Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: An Inflated Movement

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is "inept, incoherent and hopelessly quixotic"—and this is from their gushing supporter Eugene Robinson, who goes on to offer effusive and saccharine praise. The media has been awash with such puerile punditry—half-baked attempts to turn this rabble into a meaningful cause. But the truth is that these characteristics—the disorganization, lack of coherence, lack of mission and purpose—that Robinson and his compatriots are trying to turn into redeeming qualities are precisely why OWS is asinine.

The basic problem with OWS is that they do not know what they are criticizing nor do they know what they want. Instead they just want to make some noise. They have descended on the streets to join a protest-cum-fiesta, with no agenda in mind. In other words, they are pointlessly trying to create turmoil (or just trying to be part of the "crowd").

There are two underlying tenets of leftist philosophy that are implicitly driving this movement to the streets. The first is the so-called "problem of the underdog" (alternatively the "David and Goliath complex"), where the underdog is automatically granted moral superiority while the "overdog" is castigated as evil, corrupt, abusive, and the like. In cases where there is no clear underdog, a battle of words and propaganda usually ensues to claim the mantle of the oppressed. This conceptualization of the world is generally a driving theme on America's left. The underdog is to be reflexively defended against the oppression of the overdog, without any consultation with facts, history, logic, or other essential inputs that often underlie rational behavior. Whether the powerful is white, male, American, Israeli, rich, or a business owner, they are rubber-stamped with moral opprobrium.

The incorrectness of this knee-jerk damnation should be self-evident. Certainly while those in power can be in the wrong, their identity does not automatically imply that such is the case. However, this unfortunately has become a guiding principle of the left and a motivator of OWS. The unwashed have flocked to Zuccotti Park, the "headquarters" of OWS in NYC, because of an innate bias against the supposed overdog. Wall Street, CEOs, and bankers have been pilloried simply because of their identity and their perceived positions of power. And while there was indisputable wrong-doing by some on Wall Street (just as there is indisputable wrong-doing by those in Washington and on Main Street, the latter unfortunately far too often ignored), the attack on the system shows a lack of understanding of Wall Street's purpose and how basic things, like economics and finance, work. Instead it shows the deeply rooted bias, endemic to leftist ideology, of anyone who is perceived as being "top dog."

Secondly, OWS is motivated by the romantic aura that the left drapes around social revolution and protest. Acts of civil disobedience are lauded simply because they are performed, generally regardless of the cause. Protest has become an end unto itself, the mission and message are secondary, if existent at all. In a sense, a segment of the left wants to "recapture" the spirit of the 1960s, a time when protest was successful, partially because there were causes to protest about (some justified, others less so). "The Occupy Wall Street movement is an exercise in nostalgia. It’s an attempt to recreate the excitement of 1968, when the world’s youth took to the barricades," says a blogger at The Telegraph. The hippie mentality is evident in the drum circles, tie-dye, and other throwbacks filling Zuccotti Park. OWS is not really protesting—they have nothing to protest about—they are throwing a party, living in a revolutionary dreamworld, and trying to recreate some romantic notion that never existed.

The movement, if it can be called that, has tried to link itself not only to the 1960s, but to the Arab Spring and even the Tea Party. But the truth is, it shares little in common with any of these movements. The key lacking feature is that OWS has no agenda. They have no demands nor do they offer any alternatives to the status quo. There is, in fact, nothing political about them. The Arab Spring has a clear agenda of removing the tyranny and dictatorship that has lorded over the various Arab nations for decades. They have a goal and can clearly define when part or all of that goal has been achieved. For all their problems, (and ANR has been critical of the Tea Party), the Tea Party has a clear platform and agenda. They propose and can judge legislation according to a set of principles.

OWS possesses none of this. Their vague discussion about "economic justice" is meaningless. They are grossly out of touch with any sort of philosophical underpinnings of their beliefs. There is no social or political argument to be found.

Charles Krauthammer has decisively described the condition of OWS.
To the villainy-of-the-rich theme emanating from Washington, a child is born: Occupy Wall Street. Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denounce corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.

