By Edwin Amenta
Social movements seek social change, often through politics. With Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in the news since October, it is time to take stock of its political impact: Has it had any influence? If so, what accounts for its influence or lack thereof? Is it likely to be influential in the future? Anyone seeking to assess the impact of social movements has to ask a counterfactual question: What likely would have happened had the movement or protest campaign not existed or taken the specific actions that it did.
So far OWS or “Occupy” is best viewed as a protest campaign, centered on the work of a decentralized group of activists seeking to call attention to unfair circumstances—high economic inequality in a time of severe economic distress—mainly by way of symbolically charged encampments. They have carried out a series of actions, first around Wall Street and then around the country and in parts of the world, denouncing inequality with a popular catchphrase, “We are the 99 percent.” Noteworthy action also has been taken on university campuses, especially in the University of California system, whose campus police overreactions have been the main story, and at West Coast ports, in alliance with longshoremen in their disputes with companies owned by Wall Street firms.
These campaigns, most of which go beyond standard protest by engaging in open-ended spells of civil disobedience, have caught the attention of the news media, which has been addressing inequality far more thoroughly than before. There have been numerous accounts analyzing the rise of incomes of the top U.S. earners and the relative stagnation of earnings of most over the last several decades, and these have reverberated across the news aggregator-commentary-o-sphere. This focus on economic inequality and hardship displaced the one on government deficits.
This change in the political conversation has worked its way to the top of institutional politics. President Obama’s December 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas deployed many rhetorical themes and frames similar to those in OWS, including six references to “inequality” and declaring “wrong” the wealth amassed by the “one percent” over the last decade in contrast to the minimal gains and increasing debt of “everyone else.” And although Obama already had been pivoting away from the summer’s disastrous attempt to compromise with the House Republicans over the debt ceiling, he would not have given such a forceful speech, in effect launching his reelection campaign with it, without OWS themes.
All the same, Obama did not alter his proposals to redress inequality. He focused on extending his social security payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits and infrastructure spending, while raising the tax rate on income over $250,000. It was mainly basic recovery stuff, based on his jobs bill that Congress had rejected the previous month. Although OWS also likely gave new life to a proposal for a “millionaire’s tax” by Senator Charles Schumer (D, NY), it became a sticking point with Republicans and was deleted from the Senate stopgap bill extending the payroll tax cut.
If the Democratic Congress of 2009-2010 had been in power, very likely a permanent tax policy change would have occurred, along with the recovery measures and a change in the budgetary frontier. Something like that happened in New York State, where a Democratic regime sought new taxes rather than additional budget cuts. In the current national political context, however, in which Republicans run the House and can filibuster the Senate, all such moves were stymied. Perhaps needless to say, OWS influence at the institutional political level has been limited to Democrats. Republican presidential hopefuls have ignored the critique and portrayed the activists mainly as in need of greater commitments to paid employment and personal hygiene.
The influence of Occupy has been due chiefly to its symbolic appeal in highlighting economic disparities and identifying targets of blame. The TARP bailout may have been necessary to prevent a second Great Depression. But the financial leaders and institutions that caused the crisis remain unscathed, having received enormous sums with no strings attached, and either keeping large fortunes made while running their institutions and the economy aground or resuming business as usual while the public continues to suffer the pain of a financial recession. The encampment in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street dramatized this critique and constituted the signal genius of OWS, accounting for its resonance among labor and other activists, some Democratic politicians, and in the general public.
Occupy actions have been highly decentralized, based on consensus decision-making, and dominated in spirit by anarchist impulses—organizational features that have promoted mobilization and sympathetic action. Pretty much anyone could be involved no matter how far away from Wall Street, advancing almost any issue plausibly related to inequality. Labor, student, and other activist organizations have been encouraged to pile on with their own issues, which have ranged from tuition reduction and student loan forgiveness to foreclosure prevention, from higher tax rates on great incomes and targeted taxes on Wall Street transactions. The decentralization helps to keep Occupy in the news and sustains the shift in political conversation. Its supposed strategic blunders—the reluctance to announce specific policy goals, the failure to declare victory after being inevitably ousted from the highest-profile encampments, addressing complicated issues in the ports with simple actions, and targeting Trinity Church—have not blunted the initial critique and had to be expected given the great success of the initial actions.
Some have suggested that OWS should emulate the Tea Party. It organized around the country, with help from wealthy benefactors, homing in on reducing government spending and regulation. It engaged in some standard protest and some disruptive action, but mainly focused on supporting Republicans pledged to its simple anti-governmental program, winning the allegiance of a 62-member caucus among House Republicans. In 2011, that faction repeatedly took the government hostage to induce cuts and rollbacks, and its influence continues, despite the fact that the popularity of the Tea Party has dropped below that of atheists.
The Tea Party is no model for Occupy, however, which should instead continue doing what it does best—dramatizing economic inequalities with its direct and committed protest repertoire, occupying sites targeted for symbolic significance. These might include state legislatures, too-big commercial and investment banks, Congress, university campuses, or the country clubs of well chosen 1-percent targets. To go beyond protest, OWS could do more to prevent home foreclosures (as in Brooklyn and elsewhere), in the spirit of popular Great Depression occupations.
All of this will keep economic inequality in the news and in the broader political conversation. In the short run, these actions will continue to polarize the parties on the issue of inequality. That has already proved consequential in preventing further compromise on the part of the president and will help to foreground economic inequality issues in the upcoming political campaigns. In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt was repeatedly attacked by business organizations and the Tea Party-like American Liberty League, helping to keep him to the left. A sustained OWS campaign can do something similar for Obama.
For the longer run, however, the structure and orientation of OWS may limit political influence. Decentralized organizations cannot easily effect a sustained line of assertive political action of the sort that influences nominations, platforms, and elections, in the way that the Tea Party did in the run up to the 2010 elections. On its own, OWS will be unable to oust the Tea Party and Republicans tied to it.
Yet Occupy does not need to. There are many labor and other progressive activist organizations that are skilled in assertive political action. By playing on OWS themes and supporting candidates pledged to them, these organizations can step in where the Occupy actions leave off. There is no urgency for OWS to make formal coalitions or direct alliances, which it is not well suited to do in any case. It will take a mobilization of like-minded groups working the political angle more directly.
History suggests that major policy change takes the committed mobilization of people against inequality, at the same time as sustained and focused political interventions, pushing the Democratic party to the left, and, with a little luck and blunders by opponents, sweeping it into office behind a vanguard of left winners. That is what happened before the 1934 elections that put a left majority behind Franklin Roosevelt and augured Social Security legislation, works programs, and innovative taxes on the rich. In a smaller way, the Tea Party activists worked something similar with the Republican Party in 2010.
It is going to take more than one type of action—including progressive organizations holding Democrats feet to the fire in primaries and get-out-the-vote operations. It is also going to take some luck—no double-dip recession, Europe not imploding. It may also take some blunders—Gingrich/Perry/Paul nominated, Ron Paul leading a third party with Ralph Nader declining, a Tea Party government shutdown. But what OWS is doing is a necessary component of a real attack on inequality.