A year or two or five from now it will be difficult to declare OWS either a success or a failure. Its goals are wide, vague and implied rather than clearly expressed. With no clear targets its enemies can proclaim its failure and its supporters can proclaim its success and neither will be able to prove the other wrong. For the purposes of this analysis I’m going to assume success for OWS would mean significant, lasting changes in our financial, economic and political systems which reduce income inequality and political inequality. That’s still pretty high-level, but it’s something to work with.
OWS will not be a total failure – it will have some successes. You can argue the presence of OWS is responsible for the big banks’ decision to cancel debt card fees. If it lasts through next year’s Presidential elections it will shape some of the debate. But I don’t see it having a significant, lasting impact.
Before we look at what we can do to successfully address the problems OWS is protesting we need to look at why their approach isn’t going to work.
Protests Haven’t Worked Since the 1960s
The results of the Arab Spring demonstrations were amazing. Long-seated dictators were removed by massive social-media -facilitated protests. While building an honest government is far more difficult than toppling a corrupt one, this was still a significant achievement. If protests can change regimes in the Middle East why can’t they reform regimes in the United States?
The last demonstrations that were effective in this country were the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s. But they only managed to change laws – although we’ve come far, 50 years later racism is still very much alive. Protests couldn’t end the Vietnam War, protests couldn’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment, protests haven’t eliminated nuclear weapons, ended the death penalty, or brought either the immigration reform wanted by the left or the mass deportations wanted by the right.
Protests work by growing and marshalling numbers to apply pressure. Gandhi basically shamed the British into granting independence to India. King did the same thing here in the Civil Rights movement. The Arab Spring worked by the implied threat of violence – which in the case of Libya turned into actual violence.
Those in power in this country have learned that the best way to counter protests is to ignore them and to focus attention on their less-attractive elements. The early Occupy Wall Street protests got very little coverage from the mainstream media and what was there was usually offset by comments about “privileged rich kids too lazy to work.” In most places the authorities have taken a very low-key approach so as not to generate sympathy for the Occupiers – Oakland being a notable exception.
No matter how valid their complaints, the status of the OWS protestors simply isn’t dire enough to generate sympathy or shame, and no one thinks there’s the slightest chance that real violence will erupt. Protests and demonstrations have generated publicity, but they aren’t going to create real change.
There’s a word for how demonstrations and protests are supposed to work – magic. For the benefit of those who are new to this blog that doesn’t mean imaginary hocus pocus. It means the classical definition of magic: a change in consciousness in accordance with the will. Magic is particularly helpful in political situations because politics is all about consciousness – how people think and feel about issues and candidates.
People have been practicing magic – though many call it something else – for a very long time. It’s fairly well-known what works and what doesn’t. And one of the most basic, most powerful principles of magic is that the more specific and finite you make your goal the better your chances of success. Or conversely, as the late Isaac Bonewits liked to remind us “fuzzy targets yield fuzzy results.”
Gandhi wanted independence for India. King wanted equal rights for all. The Egyptian protestors wanted Mubarak gone.
Occupy Wall Street wants what? Better regulation of the financial industry? Campaign finance reform? Loan modification and forgiveness? A financial transactions tax? The end of capitalism as we know it? Ask ten Occupiers and you’ll get twelve goals. All the energy generated by and around OWS is being dissipated in a thousand different directions. Unless OWS can agree on a few specific goals they aren’t likely to achieve significant results.
Old Habits Die Hard
We humans are creatures of habit. We do things the way we’ve always done them without thinking about them. We get comfortable with the way things have always been.
Change is unknown. Change is scary. Change might make things worse. Mainly, though, change requires conscious effort – that’s the “will” part of the definition of magic.
Most people will not change unless they’re suffering enough or (occasionally) curious enough or (very rarely) bored enough to risk the unknown and make a change. Mainly they have to be hurting. And as bad as things are right now, most people aren’t hurting badly enough take what they perceive as a big risk.
Unemployment may be 9%, but that means 91% are working. 49 million Americans have no health insurance, but 263 million do. If you’ve got a job and you’re paying your mortgage or rent and you’re not behind on your bills you may not see the need for drastic change. We have a strong evolutionary instinct to take care of our own needs right now and not worry about people we don’t know or a future we can’t see.
Occupy Wall Street simply isn’t generating enough momentum to uproot a critical mass of the general public from a system that works, even though it only works sort of, for some, for now.
In the final blog post on Occupy Wall Street I’ll discuss what we can and should do both collectively and individually to address the problems raised by OWS.