These indignant indolents saddled with their $50,000 student loans and English degrees have decided that their lack of gainful employment is rooted in the malice of the millionaires on whose homes they are now marching — to the applause of Democrats suffering acute Tea Party envy and now salivating at the energy these big-government anarchists will presumably give their cause.

Except that the real Tea Party actually had a program — less government, less regulation, less taxation, less debt. What’s the Occupy Wall Street program? Eat the rich.
The sad thing is how much some circles want to turn OWS into something consequential. Whether for nostalgia, a romantic notion, political expediency (look at the unions and many Democratic politicians), or simply because anyone in a suit must be a bad guy, many are beating their drum-circle drums to create meaning out of this "protest." But OWS cannot go anywhere, certainly not in its current state. Instead it just disrupts and distracts, removing focus from the very real problems many Americans are facing. At worst, it may lead to wholesale violence and division, precisely what America does not need. America's economic woes are all of our faults—we should be coming together to find solutions, not playing rounds of "point the finger."


  1. Hey Josh -

    I generally find your blog a useful counterweight for my left-leaning mind. I write, however, because I think you've woefully misread Occupy Wall Street.

    Your basic argument seems to be that Occupy Wall Street consists primarily, if not entirely, of a philosophically empty and incoherent group of nostalgists who are directing their angst at a problem and a group (the so-called 1%) whose misdeeds are largely of the protesters' own imagination. In short, you argue that this group has created a cause in order to protest it.

    First. I think that to understand these protesters you at least have to first concede that they have real grievances. These are people who - because of bad luck or their own mistakes (a debatable point depending upon who you ask) - now feel as though the institutions that influence their lives have failed them. One need look no further than the 99% blog ( Are these Charles Krathaumer's "indigent insolents"? Maybe. But it is a logical fallacy to say that the 99%ers don't have grievances just because you disagree with the philosophical underpinnings and implications of that grievance.

    Second. You say that the protests are an end in themselves. That these people are protesting because they have nothing better to do. Here, you join a thousand critics in failing to understand what the protestors are trying to do. That might be true if they were, in fact, just sitting in drum circles and smoking pot all day. But they're not. The core of this movement (yes, a movement) are the General Assemblies that they hold every day. They feel that the institutions that influence their lives have failed them and they are trying to do something much more ambitious than the Tea Party ever did: they are attempting to build *their own* institutions.

    What do they do at these General Assembly meetings? They resolve disputes. They discuss short-term and long-term problems and goals. They hear reports from *committees* and *working groups*, designed to address more specific and complex problems. Legal matters. Media relations. Financing. Internet presence. Check out their website: Incredible stuff.

    Yes, it is true that these protesters have no single policy proposal. But their protest is not about the outcomes of American government; it is about the basic structure and function of our government. Nostalgists? No. These are the most forward-thinking protesters our country has ever generated.

    Third. Distracting the US from real problems? To the contrary! These protesters have pushed a conversation about economic inequality into the mainstream. As Elliot Spitzer argued in Slate: "Suddenly, the issues of equity, fairness, justice, income distribution, and accountability for the economic cataclysm–issues all but ignored for a generation—are front and center. We have moved beyond the one-dimensional conversation about how much and where to cut the deficit. Questions more central to the social fabric of our nation have returned to the heart of the political debate. By forcing this new discussion, OWS has made most of the other participants in our politics—who either didn’t want to have this conversation or weren’t able to make it happen—look pretty small."

    Fourth. It is unfair to compare the Occupy Wall Street protestors of today to the Tea Party of today. The Tea Party has been around for two years now. Occupy Wall Street is marking its one-month anniversary this weekend. Where was the Tea Party in March 2009? Movements need time to mature.

    Stay well.

  2. Lee, first thanks for your comments. Look, I certainly agree there are some problems in our system, but I'm not sure OWS is doing anything to address problems (even if, as you point out, I would disagree with what I imagine they'd propose). The best that is offered is abstract rhetoric, devoid of any real substance. They attack this arbitrary 1% with a "soak-the-rich" mentality that is neither consistent nor well-defined. This arbitrariness is dangerous, certainly in its nature as a vitriolic attack but also in the divisiveness it will spawn. Class warfare (populism in general) is foolish politics.

