Like many people around the world, I’ve found the nascent Occupy Wall Street (OWS) action attention-grabbing and thought-provoking. The link in the previous sentence is to their own site run out of that park in lower Manhattan.

Way back in the same week that I launched this blog, I argued that the chief virtue of Democracy isn’t that the population can be trusted to pick the right policies (we can’t) nor even to pick the right people (check out recent history). But the general public can reliably be trusted to detect the condition where they are being badly ruled: Oppressed, robbed, cheated, or otherwise abused. In a democracy, when the people notice this, they can discard their current government without having to shed blood. With this alone, you have most of democracy’s upside; without it, you have nothing.

The standard critique of OWS is that they haven’t offered a clearly-written program of action. I think this may be a virtue, actually. I think OWS is a symptom of a fairly-widespread perception that:

  • A large number of people in the finance business enriched themselves to the tune of billions in a manner that feels essentially like bald-faced theft. Nobody has been punished. Very few of these people even experienced much in the way of financial setbacks, because they were bailed out with other people’s money. As in, yours & mine.

  • The general degree of inequality, whether measured in money or power, seems unreasonable.

  • The political system seems structurally unable to take any action which runs counter to the interests of the finance-industry elite.

I think those perceptions are broadly correct, and I think it’s reasonable to be angry about them, and to engage in political action: This is what politics is for.

Street protesters’ demands work best when they’re simple enough to fit in a short declarative sentence, for example “Mubarak must go”. In this case the appropriate courses of corrective action aren’t like that, involving things like a financial-transaction tax, separation-of-concerns regulation, and eliminating institutions which are “too big to fail”.

So, it isn’t OWS’ job to make the proposals, anyhow; that’s what professional politicians are for. Their job is to express popular anger in a way that convinces the pros that taking immediate strong action is in their own best interests.

Looks like they’ve made a good start.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Copolii (Oct 10 2011, at 11:37)

Agreed, just because you don't have a solution (or even the right solution) doesn't mean you can't tell when there is a problem. There clearly is a problem and these people were bothered by it enough to organize a movement. The problem may not be as obvious as what inspired Iran's green movement in 2009, but it is significant enough to bring out all these people in protest. Surely many more Americans agree with them, but simply can't leave their jobs to join the protests. There is a problem and it can't be denied (though Fox News tries very hard to do just that).


From: Chris Aniszczyk (Oct 10 2011, at 11:37)

On top of what you said... one of my big issues is regarding the cost of a college education in the US.

It seems to be getting a bit out of hand for most people... and easy loans only seem to fuel the fire.

Thoughts, it feels like we are forsaking our next generation...


From: Michael Hutchinson (Oct 10 2011, at 12:20)

While it isn't a statement of action, I do love their Official Declaration:


From: Steve Holden (Oct 10 2011, at 14:08)

The political front has to broaden for the inequity to be addressed. It has become clear that first there must be a period of what, when feminism was the issue, was referred to as "consciousness raising" (you may be too young to remember that.

This is a response to the media's obtuse refusal to publicize the plight of what it pleases America to call "the middle class". If the media won't report serious objections to the way that the world is being run against their interests, they will have to report the large numbers of people who are publicly demonstrating exactly how pissed off they are.

Personally I feel that there is a certain poetic justice in the middle class (among which I am alas, numbered) being treated the way the working class have; one might hope this would lead to what a Marxist might term "class solidarity," though in the USA one can never gainsay the tendency to be scared out of a sensible course of action by a combination of homeland security bogeypersons and domestic police brutality (so the folks back home get one thousandth of what the troops abroad are dishing out to our foreign brothers and sisters).

Just the same, the #occupy* movements are indeed serving a valuable societal purpose. Which is precisely why everything from local police forces to anti-terrorism forces are being deployed on the streets of the good old US of A against them. It's obvious that the G8 and G20 meetings have just been crowd control rehearsals. Let's hope we stop before we get to Kent State.

By the time the protest has the attention of the majority most affected by the matters complained about, perhaps there will be a sufficiently coherent groundswell of majority opinion that can be presented for more rational debate.

The founders of the republic anticipated just such a situation as this in writing "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security" in the Declaration of Independence. What a shame Congress isn't listening.


From: Peter Keane (Oct 10 2011, at 17:50)

very well put!


From: Alexey Romanov (Oct 11 2011, at 11:00)

In this respect, how is OWS's detection US is badly ruled different from Tea Party's detection of the same?


From: Phil Stefans (Oct 11 2011, at 22:59)

I love to see people passionate enough to sit out all day and all night...surely things reach a point where somethings gotta give...the rich keep getting richer and the poor get poorer...I'm just surprised that more instances of these types of protests haven't happened sooner..


From: Ioannis (Oct 13 2011, at 07:43)

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries." - Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill

The question here is, are we really in a capitalist nation attempting to be ruled by socialist principles? If we are, it's bound to have come to a head. Cake, meet dog.


From: Moyashi (Oct 14 2011, at 17:00)

Unfortunately, for those of us who work and/or live in the Wall St. area, the OWS people are a sheer nuisance and rather insulting. While we little people are trying to get to and from home and office or grab a quick bite for lunch, this crowd are creating sidewalk ans street blockages and waving signs in our faces that read "Nazi Bankers." Unfortunately, the diabolical fat cat financiers don't walk the streets, so us decidedly middle class types bear the undeserved brunt of their cheerful camp-out.


From: Leo Babauta (Oct 16 2011, at 09:27)

Great post, Tim, with one exception: while it may be professional politicians' job to make the proposals, I don't think we should cede them this authority.

Politicians have proven unable to work against the interests of the corporations. If we want change, *we* must make the proposals, and not give this power to those who are chosen by the wealthy.

At this point there aren't many clear proposals, but as you've noted, that's OK. We're only at the beginning stages of the discussion.


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