times. This is not a movement that wants to raise moral questions by carefully choreographed symbolic acts of civil disobedience. This is a movement that rejects the polite conventions that for three decades have produced far more setbacks than victories. OWS will succeed to the extent that the various national occupation actions are able to distract, bog down, inconvenience, and annoy the financial sector, the political elite, and the media. 

We are long-past the point in American politics where appealing to the shared values of the rich and powerful have any effect. One definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting the results to be different. By that definition, who are the crazy people? 

John Schmitt is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He tweets as @jschmittwdc.
 
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