Deciphering the Occupy Wall Street Movement

How are we to understand the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement?  Is it, as many on the left insist, a commendable reaction to "obscene" inequalities in wealth?  Or is it, as according to the right, a union-financed, thinly disguised Obama-supported ruse to stir up egalitarian envy?  Both interpretations are partially valid, but let me offer a different take, and one that links OWS to countless similar political outcroppings that have flourished since the 1960s.

My descriptor is "recreational politics" and as such lies somewhere between, say, the well-organized ideologically driven Communist Party USA and the spontaneous, disorganized 1992 LA "Rodney King" riot.  The ancestors of today's recreational politics would include a small portion of the civil rights movement and much of the opposition to the Vietnam War.   

As a biologist might identify the key characteristics of new species, here are the Occupy movement's essential traits.

First, the ideological "glue" holding the movement together is a collection of alluring slogans and clichés that evaporate into nothingness when probed.  Critically, if asked (and I have asked), no two participants can flesh out terms like "social justice" or "ending poverty."  This is predictable, since recreational politics lacks anything resembling officially certified dogma, let alone leaders who can impose orthodoxy.  No Communist Manifesto or Chairman Mao's Little Red Book here.  This is make-it-up-as-you-go-along politics, and the result is, naturally, a cacophony of strident voices light-years away from anything resembling a legislative agenda.

The ideological incoherence is displayed in any OWS event.  I recently watched their Manhattan May Day parade; dozens of signs and banners abounded, most homemade, and no two were precisely alike.  Messages covered the ideological waterfront -- everything from opposing racism to calling for bankers to be put on trial.  There were signs for open borders, a Palestinian flag, and demands for government-supplied well-paying jobs.  Some marchers just shouted obscenities at nearby police.  Try assembling these messages into a sensible political agenda.  Hopeless.

Second, participants gravitate to the easy, "fun" aspects of movement politics while neglecting essential drudgery.  My forty years as a college professor confirms that this is typical for today's politically inclined (often lazy) youngsters.  Who wants to collate mailing lists if one can chant slogans while dancing to the drum beat?  With no hierarchy to assign odious tasks and monitor performance, "pop-up" crusades tend toward chaos.  Beyond calling for the marchers to assemble so as to "confront the ruling class," running OWS is akin to herding cats.

Third, since the movement lacks any concrete agenda, there can be no pay-off; absent this incentive, the only available fuel is passion, and we all know how passion wilts with time.  The upshot, then, is that tactics abandon accomplishing anything tangible (too tedious, anyhow) to favor behavior whose real purpose is sustaining the passion.  Given a choice between, say, drafting a legislative proposal to help the poor versus walking down the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge to instigate a media-circus police confrontation, the latter wins every time.  After all, who can get excited over researching the impact of the minimum wage on poverty?  But five minutes on the local 6:00PM news and screaming "police brutality" is such great fun -- enough fun to keep doing it, at least for a day or two more.

Political participation is one of my academic specialties, and my lectures always cite the great German sociologist Max Weber to explain political successes and failures.  In a nutshell, successful movements must transition from charismatic leadership to bureaucratic organizations, where aims are advanced business-like.  The contemporary gay rights movement illustrates this perfectly -- from ragtag spontaneous Stonewall demonstrations to the Human Rights Campaign with an impressive Washington headquarters and a paid, ample professional staff to promote gay rights with specific proposals, expert fund-raising, and all the rest.  Most bottom-up movements cannot make this transition and are thus doomed to become historical footnotes.   

Finally, down deep, OWS, like so many spontaneous recreational movements before it, is not serious about accomplishing anything other than some fun therapy.  How do I know?  Oscar Wilde once quipped that only shallow people do not judge by appearances, and I judge by appearances.  If you want to shape American public opinion, you must outwardly respect public norms, and one look at the OWS crowd shows that they don't.  Thanks to living in lower Manhattan, I've long observed these people in their various habitats, and take my word: with few exceptions, they look like unwashed, ill-clothed street people.  To make matters worse, their trash-laden venues only confirm this rejection of public sensibilities.  And I suspect that this is intentional -- they have no interest in winning public sympathy by looking like well-scrubbed all-American college kids.  Once more, fun outweighs accomplishing anything.

In general, the attire of movement participants is, in my estimation, the best indicator of seriousness.  Remember the pictures of Southern blacks conducting sit-ins or marching for the right to vote?  Every single participate was in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie and was neatly groomed!  And they made a point of speaking clear English with zero profanities.  Let their opponents dress like slobs and curse.  In 1968, many students traveled to New Hampshire to elect the anti-war Eugene McCarthy, who was running in the Democratic primary against the hawkish President Lyndon Johnson.  Given that many of these volunteers faced the draft, this was serious business, and their slogan was "Neat and Clean for Gene."  Thus, rather than alienate conservative New Hampshire voters, they got real haircuts, shaved their scruffy beards, and dressed like preppie college students.  And it was worth it -- McCarthy fell short, but his strong showing forced LBJ not to seek a second full term.

The bottom line, then, is that OWS is not a serious political movement -- not a movement to be feared, let alone respected.  It exists thanks to a kind and gentle political system that has a warm spot for wackiness and dissent that stops well short of treason.  Only in Western democracies do police receive special training on how to handle protestors with kid gloves.  Actually, street theatre, not political activism, better depicts OWS, and perhaps we should be thankful that its most serious offense is occasionally disrupting traffic, a few minor police scuffles, making too much noise, and generating millions in police overtime.  America has seen and occasionally experienced far worse.

If you experience technical problems, please write to