Polls continue to suggest that support for the the movement is growing. A recent NBC poll had suggested that 37% of the public were sympathetic to its goals. Now more recently Time is out with another poll suggesting that 54% of the public has a positive view of the movement.
Of course, allegedly competing groups have sprung up to muddy the waters, calling themselves things like “We are the 53%” and “Actually, You're the 47%” have gotten involved, but there's no evidence these are representative of anything. The fact that the Time poll shows a 54% positive rating for OWS makes it seem unlikely that the “We are the 53%” movement can speak for some ethereal opposition. That would already add up to 107%.
But one thing is clear: A lot of people are trying to speak out.
But about what?
Well, different things. Their web page (one of them) asserts, “Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” Officially, it's not about party or position. I've even heard the word “apolitical,” used to describe it, as here on the October 1 edition of the new MSNBC show Up with Chris Hayes—a series I just cannot say enough good things about.
There's been discussion, of course, about whether you can have a political movement that has no agenda or rallying principles. It's like a vacuum that's waiting for something, and the sad truth is that such a vacuum is unstable. Something or someone will move to fill it if these people don't. For example, it's been speculated that the entrance of labor unions into the mix ends any appearance of political neutrality. Conservative publications have begun to paint the movement as “funded by” more formal organizations like labor unions that have joined the fray.
The New American, for example, suggests “Labor unions, communists, ‘community organizers,’ socialists, and anti-capitalist agitators have all joined together to ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and protest against ‘greed,’ corporations, and bankers. But despite efforts to portray the movement as ‘leaderless’ or ‘grassroots,’ it is becoming obvious that there is much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.”
It seems clear to me that The New American is engaging in opportunistic spin for the sake of appeasing or leading a base which is predisposed to think these things. But it doesn't matter to my point. I mention it only to indicate that a movement can't remain agendaless and leaderless for a long time and still get something done. Whether it has already done so or will do so in the future, it will need to take some sides.
Facing the Political Realities of the Culture War
There seems to be a hunger for a new kind of politics or even something outside of politics. And sure, one can hunger for all kinds of things, even things that don't exist or can't exist. But practically speaking, I don't think it's possible to be outside of politics. Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. You might find a new process, but you can't get out of the game.
So, for example, this could become a political party of its own or it could ally itself with an existing party. But it can't say “let's not have political parties,” at least not all in one step. It has to go step by step. Power right now is held by the people they are railing about, and those people will not go quietly from office. Someone will have to run for office, and that someone will have to have specific ideas and policies that appeal to enough of the voters—apolitical as they profess to be—that a majority will prefer to vote for the same agent of change.
There's a war on, in case you hadn't noticed. The Republicans like to grumble that Democrats are trying to start class warfare. But that's just their spin machine talking. They already started the class warfare. It's there in a great many Republican policies and proposed policies. It's why the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer. See my article To Serve Our Citizens for a few examples of what I'd call class warfare by the Republicans, but it's just the tip of a very large iceberg.
One of the great innovations of the American system is not the last resort availability of the the Second Amendment as a remedy of last resort, but rather the peaceful transition of power. It's quite an amazing notion that rather than fight a bloody war every four years over things that really matter to us, we effectively just scheduled an every-four-years peaceful transition of power between regimes that are often quite politically different.
This process of change we use is remarkable, but we've done absolutely nothing—not in 1776 and not now—to revise our individual psyches. We still feel the same passions as people in other countries who accomplish a change of leadership with guns. The stakes are just as high. And even peaceful change still requires planning, organization, work, and sacrifice—just hopefully not sacrifices in terms of blood.
The people who have the power just as passionately don't want to give it up. So if you have a movement that has no agenda and no leader, the opposition is going to say “fine, we'll use our agenda and our leader.” And that will be that. If you want the power, you have to take it. Thank goodness this movement doesn't want to use its second amendment remedies. Good call. I'm sure the non-violent approach accounts for some of the broad-based support. But it has to be prosecuted in other ways as a war would be. In particular, there will many battles to be fought, not just one, before the overall war can be won. Let's not make the mistake of thinking that a bit of shock and awe will cause “the 99%” to be greeted as liberators by “the 1%.”
In thinking through this war metaphor, I came to ponder whether the The Powell Doctrine had any useful application to what's going on. Some of the items on Powell's checklist seem to have been accounted for, but others have not. They are:
This movement has no clearly defined agenda, and hence no clearly attainable objective.
I might even suggest that if one were defined, it would already have been attained. A lot of people have learned they are not alone. That is a big victory against a power elite that has wanted to use spin to suggest that “things are working just fine, thank you.”
There is talk of being there for much longer, but while a few die-hards may be in it for such a long haul, most will need to go back home and work. It's expensive to remain camped out for a long time. And what's to be gained? Perhaps some small things, but at large risk.
The Need to Evolve
The opposition has responded clumsily, resulting in some shakey, handheld videos, taken from awkward angles, of people getting pepper sprayed inappropriately or even outright beaten. In one case, a woman was arrested for what appears on video to be simply doing business with her bank. In the latter case, the claim was that a number of people had refused to leave the bank when requested, which is odd since she had already left the bank and they had to haul her forceably back into the building. That raises questions.
However, if the group stays in place, the opposition will find more sophisticated ways to act that doesn't draw this kind of visible attention. What's being protested is cash, after all, and that cash hasn't gone away. It will still buy a lot of public relations and a lot of slick video editing and advertising.
