Occupy Wall Street has already accomplished a great deal by shifting public discourse in this country. Instead of focusing on the need for austerity and deficit reduction, attention is rightly being directed at economic disparities and the deep structural problems that the United States faces. It is clear that those who claim that Occupy Wall Street’s anger is “unfocused” are not giving a descriptive account of what’s going on so much as they are expressing their own agenda (whether in opposition or in their desire for clean policy proposals for legislators to start negotiating over).
What’s remarkable is that there has been such a sustained effort, even among sympathizers, to pull out separate strands in the protesters’ message. Certainly class, economic inequality, debt reform, political corruption, and the lack of accountability are some major themes. Sites like the 99percent Tumblr or single issue posters might have the unintended effect of encouraging this kind of compartmentalization. But the protesters have been remarkably clear about this: no single complaint represents the sum of their non-all-inclusive grievances.
Focusing too narrowly on a single strand misses how fundamentally these issues are related. The complaint that executive pay has skyrocketed while average incomes have stagnated, for example, can be traced back to weakened labor rights and the glaring absence of democracy and accountability within corporations. The lack of effective financial regulations or environmental laws traces back to the fact that legislation is often drafted and lobbied for by the very entities it purports to regulate (or their lobbyists). And the revolving door between Washington and upper corporate echelons has led to diluted regulations and shielded the powerful from accountability. In other words, our economic problems are inseparable from our political and structural ones.
This refusal to parse the structural and political problems from the resultant inequality is part of what makes Occupy Wall Street such a vital, vibrant moment. The movement refuses to frame its desires according to the conventional neoliberal framework, which views economic growth as prior and redistribution as secondary. The insistence on actual change poses a deep and serious challenge to America’s existing political order. The claims are not about handouts, but rather about building and reconfiguring institutions so that they are more deeply inclusive and participatory.
To me, one of the most striking elements of the September 29 list of grievances was the shift from “we” in the preamble to “they” in the list of complaints. It would be a misunderstanding of this movement to try to isolate the political elements from the economic elements in their broader call for inclusion, without recognizing how deeply the two are related. The United States is experiencing a breakdown in the rule of law and our political process has proven unable to respond to even the most pressing national issues. When the process breaks, everything it produces is flawed. And in light of that, the concerns of Occupy Wall Street are one of the most lucid and coherent things to have emerged since the crisis of 2008.