Occupy Wall Street, Inequality, and Organizational Democracy

by Edward Walker, University of California-Los Angeles

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrations have caused, to say the least, quite a stir in the weeks since the first events in the New York financial district on September 17.  Organized with explicit reference to the Arab Spring uprisings, activists responded to a February call by the Canadian magazine Adbusters for a “Tahrir square moment” targeted against Wall Street financial firms, which they called “the greatest corruptor of our democracy.”  Although the first events included only a small number of activists and looked like to many like a bust, fortuitous events facilitated broader mobilization: mass arrests of over 700 demonstrators who thought they were following the officially sanctioned march route over the Brooklyn Bridge, a YouTube video of an officer pepper-spraying a seemingly defenseless group of activists, and the early support of the Airline Pilots Association (followed by significant additional union support in the following weeks). The campaign’s reach has become astoundingly broad; as of October 15, the movement claims to have a presence in over 100 U.S. cities and over 1,500 global cities.  Even if these figures can be discounted to some extent as self-serving overestimates, the ability of the campaign to capture public attention has been remarkable.  For instance, Nate Silver notes that the movement received a cumulative 3,000 print stories over the first three weeks of its existence, and my own October 16 search of NewsLibrary shows that an additional 4,500 stories have been published in the week since Silver’s October 7 accounting.  Media coverage of the movement seems to be following an accelerating production function, to use Oliver and colleagues’ (1985) terms. By this metric, OWS is on pace to receive more cumulative early coverage than the first Tax Day Tea Party events in April 2009, despite OWS’s minimal initial coverage and associated questions about the its legitimacy early on.  Further, the movement is gaining major traction in public opinion, as 54% now hold a favorable view of these demonstrations (this compares to the 27% favorable view held about the Tea Party movement). 

What’s fascinating about these events has been the ability of the movement to make inequality a topic of discussion from the airwaves to kitchen tables across the country.  The campaign’s “We are the 99%” slogan has served as an ingenious and encompassing master frame for drawing attention to how the staggering expansion of income and wealth inequality over the past forty years has almost exclusively benefited those at the very top.  And, echoing the arguments of Hacker and Pierson’s excellent Winner-Take-All Politics, OWS activists have called attention to the political forces that allow and endogenously reinforce such inequities.  OWS has done so in vivid fashion not only through encampments in cities across the country, but also through striking personal entries submitted to the campaign’s open-submission blog where adherents share their stories of indebtedness, difficulty finding work, and struggles with healthcare providers and insurers.  Their grievances are not of the suddenly imposed sort, but are informed by social science to a considerable degree.  (Indeed, blogger Matthew Yglesias has pointed out that some are even displaying income distribution trend figures on their protest signs. Sometimes, I suppose, the data sell themselves.)  They are frustrated by the run-up in executive compensation that DiPrete and Eirich (2010) have described so compellingly.  They express the desperation associated with what Lane Kenworthy calls the decline of the “great American jobs machine.”  They know that the decline in union density is a part of the story, as Western and Rosenfeld (2011) persuasively argue.  And they are aware of their opposition in corporate and elite efforts to reshape politics and policy; this is taking place not only through direct lobbying and campaign contributions, but also through channeling antistatist sentiments into pro-corporate social movements (as I’ve argued in my own work and in my forthcoming book on commercial mobilization of the public).

This movement represents a true break with recent trends.  As many of us have been observing, the inequalities that OWS is challenging have done much to deform public participation itself in recent decades.  The weight of action in the field of civic organizations has shifted from organizations that promote cross-class interactions to a much more dominant field of professional organizations, even if those professional groups aren’t exactly replacing membership organizations.  Global inequality has exacerbated tensions between wealthy donors and the NGOs that receive their funds, leading to what has been called the “NGOization of resistance.”  New industries of consultants and professionals have capitalized on expanding inequalities and shrinking public sector budgets in order to expand their own sphere of influence.  Participatory projects have been incorporated into neoliberal governance regimes.  And, despite the democratic and decentralized promise of new communications technologies, some are recognizing that these new platforms reinforce the same inequalities that plague face-to-face public spheres.