In my judgment, what this movement needs most is to be identified with people not with an event. The event itself has had its effect. It's time to change the circumstances of the game before the opposition becomes too used to it. They will become experts at responding to occupations. But this ought not really be about occupation, it ought to be about change.
So, to paraphrase advice usually credited to the late Senator George Aiken (R-VT) about the Vietnam war: it's perhaps time to declare victory and bring the troops home.
It would be ironic if a movement such as this, which many have compared to the protests of the Vietnam war, ended up itself becoming a quagmire, like Vietnam. For those not familiar with that reference, I found this very nice explanation of the quagmire problem on the web:
Iraq and Afghanistan have mostly the same issues, of course.
And that's the problem facing the 99%. They may have reached the limits of what they can do by sitting in a park. The rest of the hard work of a peaceful movement needs to be done by other means. For example, there need to be detailed suggestions made about how to organize things and those things need careful wordsmithing. The human microphone was a remarkable bit of technology, but not every bit of technology is good for every purpose. Detailed editing might work better online, perhaps by wiki.
And there's also an issue of simple economics. This is the poor fighting the rich, and it's simply expensive to be camped out. These people need to conserve their economic resources for another day.
It's surely the case that if the group leaves these various places, local ordinances will be rushed into place that make it harder for such an action to happen again. As long as nothing bad has happened, OWS will stand as a monument to why such ordinances are not needed. Its example of non-violence will be confirming proof that need for tighter regulation is unwarranted.
I think we would initially see foolishly paranoid laws put in place. It's unconstitutional, of course, since the First Amendment protects against the making of any law “interfering with the right to peaceably assemble.” But it might take a while to work a challenge through the system. I offer this as an example of an activity I'd expect to become roadkill in the rush to “protect” our citizens from peaceful assembly:
Certainly that concert stopped traffic. And from a regulatory point of view, there seems little difference between such a concert and Occupy Wall Street. It's a bunch of people peacefully assembling in a way that is admittedly loud and interferes with traffic. Yet both activities have a purpose that seems to justify the inconvenience. Why the conservative right is not willing to defend peaceful assembly at least as vigorously as they defend the right to carry guns around, I do not know, but they seem to be rushing to characterize these kinds of activities as mobs and to find ways to end-run this First Amendment protection.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
So if we might lose this so-fragile right, why do I suggest withdrawing? Because, as time passes, the risk is that agents provocateurs will be hired to infiltrate this large group in order to encourage (or even to commit) illegal acts. Once that happens, the tide could turn on public sentiment and there could be a bunch of expensive theatre orchestrated by those in power to justify additional regulations, as happened with the Patriot Act. Naomi Klein discusses this pattern behavior for political power grabbing in her excellent book The Shock Doctrine.
Science fiction author David Brin's ideas about using sousveillance, or “inverse surveillance” to keep tabs on the police, for example, seem suddenly not the stuff of science fiction, but of desperately practical reality. Certainly there have been lots of cameras around when some bad things have happened. And yet not enough. The police feel comfortable trying to block filming of their acts. In what other area where a crime is being committed would someone who tried to cover it up not find himself indicted for conspiracy in the commission of the crime? We need to help the police see that filming is a good thing, not a bad thing.
But remember that if actors get involved to stage an event, those creating a problem may be paid not to have cameras, thus muddying the waters. Police might later claim the crowd was out of control, and there would be no way to challenge such a statement. Most of the police have been acting in a remarkably restrained and honorable way, but just as with the crowd, there can be exceptions and it can spoil things for everyone. All the moreso if it's orchestrated by people paid to create a certain scenario in order to justify a later political move. The occupiers should not assume they have the power to hold things in check forever since they are exerting no control of any kind.
Strategies like I'm suggesting—constantly changing the rules of the game—are used all the time by enemies of the state in fighting wars. It's called asymmetric warfare. It's a way for a poorly funded force to level the playing field with a well funded force. If terrorists can learn to be clever, then surely ordinary citizens pursuing their ordinary rights through peaceful means might as well learn to be clever as well. It's necessary to change the situation periodically in dramatic ways so that it doesn't exist so long that it can be studied and responded to.
What Occupy Wall Street really has going for it, I allege, is its novelty. And the longer it persists in the same form, the more it loses that novelty. That's dangerous not only to its appeal but also because the longer it remains stable, it can be studied and opposition can be perfected, as in the movie Groundhog Day. It's a mistake to think the 1% are sitting idly. They are planning. If the situation at Occupy Wall Street remains constant, we'll see more effective responses. You can bank on it.
If this is a legitimate political movement, it will survive closing down the event because the people and the concerns will survive. People have met some new friends. Networks have been built and can be leveraged. A true grassroots organization can start to form. New tactics can be employed that continue to surprise. What tactics? I don't know—surprise me. Non-violently, please.For now people know now that they are not alone. That is the victory and it's already achieved.
The danger here is that the people who pulled this off will try to do too much, getting used to the power that is within their grasp. Yet this is what corrupted the others they're railing against. These people need to exercise the wisdom to say “we're done for the day.” Another day, others will do something else of interest.
Tomorrow is Another Day
A legitimate movement must show its ability to outlive its birth, and show itself capable of adapting to the real world where real people live. Occupy Wall Street must be more than an occupation. It must be a commitment to new ways of life back in the real world.
Perhaps next it will be Lawrence Lessig's call for a Constitutional Convention.
Maybe someone will start a new political party, or revive an existing one, or just run as an independent.
The field will again be wide open. But OWS holds fast and things turns violent, or if interest appears to fade, that will be the worst.
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