Daniel W. Drezner

Regarding Occupy Wall Street

Regarding Occupy Wall Street

I was fortunate enough to give a talk at my alma mater over the weekend and chat informally with some of the political science undergraduates over some food from an Indian restaurant that didn’t exist when I was in school and I can’t believe how much greater their range of ethnic food choices are than when I was in school and their life is great and college life was much tougher back in my day while we broke bread. Inevitably, the question of Occupy Wall Street came up and whether it would go anywhere.

Now, in many ways, this phenomenon has many of the features of networked movements that have been at the center of The Slaughter-Drezner Debates (although in this case Slaughter seems a bit more disdainful of the movement’s potential). If you read here or here or here, you’ll see all the advantages of a networked structure outlined in painstaking detail. This ragtag group of rebels has managed to get coverage on The Daily Show, generate associated online movements like the "We Are the 99%" Tumblr, generate headlines through mass arrests over the weekend, and inspire similar movements in other cities.

So … what did I say to these impressionable young adults?

I said two things. First, I said the moment was ripe for this kind of movement. You have an ample supply of network technologies to start a movement, and rising economic inequality to create the necessary social purpose for such a movement. Indeed, the surprising thing about Occupy Wall Street isn’t that it’s happening — it’s that it took three years for it to happen.

The other thing I said was that for this group to generate more than a thousand people or so out in the streets, however, their message has to resonate culturally with people who would otherwise not want to go out onto the streets. And here’s where I start to be a bit more skeptical. I’m not sure the latest manifesto is really cogent enough — beyond a rejection of corporations as we know them — to generate much sympathy with broad swaths of the American people. And, as I’ve said before, unless you attract people who vote, this kind of thing will generate news coverage and not much else.

Could they attract a larger crowd? After reading Time‘s Nate Rawlings, I’m skeptical:

While "Occupy Wall Street" has become more organized, its demands haven’t coalesced into a coherent message. The only thing its various constituent groups appear to have in common is a deep-seated anger at inequality in this country. For them Wall Street symbolizes that unfairness, but the groups have other concerns as well. Many want to redistribute wealth; others want to enlarge government social programs. Some are protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Daniel Levine, a journalism student from upstate New York, said he was taking a stand against the controversial method of natural gas extraction known as hydrofracking in his hometown – but also noted that the practice can bring jobs to economically disadvantaged regions.

Just as it lacks a single message, the "Occupy Wall Street" movement has been defined by the absence of a clear leader. Participants say that is by design, and point to the committees that have sprung up to tend to the daily needs of those camped in Zuccotti Park. It isn’t clear that they want a single leader, and many think the movement is better of[f] without one. “It’s kind of cool how it’s growing organically,” one said. “People just need to give it time and it’ll come together.”

Maybe, over time, that will happen. There’s a political paradox, however, that Occupy Wall Street faces. Without clear and coherent demands, there will be little to inspire ordinary citizens to take to the streets. Articulating clear and coherent demands, however, will destroy the very gestalt that the people currently on the streets seem to like some much.

Still, unions have started to come out in support of this movement. The U.S. economy is in a bad way, and the festering eurocrisis could make it really bad. So maybe external conditions will eliminate this paradox for the protesters.

So that’s what I think. What do you think?