The movement has found a way to buffer itself from these inequalities: participatory democracy.  Activists at OWS sites all across the country have adopted the “general assembly” model of the Zuccotti Park activists.  The model is designed to be leaderless, horizontal, consensus-based, and to involve a variety of hand signals through which public responses to a speaker’s proposals can be communicated.  The order of speakers is determined with careful attention to ascriptive inequalities.  This structure follows more from the movement’s cultural proclivities rather than its instrumental interests; the form serves as a frame, as Clemens (1998) once put it.

Following from its form, OWS has explicitly rejected calls for it to develop a formal platform of demands.  (See, for instance, Jennifer Lena of Barnard College’s photograph, posted to her blog, of the “Occupy Wall Street Journal” statement on the demonstration’s lack of demands). Indeed, this has made it the subject of criticism by both media commentators and scholars of social movement processes and outcomes. Sociologist-bloggers like Brayden King and David Meyer have both expressed such worries.  King suggested that “the moment is going to waste,” and Meyer said that the lack of specific demands makes it hard for uncommitted yet mildly sympathetic adherents to “find ready handles to latch onto.” These criticisms are reasonable.

But considering vast inequalities that the Occupy movement seeks to challenge, having a formal set of policy proposals at this point would seem to undercut the cultural frame inherent in its organizational form.  This is not just a conceptual issue, as support could dwindle and the movement could be more easily co-opted. It would also make the demos easier to ignore and less appealing for journalists to cover.  Although there’s still much uncertainty and it’s difficult to know where the movement will go next — as Mike Davis puts it, this lightning rod may indeed draw lightning — an early defeat of those demands could mean the accelerated decline of the movement.

Moreover, it seems that we’re still haunted by the old dichotomy of strategic and prefigurative politics, in which we assume that organizational effectiveness is inherently at odds with organizational democracy.  As Polletta (2002) rightfully points out, this dichotomy tends to be a false one, in that it often makes considerable strategic sense to engage in decision-making practices that are non-hierarchical, consensus-based, decentralized, and without much of a division of labor. Having formal demands would presuppose the conclusion.

In light of the failures of many participatory projects in recent years – pushing uphill against inequality without incorporating this awareness into organizational processes – it makes a lot of strategic sense for OWS to do what it can to insulate itself from the unequal structure that is its very target. It is a “we are here” movement rather than one easily incorporated into a party platform.  Its radical openness is its key strength, and one that gives it such strength not only to resist the pressures of inequality in its own ranks, but, more importantly, to offer a full-throated challenge to social and political inequality.

1 comment
  1. Brooks said:

    To essay briefly, I think it is a mistake to assume that GA is a political or goal-setting institution. Its ritual function is very important, like a Shabbat, that lets people experience in a virtual form the egalitarian world they envision. This egalitarianism is reinforced by the procedures of the GA, but this exhibits the old egalitarian paradox that asymmetries are masked and ignored. People are assumed to be equal when in fact they aren’t. Where many young public sector professionals or their friends are in attendance, like educated kids trying to be upwardly mobile and who have experience in public sector orgs like unions and other organizing groups, GAs are indeed co-opted (though the term need not be pejorative) by the logics of the organizations invisibly represented by those in attendance. GA actions beyond the interests of administering the encampments that succeed are often already planned externally, or if they did arise novely within GA, succeed only when backed by the resources of a connected participant. It is difficult to imagine how GAs can be democratic with such asymmetries of knowledge and technique of participating members. It can often be quite patronizing to participants who are not connected and are turning to GA as a place of empowerment; their ideas are discussed until the “right” one emerges, and these are nominated and sponsored by the connected parties. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but I do not think the GA has ever been “autonomous” and democratic in the way the ideology of Occupy assumes.

    Of course this comes from a union member who has sat in on many meetings about how Occupy fits into our agenda (though we frame it in exactly the opposite terms!).

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