Public discussion of the Wall Street protests has focused on the movement’s indictment of the economic elite, but Occupy Wall Street marks an equally profound critique of the country’s political system. As the weeks tick by, the protests at Zuccotti Park and across the nation are driving home this profound realization: this is a fight that can’t be won by voting. The crisis that most fundamentally shapes our lives cannot be solved through the legislative process. This is not because the agenda is unpopular—54 percent of Americans support OWS, with only 23 percent opposed—but because the system is corrupted beyond repair. This slowly dawning realization is both invigorating—an invitation to engage in the kind of bold, blue-sky strategic thinking that leftists have not entertained for decades—and disturbing, a harbinger of just how nasty the future may get.
What makes OWS different from the mass marches against the Iraq War or at the 2004 GOP convention is not just that it’s an ongoing occupation rather than a one-day affair. It’s that this protest is not, at its core, voicing an appeal to lawmakers.
The OWS turn away from the political system began with the choice of location—Wall Street rather than the National Mall. It is driven home, above all, by the refusal to encapsulate the protest in policy demands aimed at Congress. I don’t know whether the absence of specific policy proposals is intentional or accidental. But I do know that it’s part of what lends such power to the occupation and renders its targets so palpably uncomfortable.
The “demand for demands,” The Nation’s Betsy Reed has noted, is misplaced. What would our rallying cry be? “The people demand a .05 percent transaction tax on stock purchases held for less than fifteen days”? Everyone knows what OWS is for. And its essential demand is powerful precisely because of its startling simplicity: “You know what you did. You have our stuff. Give it back.”
The movement comes at a time of economic crisis and unparalleled cynicism about government, particularly in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Congress’s approval rating—13 percent—is the lowest ever recorded.
The protests are also in large part a response to the disappointments of the Obama administration. Indeed, almost every policy demand that OWS might possibly voice has already been proposed, debated and defeated—at a time when Democrats controlled all branches of government. Members of Congress considered but declined to enact proposals to impose a tax on Wall Street transactions; to limit executive compensation; to fund a mass WPA-style jobs program; to allow bankruptcy judges to mark underwater mortgages to market; to make it easier for Americans to form unions and bargain for better wages; to eliminate tax benefits for companies that transfer our jobs overseas; and to forswear any more NAFTA-style trade treaties. The OWS refusal to articulate policy demands reflects the conviction that any remedies that fit the scale of the problem are impossible to pass—not only in the current Congress but in any Congress we can realistically imagine.
I say this as someone who at this time last year was working as senior staff on the House Labor Committee. I still believe in the importance of that work, because even modest accomplishments at that level can improve the lives of millions. But this crisis calls for more than modest accomplishments.
I went to Washington in 2009 because, like many others, I believed the moment was finally ripe to make progressive changes for working people. But I discovered what we all kind of knew beforehand: if the Republicans are cheerleaders for the 1 percent, most Democrats are quiet collaborationists. I met some very dedicated and hard-working people in Congress. But ultimately the Democrats are too beholden to big money. In last year’s Congressional elections, more than two-thirds of all campaign contributions came from one-quarter of 1 percent of the population. Even Democratic candidates got ten times as much money from corporations as they did from labor unions. There is simply no chance that the little people will triumph over big business in this process.