Why Occupy Wall Street Will Fail

Why Occupy Wall Street Will Fail November 11, 2011

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.

Fuzzy Targets Yield Fuzzy Results

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.

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  • John Russell

    Perhaps it is better to think of the occupy movement as a symptom of something bigger than the movement itself. If so, then the occupy movement could fail, but the change that runs deeper could eventually create the impetus to actually get things done.

    The change I am talking about is fundamental, and revolutionary. Since the Reagan Administration almost all people who were grass roots conservatives and a good number of centrist and socially liberal but economically conservative democrats drank the "cool aid" of supply-side economics. The notion that if the rich get richer, they spend more wealth, and it 'trickles down" to the rest of us.

    The iconic graphs people bandy about today is that the top 5% earning bracket of Americans has seen a staggering increase in wealth, whereas the rest of us has seen no gain in wealth and those towards the bottom have seen a decrease in wealth, especially when consumer core inflation costs are considered. This has not been a recent trend, but began during the Reagan administration. Before that time, wealth increased steadily for Americans in all income group.

    Americans have labored from then till now, the last thirty years thinking that if only they could make the rich rich enough it would benefit everyone else eventually. We cannot say we didn't give it a fair chance. You can't dismiss an idea until you have given it plenty of time to work, because sometimes (especially in economic policy) things have to get worse before they can get better.

    But if thirty years goes by, and the wealthiest Americans are richer than ever, enjoy taxation at a lower percentage, benefit from less regulation, can get tax incentives for hiring cheaper labor overseas, etc. and everyone else who has made lots of sacrifices to their benefits and personal income now are still making deeper and more painful sacrifices… we can say that supply side economics doesn't work.

    I think that's the conclusion that most Americans have come to, not just liberals, I have run into many social conservatives who hate corporations even though they would never identify themselves as liberal at all. Most Americans have come to conclude that when the rich get richer, it is at the expense of themselves getting poorer.

    That is a big consciousness change, the pie may get bigger, but the size of their slice of the pie stays the same or gets smaller. OWS is a symptom of that consciousness change. OWS may go away, it may morph and take new forms. Other movements may grow and supersede it, but: the consciousness change behind it will not go away. If people think now that what is good for the rich is bad for them, when they for the last thirty years believed that what was good for the rich was good for everyone… politics becomes a whole new ballgame.

    It is that change in consciousness that will be effectual in making changes. You are right that non-specific goals produce non-specific results… but it is also true that if your paradigm remains the same your results are likely to be the same, when the paradigm shifts then new possibilities open up.

  • John, I think you make some good points. Most Americans do realize something is badly wrong, but too many of them bought into simplistic scapegoating: things would be fine if we could just get rid of immigrants or liberals or "government interference".

    The one interpretation of OWS that makes me thing it might eventually produce significant results is those who call it a "work of art" – something intended to work on the subconscious level. The gods know we need something to counterbalance the "rugged individualist" myth that justifies and celebrates the excesses of Wall Street and the 1%.

    Maybe this is it. As I've said on numerous occasions, I genuinely hope I'm wrong about OWS.