    I think this is supported by the fact that there is no political response that can be made to OWS. Hypothetically, if politicians wanted to address OWS, either to help or challenge, there is nothing they could do. What legislation could be passed? What changes in our social fabric should be made? Does OWS really want to bleed Wall Street? If they do, what do they propose in its stead? What model would work? I see no point in fighting against something if you cannot point to what about it you are fighting, nor if you cannot at least envision what you would want differently.

    Sure you are right to point to some that have formulated ideas, but this is not the majority of the movement nor is it in any way trying to lead the movement. Watch the clips online, read the signs, there is little substance. I've seen interviews and the people are clueless. What they have done is identified a bogeyman, a caricature that they are railing against, but that is not sufficient or helpful. Caricatures aren't political problems and they are not something that can be fixed to make things better. This is why I think they're a distraction. Progress is only achieved if you offer something. Protest to cause disruption only works if there is a message there.

    Again, I am not arguing that our system is perfect, nor that it does not need changes. But changes can only occur when ideas are offered, debated, and discussed. Presence in a street, angry protest, and civil disobedience without an agenda underneath is meaningless. You are right that OWS can develop, like the Tea Party did, but I have my doubts, particularly because when the kernels of ideas that may reside in some members of OWS get fleshed out they'll be found to be inconsistent with what most Americans want.

    The problem, as I see it, is broader than simply the OWS and the left. It is a growing issue in America that we consistently want to find a scapegoat, someone to pin the blame on so we do not have to do any soul-searching or analysis. If we can blame the "other" we absolve ourselves of responsibility. OWS is a huge symptom of this mentality.

  3. You argue two points: First, that the protestors' point of view, to the extent that they have one, is largely a caricature, and that this de-legitimizes their arguments. Second, to the extent that their point of view can be defined, there is no clear policy prescription that can be deduced.

    I have two responses.

    One: because this movement is nascent and formally leaderless, there is no single person to whom the media can speak and get a precise policy proposal. This is a real weakness of the movement: it is difficult for them to communicate what they stand for other than a slogan. Fair enough. But we musn't confuse a lack of communication for a lack of ideas or ideals. I'd advise you to read their Declaration: Perhaps it doesn't propose an alternative, but it identifies a problem in no uncertain terms. I'd also encourage you to read this article by J.J. Gould: Probably the most intelligent thing I've seen written about the Occupiers.

    Second. As for the notion that their point of view is largely a caricature, I am reminded of an episode of that I listened to a few months ago about the Tea Party. The idea is that a radical movement exists to agitate. It exists to change the conversation. Policy proposals are for pragmatists and the politically-minded. Protests, grievances, and caricatures are the tools of those who want to get the politicians' attention. Occupy Wall Street, like the Tea Party before it, does not need to propose a solution in order to be effective. It merely needs to generate the political pressure sufficient for a politician to recognize a vacuum in the electorate.


    I suspect that OWS will be around for a while. Before you write anything further about them, visit both of their websites: and See what they're about.

  4. I am no defender of the Tea Party (although I do agree with many of their principles - less so their methods and rhetoric), so I don't have much of response to comparisons between the two, other than to say that when either group is driven by emotion and a lack of substance I am bothered by it.

    As to your broader point about the structure of OWS - you are talking about a select few of the elite, I am talking about the movement as a whole. Without any statistics to back it up, my educated guess is that the vast majority of people in the street have little to do with or know little about these assemblies and "leaders." Part of the problem is that those who might be able generate leadership and direction are so fixated on this (socialist) notion of "no-leaders, no elite, all are brothers" that they cannot push the movement in a direction. In fact, a repudiation of this would undermine the whole point of OWS, making it irrelevant. Thus you may be right that there is a small core of ideologues, but they're surrounded by a largely formless mass.

  5. Let's resume this discussion when the movement has matured a bit.

    In the meantime, this is the J.J. Gould article:

    Stay well.

  6. I'm certainly willing to continue if it matures - but I have my doubts that it will be able to. There is far too much inconsistency and hypocrisy, which is what I try to point to in the post, for it to become a mass movement, in my opinion. But we will see.

    Thanks for passing along the article.


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