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  • Occupy Wall Street's Democratic Challenge
  • John Buell (bio)

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has some lessons to teach us, not the least of which is the shear unpredictability of political events. With the European economy under the spell of the most dismal practitioners of the dismal science, the US Congress equally obsessed with deficits and austerity for the poor, and the Obama Administration's hard pivot to jobs both long overdue and hardly audible, it seemed that progressives had little to hope for. In the face of these trends OWS has brought at least some prospect of positive political change. Features that in the eyes of the corporate media are weaknesses may well turn out to be enduring strengths of the movement.

Not surprisingly, some segments of the corporate media resorted to a familiar trope when characterizing the initial stages of the movement as a mob. It seems that any organization without a clearly designated leader and fixed principles must be an unruly and self-destructive mass. Pacific University political scientist Jules Boykoff calls our attention to this gem: "Right-wing columnist Rich Lowry offered an extreme caricature of the attack-dog punditocracy when he wrote, "The left's tea party is a juvenile rabble, a woolly-headed horde," a band of "stereotypically aging hippies and young kids who could have just left a Phish concert." Notice what gets lost: actual ideas."

Corporate critics of course should know whereof they speak. It would be hard to imagine more destructive mob behavior than the sub prime mortgage market and the shadowy derivatives world that enabled and in turn was fuelled by such toxic monstrosities as CDOs and CDSs.

Unlike the corporate finance mob, OWS insists on transparency and openness of deliberation, a voice for anyone. Not only is such radical democracy a check upon arbitrary power, it is also an occasion for ordinary citizens to develop a clearer sense of who they are and to explore and clarify new grievances. Fordham University sociologist Heather Gautney put it this way in a Washington Post op ed. (October 11): "This is not just a charming mess. We are all leaders represents a real praxis, and it has a real history. In the 1960s and 70s, feminists convened consciousness-raising meetings aimed at politicizing the various forms of women's oppression that were occurring in private. Women in the ranks were tired of being excluded from the inner circles of leadership where the issues and demands were being decided. And, they were sick of the generalized hypocrisy regarding gender roles. For this reason, feminist consciousness-raising eschewed formal leadership because each woman's experience and opinion had to be valued equally. The personal was the political."

Whether consciously or not, OWS seems to have learned some valuable lessons from earlier movements. The corporate media accuse it of a lack of clear focus and cite the absence of specific demands as a debilitating weakness. Yet all the Occupy movements are clearly focused on one central concern, the vast imbalance in both political and economic power. Like the World Social Forum, occupiers are addressing neo liberalism in its US manifestations. But as with the World Social Forum, activists cannot help birth a new world through one issue or set of demands, certainly not ones of tax or finance policy alone.

OWS seems to understand that it cannot redress the vast inequality in our economic and political lives by ducking or excluding the controversial social issues that have often dogged the left. The late 19th century Populist movement initially embraced goals for more ambitious than elimination of the gold standard, but the movement's more radical thrust lost out to a politics of race baiting that saw some of Populism's loudest voices become strident advocates of Jim Crow. (See C Vann Woodward's classic discussion of this theme in The Strange Career of Jim Crow.) The politics of immigration today plays a central role in shaping our economic agenda. OWS now seems open to all who will join and one hopes that this will curb the urge among...