Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement

First up: this is not my normal area of focus. In general, I don’t follow U.S. domestic politics closely, and I do not have an extensive political science background. This is partially an issue of limited mental and temporal bandwith (Afghanistan and Pakistan keep me plenty busy, thank you) and partly due to domestic politics feeling a little mundane compared to the complex foreign countries whose politics I do attempt to track. (Which is not to suggest that this is how anyone else should feel about it, but rather an attempt to explain my own personal taste quirks. In a similar vein, I was never interested in the Beatles or other classic rock groups, which have all the excitement and novelty of elevator music at this point, and swung instead towards hip-hop for the first several years of my music-listening history. Psychoanalyze as you will.)

So I have only superficially followed the news on this movement, and this is only a stab at getting my current thoughts on it in some kind of order. I want to underline here that I am trying to separating my sympathies for the movement’s stated concerns about inequality in the American system and the mismanagement in the public and private sectors that led to our current financial crisis — which I share!  — with my analysis of its actual structure and future prospects.

So with all that caveat lector out of the way, here’s what I’m seeing. As plenty other people have already identified, the root of this protest is inequality, which has been on the rise in U.S. society for several decades and is now running up against a multi-year worldwide economic recession whose effects have thus far been born unevenly — ripe territory for any revolutionary movements. Like the social protest movements in the Middle East that it clearly seeks to draw inspiration from and comparison to, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement’s strength is its decentralization and ability to command public / media attention around this agenda. The loose leadership structure and well-networked individual participants have allowed it to converge against a single symbolic target (Wall Street in the current case, Mubarak or Ben Ali previously) while resisting efforts to disrupt it (there is no single leadership cell to arrest or bargain with, and in the absence of a centralized leadership, any subset that is split off by either detention or cooptation can be discarded or disowned by the rest of the movement with few costs to participants who continue to protest).

The membership’s development and memetic spread of public messaging (through tools like the We Are the 99% Tumblr, Twitter, etc) helps it establish an internal culture or brand that (so far) is loose enough to accommodate a fairly wide range of political views but distinct enough to serve as an identifier for the movement, helping to participants to determine who is “in” and who is “out” even as they contest with each other for what exactly that should mean. (This is an interesting paper on the culture and cohesion of 4chan and Anonymous that explores a somewhat related topic.)

The book that has shaped my thinking on war and politics probably more than any other (unless you count Ghost Wars, which got me into Afghanistan in the first place), Abdulkader Sinno’s Organizations at War, has a number of very important lessons that I think can potentially be applied here. One basic assumption of Sinno’s argument is that “movements” or “the people” or “societies” do not make war (or, by extension, politics). Organizations do. As a dedicated fan of The Wire, I subscribe to this view of human political behavior. Despite its loose and anarchic character, I think the OWS movement is a distinct political organization, albeit a very fragmented and decentralized one right now. Those characteristics give it a level of resilience that have allowed it to carry on its activities for the past several weeks even at the geographical heart of the political / financial system OWS (at its broadest level) seeks to overturn.

Sinno further argues that decentralized organizations like OWS (or the 1980s Afghan mujahadeen movement, in his case study)’s strength of resiliency becomes irrelevant in the absence of continued harassment by the rival political order they seek to challenge. After you clear or are ceded the public square, being decentralized and having a thousand different voices arguing for a different course of action or policy priority is not in fact especially conducive to your organization’s goals. Decentralized organizations that want to continue to survive go through the messy process of centralization in order to be able to develop complex political strategies and effectively allocate resources to achieve those goals. (Sinno doesn’t make this comparison, but this also somewhat brings to mind Jared Diamond’s theories of civilizational density and complexity in Guns, Germs, and Steel— societies that reach a level of accomplishment in complex tasks like industry and war require a certain level of density and hierarchy to feed a system that allows for specialization in warmaking and the manipulation of political symbols.)

This is happening now, as the OWS camps set up working group committees and attempt to hash out manifestos and policy demands (and I gather it is several months along in Egypt, but my coverage of international politics goes no further west than Herat, so I’m unfortunately not able to make comparisons with the latest developments there). The OWS participant makeup is pretty opaque, but as much as participants may wish to portray themselves as operating through total decentralized consensus, I expect there are proto-organizations within the organization already, either new groupings being formed for the first time or already established organizations like Code Pink, labor unions, environmental groups, whoever, who may subscribe to the broadly defined goals of OWS but who presumably have their own political priorities they would like to see it harnessed towards. Settling the question of the movement’s priorities and how to achieve ultimately involves a level of centralization, and right now it’s far from clear which groups or individuals will win out in that process.

“The longer organizations take to centralize,” Sinno notes, “the more likely they are to be defeated by rivals that can take the initiative, or to fall apart.” It’s difficult to identify the contenders at this point, but presumably at some point soon you will see established groups like ANSWER or black bloc anarchists or whoever challenging whatever currently constitutes the OWS organizational core, which will either result in those rival groups being shut out of the bigger organization (if something within OWS has centralized sufficiently to counter their claim on its political space) or them taking control and marginalizing other parts of the movement (in which case, given their limited public appeal, it will probably fall apart into something more resembling the rioting in London over the summer.) The further possibility is that the movement is supplanted by another, bigger and better-centralized rival political organization entirely.

