What is “Occupy Wall Street”?
OWS is a protest seeking to change the status quo.
But that alone doesn’t tell us much. What changes are Occupiers after? What is wrong with the status quo? As Kara noted in her post “We Demand Better Demands”, there is a complete lack of formal consensus on what changes OWS actually seeks. This analysis will seek to answer these questions—without authorization from the GA—in order to form a rope that we can use to wrangle some sort of perspective.
If we seek to define the movement, we have to frame it in a broader context. Let’s talk about a main theme of the protests: economic hardship. On this issue, Occupiers espouse a sentiment of ‘many versus few.’ Taken at face value, they imply that a majority of our country is in dire straights while a minority remains affluent. This is a valid claim: wealth is super-concentrated in the upper quintile of the American population (Domhoff). Meanwhile, America is experiencing the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression (Cowen). Symptoms include, among others: high unemployment, slow growth, and increasing inequality (Cowen, Domhoff). So far, seems like good reasons to be pissed off.
One problem: these are only indicators of deeper issue; they tell us nothing about what is malfunctioning in “the system”. What causes such economic stagnation? What changes should Occupiers seek? In a previous post I questioned the ethics of redistributive taxes as a means of solving Occupiers problems. According to Tyler Cowen, the answers to these questions have little to do with corporate greed; rather they point to depleted innovation:
“In a figurative sense, the American economy has enjoyed lots of low-hanging fruit since at least the seventeenth century, whether it be free land, lots of immigrant labor, or powerful new technologies. Yet during the last forty years, that low-hanging fruit started disappearing, and we started pretending it was still there. We have failed to recognize that we are at a technological plateau and the trees are more bare than we would like to think” (Cowen 8).
So, simply put, America is in a recession (literally meaning “lack of growth”, distinct from depression, which means “negative growth”) because there are no easy ways to obtain growth anymore. The world rate of innovation peaked around 1873 and has been falling ever since (Cowen). In other words, it was easier to invent something useful a hundred years ago than it is today. Inequality stems from the lack of innovation: while labor and capital are relatively plentiful in American society, valuable ideas are scarce and thus high incomes accrue to the creators of these ideas (Cowen).
This problem is only made worse by government policy. Andrew D’Amato does a great synopsis of how political forces have contributed to the recession. He explains that most of the important decisions that exacerbated economic hardship were not made on Wall Street, rather in Washington. Of course, it is contended by Occupiers that Wall Street has a strong influence in politics.
In either case, we have identified some factors of the status quo that are problematic. There are no fresh ideas in the economy and the government is treading water. Now things get complicated: what changes should be sought? What is the best way to solve this problem? This is where everyone disagrees, and there can be no consensus because the best way to solve these problems is not known. Some call for more democracy others call for less. There are a myriad of proposed solutions to the problems we have discovered.
What is OWS? It is a spontaneous unifier of these diverse voices, letting people know that if we don’t get together and figure things out we will have a dark future. Emma notes the flexibility and size of the movement, describing it as “a sort of springboard for countless divergent agendas”. This is key to the movement’s success. Out of the diversity of agendas a forum for ideas has formed (quite literally: see Amanda’s post for more on this).
So, in a sense, OWS is not protesting anything specifically. It is rather an informal coming-together of various parties in mutual recognition of salient issues. Its goal: to brainstorm solutions. In this sense, it is clear from not just the number of participants, but from the number of people who have attempted to understand the movement in the media or otherwise, that OWS has succeeded in its goal of making people think about the problems our world faces. Hopefully solutions will arise from this forum. For more on that, just read our blog.
Thanks for reading,