This past weekend marked the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests, which swept first into Zuccotti Park and then across the globe last year in response to the growing frustration surrounding sluggish economic growth and social discontent in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. A once-newsworthy, if not altogether coherent, movement, OWS captured media attention for a couple of months before finally becoming tiresome, lapsing out of the public eye and then succumbing under the inertia of its own bureaucratic in-fighting. It has briefly flickered, though, back into the spotlight, as its birthday celebration this weekend brought talk of sit-ins, citizen’s arrests and even an op-ed from a committed socialist.
In preparing for that return, a common complaint of the OWS crowd had been that, despite their efforts, not much had changed over the course of the past year. The same people still remain in the same positions of power at the same major investment banks and financial institutions, and calls for a progressive refocusing of American politics—including an inflation of the minimum wage, universal forgiveness of all debts and universal provision of health care and education—have had little influence on American political discourse. Some of the protestors, altogether not entirely incorrect, have placed the blame for this on the two-party political system and the corrupt bankrolling of presidential candidates that it makes possible. In their haste to decry the faults of everyone else, however, it seems never to have occurred to many of them that their movement itself should actually shoulder a large portion of the blame.
One of the reasons that OWS was unable to effect any real change in either economic or political discourse was that it was continually plagued by practical problems. Its nebulous structure and political platform, for example, oftentimes led to inherent contradictions, thereby ensuring that the movement could never successfully achieve—or even meaningfully pursue—its goals. It had a tendency to create for itself objectives that it could not attain, and then to shift the blame for its failure onto others. Take, for example, the popular cry for universal debt forgiveness, which was a superficial attempt to restore some measure of prosperity to debt-burdened students and middle class families by cancelling the payments that they owed to banks. It is perhaps lost on many of the protestors that demand deposits—the sort of deposits that the average citizen makes into a checking or savings account—are recorded as “liabilities,” or debts, on a bank’s balance sheet. A universal cancellation of debts, therefore, would have freed banks from meeting these demands, and would obviously have had drastic consequences for members of the 99 percent, as their checking and savings account balances would have disappeared overnight. In part, it was critical oversights, like this one, that stalled, bankrupted and emasculated the movement from its very inception.
A common rebuttal to this line of criticism is that the goal of OWS was simply to facilitate dialogue. It was a pressure cooker for alternative political ideas and utopian visions of a freer and fairer society. It was never intended to remake the landscape of American politics all on its own, but it could at least help influence the conversation in the right direction. It was less about the answers that the protestors did and didn’t find than it was about all of the questions they were asking—and can asking questions and facilitating dialogue ever really be a bad thing?
The problem with this defense is that it is far too generous. In its rush to focus on the passionate, open-minded, youth-driven elements of the OWS movement, it overlooks the implicit assumptions of the kinds of questions that were being asked. The most problematic of these assumptions—embedded in the name of the movement itself—was that Wall Street was the most appropriate epicenter, both physical and metaphorical, for the movement, and that it was first and foremost the banking sector that had to be held responsible for all that had gone wrong with the nation.
The result has been that the OWS protests have played out as a farcical distraction on a national scale, serving only to further entrench the same problems that the protestors thought they were combatting in the first place. All of the marches, sit-ins and threats of “citizen’s arrests”—levied against the collusion of the state and big business—have only resulted in more cops, more blockades and more checkpoints. Thus, OWS has succeeded in visibly reinforcing the same relationship that it was trying to undermine in the first place. The OWS crowd continues to cry for more and more state power, but fails to realize that is exactly what they are seeing. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C. meetings are held and decisions are made to aggressively and unquestioningly pursue the same policies of easy money, low interest rates and interference in the housing markets that led to the inflation of the housing bubble and triggered the crisis the first time around. It turns out that Wall Street isn’t the only major player whose name starts with a “W”—it’s just the only one people are asking questions about.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working for Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass. His column runs every Wednesday. You can follow Chris on Twitter @HamsterdamEcon.