The Occupy Wall Street debate has, like any topic of American political debate, been grossly oversimplified.
The question everyone’s asking (and answering with presumptions and predispositions) is: Should we take these guys seriously?
As Americans, we assume there are two answers. Yes, they represent the true unheeded voice of American democracy and have the potential to shake the very foundation of the nation’s social, political and economic structure.
Or no, they’re a ragtag tossed salad full of hippies, hobos and junkies whose vague mission to destroy American capitalism is unclear, ineffectual and primarily an excuse to swap drugs and grope each other in makeshift campsites.
In truth, it’s a little bit of both. Take a look at some footage from the Occupy Oakland General Strike:
Lost at Sea
The principal criticism scorns the movement’s lack of a clear, explicitly defined agenda. It’s a legitimate critique. Occupy protesters want everything from universal healthcare to bans on federal political contributions. Their goals are vague and their plans for achieving those goals are more so. Even after releasing a document entitled the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” it’s difficult to decipher just what the protestors aim to accomplish. They provide a list of grievances but offer no solutions for amending the problems.
Occupy (insert location) has two and only two easily discernible defining characteristics: participants are 1) left of centre and 2) sick of corporate greed.
Perhaps the movement’s unofficial slogan is most telling of their underlying motivation. “We are the 99%”—it refers to the heavily skewed distribution of wealth in the United States. The wealthiest 1% of Americans controls approximately 40% of the nation’s wealth. The other 99% share the remaining 60%. Banks and corporations are perceived as the main offenders. Bank of America was recently the target of outrage when it attempted to institute a monthly $5 fee for debit usage. To distill the motto into a simple nugget of unadulterated cynicism, people who spout the mantra are essentially holding the 1% responsible for the gamut of their financial hardships. Bring forth the guillotines.
As a result of movement’s nebulous nature, the spirit and demonstrations of Occupy often come across as more a self-pitying moan than a pointed political advocacy. But does Occupy’s amorphous agenda entirely invalidate it as a political movement? To an extent.
While a fair number of the occupiers are undoubtedly setting up camp for the cheap thrill of political activism with rioting potential or because it’s a hell of a lot more fun than trying to pay off student loans with a waitressing job, there remains the fundamental reason occupation was initiated in the first place. A vague but undeniable dissatisfaction with American economic system persists.
Much like the Tea Party demonstrations, which seem to finally be taking a back seat to Occupy Wall Street in the media, the gathering is indicative of an illness deep in the economic structure. Something needs to change, and in the wake of the financial crisis, everybody knows it. Nobody can seem to decide on just what that something is.
For now, it’s OK that Occupy doesn’t have a neatly paved road to follow. But in the long run, its lack of coherence will be its demise. If a form of leadership can come to power and harness all the chaotic energy, channeling it into a specific course of action with concrete ideas and objectives, Occupy could become a force be reckoned with. But until Occupy figures out what it wants, it will continue to be a nuisance at best.