And so far, this leaderless movement is avoiding some obvious mistakes. There’s been no violence. As I noted earlier, they’re approaching the police as potential allies, not enemies. Even if it hasn’t worked yet, it’s smart politics. The fact that cops and firefighters joined the union movement in Wisconsin, despite the fact Gov. Scott Walker cynically exempted them from his public worker crackdown, gave that still-growing political force greater reach.
Right now, the lack of concrete goals is an asset, not a deficit: It allows the broadest possible message to echo with the broadest possible audience. Rather than drawing lines and identifying enemies, as the left typically likes to do, participants have gravitated toward the unifying image of “the 99 percent” – that is, the entire nation, beyond the top 1 percent of America’s earners, who now soak up almost a quarter of the nation’s income and 40 percent of its wealth. The “We are the 99 percent” blog is like a 21st century, DIY version of Michael Harrington’s searing “The Other America,” the book that awakened the country to the poverty in the midst of affluence in 1963, and helped motivate the great society.
Today the problem is better depicted as an unjust concentration of affluence, in the midst of declining living standards for most of us and poverty for way too any. A corrosive economic inequality makes a mockery of the social contract that once promised security to those who got an education and worked hard. Both parties share blame for letting the financial sector rig the rules for the last 30 years. They’ve created a debt machine that charges interest to lend Americans the cash they haven’t gotten in raises since wages stagnated in the 1970s, after the Democrats abandoned economic populism. Occupy Wall Street seems to be triggering the recognition of that injustice in a way that longer-term, “better organized” social justice movements did not.
The Nation’s Betsy Reed has a great piece explaining why the left should lay off with its demands for clearer demands from the Occupy Wall Street folks. The left has plenty of ideas, and it even has a decent (if inadequate) number of organizations and organizers. It lacks access to the popular imagination that Occupy Wall Street seems to be attaining. A May 12 march on Wall Street drew impressive organizational support, Reed notes (confession: I don’t even remember knowing about it), and made a smart list of demands to the city. But the Bloomberg administration ignored it, and so did the media. The year before, the “One Nation Working Together for Jobs, Justice and Education” march, sponsored by 400 liberal groups and turning out an estimated 175,000 people, amounted to little, and the Democrats were routed a month later in the midterm elections.
Why are we such know-it-alls? Why can’t we wait and see what starts to emerge from this 18-day social experiment before we make demands of it?