Here’s where I think it’s useful to bring in comparisons to the Tea Party, another political organization (actually several, I gather — again, I apologize that U.S. domestic politics are just not my specialty, but I think they interoperate enough at this point that I can refer to them in the singular) that began as a loose and decentralized political movement uniting around opposition to a common rival (President Obama). Conservatives of all stripes and pet issues initially joined the Tea Party, but it centralized fairly rapidly, thanks in no small part to funding from big conservative donors. (No organization can successfully execute any strategy without access to financial resources, and generally speaking those who control the budgeting process in any organization ultimately control the policy decisions.)

The Tea Party organization that emerged appears to have settled on pursuing two main strategic priorities: keeping President Obama to a single term in office and opposing his political agenda no matter what; and capturing the Republican primary process in order to increase the level of Republican party orthodoxy. The latter goal means that the Tea Party organization itself has to a certain degree been coopted or supplanted by the Republican party organization, even as they have had success at changing its internal makeup and setting the party agenda, at least through the 2010 election cycle. (It remains to be seen whether they will be able sustain that into 2012 and beyond; as we can see right now, a rival conservative moneyed faction is pushing Mitt Romney instead). Elements of the old Republican party establishment machinery failed to maintain control over the conservative movement, and found themselves pushed aside by a Tea Party organization that was able to capture and coopt parts of the GOP even as it was itself coopted. The Tea Party lost its decentralized character and independence — I don’t think anyone views it as really distinct from the Republican party any more — but found success for the strategy of the new, centralized organization.

Herein lies the dilemma for the OWS as it attempts to articulate a policy agenda. “Wall Street” is a much more diffuse target for revolutionary ouster than a single political leader (and the means of challenging it within the relative confines of the existing political system much more complex than simply winning an election), which means centralizing and building political support for a more complex strategy will be hard (see also the Egyptian protesters’ difficulties in dismantling the army system, even though they convinced the army to dump Mubarak). Any single legislative priority proposed by the eventual central leadership (in the event that one emerges) is likely to lose a certain amount of support from subsets of protesters who don’t see that as the main priority or don’t trust Congress to actually enact systemic reforms (with good reason). Maybe they can overcome this and reach consensus behind this, but the legislative process doesn’t particularly play to their strengths.

OWS could instead seek to follow the Tea Party model and capture the Democratic primary process in order to shift the party orthodoxy leftwards on economic inequality issues. I think it’s an open question at this point whether it will continue over the long term. I think this is in part because the Democrats still constitute a much broader and less ideologically orthodox political coalition than the Republicans at this point. This appears to be part of a broader trend of ideological polarization and political sorting in American political history, a process which the Republicans seem to be much further along in than the Democrats (and which, thanks in particular to the Senate’s overrepresentation of the rural south and west, they can survive on despite the Democrats potentially representing a much broader group of interests). Because of this, I would guess that a decent plurality of OWS protesters and liberal protesters in general are probably inclined to view the Democratic party as just as complicit as everyone else in the country’s inequality; for this view, see Glenn Greenwald (and my militant-vegan-anarchist brother whenever I’m home for the holidays). The Tea Partiers, however outraged they might be by RINO apostasy, were ultimately willing to follow a program that involved the cooptation rather than replacement of one of the two largest political organizations in the country.

I haven’t seen signs yet that OWS has reached the strength, reach, or level of coordination (all characteristics of a relatively centralized political organization) where it can start primarying Democratic incumbents and then carry them through to election (and I’m not even sure if the movement has even suggested an interest in such a strategy at this point). The Democratic party’s presidential candidate is already effectively locked in and can only be pushed so far in the absence of a primary process, as he already expects to have to tack to the center for the general election (and at this point probably has considerably more resources to resist the OWS’ challenge than the OWS can bring to bear against him, even assuming they could talk Ralph Nader into throwing in once again). Soros rumors aside, OWS doesn’t appear to have any sizable financial resources behind it yet with which to support a down-ticket pressure strategy, or any other strategy beyond the decentralized seizure of abandoned space.

In the absence of an OWS capture (even partial) of the Democratic Party, though, it’s hard for me to see what other options are going to be available to it over the medium to long term. I suppose the oncoming European recession could spark an even deeper worldwide depression that could more drastically shake up the rules of the game, but right now I think the American political system is simply too strong for a poorly funded, poorly organized, brand-new political organization to completely overturn it from the outside, no matter how resilient it may be over the short term and effective it is at temporarily seizing a media spotlight. Decentralized political organizations have a potentially very powerful set of advantages, but they only apply in certain contexts. OWS has the potential to disrupt the terms of political debate and set the stage for another organization to take up its mandate, but in its current form, I do not think it is going to be the one implementing the changes it seeks.

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2 responses to “Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement

  1. Pingback: Can Occupy Wall Street Win?

  2. Pingback: So You Want to Be Paid to Sit at a Desk and Think About Things | colin cookman

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