The Occupy Wall Street movement, well into its second week of operation, is now getting more attention from media as well as from people planning similar actions across the country. It’s a promising populist mobilization with a clear message against domination by political and economic elites.
Against visions of a bleak and stagnant future, the occupiers assert optimism that a better world can be made in the streets. They have not resigned themselves to an order where the young are presented with a foreseeable future of some combination of debt, economic dependency, and being paid little to endure constant disrespect, an order that tells the old to accept broken promises and be glad to just keep putting in hours until they can’t work anymore. The occupiers have not accepted that living in modern society means shutting up about how it functions.
In general, the occupiers see themselves as having more to gain than to lose in creating a new political situation — something that few who run the current system will help deliver. They are not eager for violence, and have shown admirable restraint in the face of attack by police. There may be no single clear agenda, but there is a clear message: that people will have a say in their political and economic lives, regardless of what those in charge want.
Occupy Wall Street is a kind of protest that Americans are not accustomed to seeing. There was no permit to protest, and it has been able to keep going on through unofficial understandings between protestors and police. It is not run by professional politicians, astroturfers, or front groups with barely-hidden agendas. Though some organizations and political figures have promoted it, Occupy Wall Street is not driven by any political party or protest organization. It is a kind of protest that shows people have power when they are determined to use it.
Occupy Wall Street is an example of a new type of mass politics, seen in social protest from Iceland to Egypt. Occupy Wall Street has drawn criticism for its lack of articulated demands or obvious leaders — but these supposed failings could actually be its most valuable characteristics. It is not fixated on one person or policy but recognizes vast institutional problems.
In the ongoing protest camp and assemblies it is creating a forum and honing techniques for working out solutions in ways that spread political power among participants and address the concerns of individuals. This is not one group presenting a solution and looking for people to fall in line, but a genuine attempt to achieve broad consensus among people with different concerns and proposals. It will be interesting to see the solutions that come out of this.
Ultimately, solutions to the problems that political and economic elites have created will be most thoroughly addressed by building movements from the ground up that reject domination over people. Occupy Wall Street and similar movements could help lay a social foundation for such projects to succeed, or at least inspire new associations that can work out solutions based on the lessons in participatory democracy learned firsthand at Liberty Plaza and wherever else popular occupations succeed.
In the meantime pressure can be mounted to make those in charge take the rest of the populace more seriously. A better world can be created from the relationships made and lessons learned when people claim liberty and dignity.