Why Occupy Wall Street Isn't Particularly Revolutionary

by by by Jonathan Topaz

illustration by by Annika Finne

“Mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership”

—Robert Hayden, co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, “Port Huron Statement”, 1962

“We’re trying to create a democratic forum for people to express themselves that is not simply reducible to political parties and politicians…what we want first and foremost is economic justice. We want a world where people have jobs, healthcare, and so forth”

—Mark Bray, spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street, October 11, 2011

On a Sunday afternoon in early October, the members of the anti-corporate demonstration Occupy Wall Street (OWS) were not on the same page. The protest site Zuccotti Park is a valley, sitting below street level while skyscrapers mainly inhabited by financiers tower over the occupiers on all sides. On one side of the park, something protesters called “music” reverberated from a band that featured a large drum circle, a misplaced flutist, and arbitrary-but-still-impressive sideshow jugglers. A meditation group, apparently unfazed by the music, sat nearby around a tree with incense cluttered on the ground. Some held signs invoking Thomas Jefferson’s call to replenish the American tree of liberty with blood, and a few predicted the end of capitalism. Tourists with wide grins took pictures and eagerly motioned for their spouses to come look at the real-life lefties.

But despite the confusion, there was some order. An official OWS official sign hung with the movement’s regulation codes and daily updates. To win favor from the nearby residents, the regulations enforce quiet hours from 10 PM–8 AM, though it is unclear what punishment one might incur for breaking this rule. The movement has somehow appointed official OWS organizers and spokespeople—most clean-shaven and dressed out of a JCrew catalog—to staff information booths and take all media inquiries. Volunteers donated food and manned a massive food waste station. Individuals quietly discussed capitalism and the structure of financial institutions in small groups. While telling me about trade unions, an OWS media spokesperson had to pause because of the blaring music on the other end of the park. Both justifying and apologizing for their behavior, he shrugged sheepishly, “you have to find ways to have fun down here.”

Just three weeks into Occupy Wall Street, the group—or at least its official organizers and spokespeople-—had already set their sights on something greater than the requisite populist anger and some cleverly worded signs. Though much of the mainstream media, politicians, and even liberal journalists have dismissed the movement as radical and unfocused, OWS has crafted a cogent and politically viable narrative.

Not So Far Left

If one looks beyond the more sensational elements of OWS—individuals dressed as the Grim Reaper or V from V for Vendetta, periodic calls for militant action and socialism, unsanitary and shirtless hippies—it becomes apparent that Occupy is a fairly intuitive and mainstream movement that suffers behind a false radical left appearance. Perhaps so many journalists decry the movement for its murkiness and ambiguity because it addresses such an obvious and intuitive problem: financial corporations have an enormous and disproportionate influence on the economy and political system. It is not a particularly sexy message.

Nor is it particularly radical (after all, how radical can a movement allegedly representing the 99 percent be?) It is important to put aside all of the movement’s sideshows of socialists and 9/11 truthers, just as I will attempt to put aside the memory of a shirtless and unbathed man giving me an unprompted and violent hug. All of the superficial far-left elements distract from a simple, honest and catastrophic social and economic problem. Sure the movement is populated predominantly by liberals. But their core anti-corporate message represents a problem that is remarkably mainstream.

Public opinion polls show that the vast majority of Americans think that corporations are too influential in political and economic life. A Gallup poll in February 2011 found that 62 percent of Americans want less corporate influence in political and economic life. A Rasmussen poll on August 15, 2011 found that “68 percent of all voters believe that government and big business work together against the interests of consumers and investors.” A Gallup poll on September 20, 2011 found that 70 percent of Americans want to increase taxes on corporations, and 66 percent want to increase the income tax on the top 1 percent of earners.

Reigning in Corporations

As Evan Osbourne notes in The Rise of the Anti-Corporate Movement (2007), grievances about unregulated corporations have pervaded mainstream American society since the nation’s founding. Some have argued against corporations on moral grounds. Thomas Jefferson warned that unregulated corporations might participate in “monstrous abuses of power”, and also warned about potential “shackles on Commerce by monopolies; on Industry by gilds & corporations.” Woodrow Wilson said that a worker’s “individuality is swallowed up in the individuality and purpose of a great organization” (great in relation to size, not quality).

Others have argued that unregulated corporations make for bad economics and, frankly, bad business. Reigning in reckless corporate activity is known as a core economic idea for the American left. Yet, it is a view also traditionally advocated by those on the right, supporters of the free-market who are often confused as unequivocal advocates for unregulated business. Adam Smith, whose name is synonymous with free-market capitalism and the invisible hand, noted that “negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail…in the management of the affairs of such a company” that handles investors’ money. One can draw a direct link from this ideology—people are more reckless when investing others’ money—to the complaints about railroad monopolies in the mid-to-late 19th century, about the trusts that helped to cause the stock market crash in 1929, and about the financial institutions in 2008. Many supporters of a robust and flourishing free market understand that such a business-friendly environment depends on regulated corporations that can be held accountable. Being partial to a vibrant free market and being a fan of regulation are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps most interestingly, Keynesian economist John Galbraith took inspiration from an unlikely anti-corporate source—Austrian schooled, free-market fundamentalist economist F.A. Hayek. Hayek writes about the aforementioned concerns of many conservatives—that corporations threaten market prices and fair competition. He wrote that “the price system will fulfill [its] function only if competition prevails,” and thus corporations infringe heavily on a functioning market. Galbraith used Hayek’s insight to argue for small, manageable, and regulated corporations that have distinct limits on their economic and political influence. Galbraith likely modeled much of this off of the Glass-Steagall Act, which implemented silo banking (making sure that banks are divided and small, so that none are too big to fail) in the 1930s during the New Deal. Another direct descendent of the Glass-Steagall Act was the Volcker Rule, a major part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill of 2010. The initiative is designed to limit the ability of U.S. banks to make speculative and risky investments that will likely not help their investors (though like most of the elements of the bill, it has not yet been enacted).

Stick to the Story

The leaders of OWS understand this history, and they understand that the public is on their side. They understand that the anti-corporate message has legs and can be taken up by traditional liberal institutions like trade unions and universities. They understand that skillfully managing this movement could potentially lead to its having a profound influence on politics, because the message is so simple and unpartisan. But they also understand that their movement attracts people who view OWS as an all-encompassing far-left movement that should address all of the traditional radical leftist issues that mainstream politics has rejected for centuries.

This results in an awkward balancing act between OWS getting all the help they can get and simultaneously dealing with the repercussions of that support, much of which invites onlookers and the media to disregard the movement as extremist. For its own good and political relevance, this movement need not be about socialism or revolution or militancy or hippies playing the drums in a park. Its sustainability relies on addressing systemic and egregious problems that most Americans feel threatens American democracy—massive economic inequality, unlimited corporate spending on elections, a lack of real economic growth for the 99%, a poorly regulated financial system that encourages risky investments, speculation, and overvaluing assets.

That’s why OWS organizers set up information and media booths for official spokespeople, who invariably stick to an anti-corporate message without diversions about socialism. That’s why they set up announcement boards, and why they are now insisting on drafting a constitution. This movement cannot be about the revolution that Robert Hayden talked about, but instead the democratic opening that Mark Bray suggests. This is a movement about sensible regulation, investing in human capital and the productive economy, and protecting the least fortunate. The basic, persuasive anti-corporate message is at risk of being co-opted into an unfocused leftist movement—one that combines a vague set of grievances with a litany of far-left solutions to produce an irrelevant afterthought.

Jonathan Topaz B ’12 wonders if the Dodd-Frank bill will ever be implemented.