Occupy Wall Street: A Twenty-First Century Populist Movement?

Just over a month since protesters first hit the streets of lower Manhattan, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is well on its way to becoming the first major populist movement on the U.S. left since the 1930s. This direct action, initially ignored by the mainstream media and treated skeptically by liberal critics, swelled at a startling rate, attracting an increasingly diverse group of participants, and inspiring similar phenomena in hundreds of cities. Why has this novel form of protest been successful so far, what potential does it have as a sustained social movement, and what challenges does it face going forward?

The movement’s surprising initial success owes much to a novel expression of what we might call an open-source populism. OWS and its slogan “we are the 99 percent” have antecedents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when populists framed their struggle as one of the common people against a tiny moneyed elite. Such dreams of unity always elide real differences both demographic and political. Yet in this case the economic crisis has had such far-reaching effects, and the culprits are so clear, that the fantasy of unity is understandable and credible. Indeed, what could better affirm its broad, hegemonic quality than the endorsements of Russell Simmons, Slavoj Zizek, and Suze Orman?

While OWS draws a lot of its style from the New Left, substantively it resembles movements from the 1930s or the 1890s more than the 1960s. In part this is because economic issues have returned to center stage. However, this is not a simple return to the New Deal, nor should it be. Liberal writers such as Todd Gitlin and Michael Kazin have argued that the decline of that project is due in part to the emergence of black power and other identity-based movements in the 1960s and 1970s. For these class universalists, the new emphases on race, nationality, gender, and sexuality might have had a dramatic impact for marginalized groups, but they helped destroy the progressive populist vision and allowed the Right to gain control of the national political agenda by asserting its own.

Yet the demand for both inclusion and self-determination by these groups was inevitable given the limitations of both the People’s Party and the New Deal on those very grounds. Indeed, conservatives were able to posit their own populist project in the 1960s precisely because racism has run so deep in American political culture. Conservative strategists saw opportunities across the long civil rights era to win over white working- and middle-class voters to the Republican Party by associating the liberal state with people of color, an alliance they claimed squeezed honest, hardworking whites in the middle.

OWS is better historically situated to take on issues of exclusion. While the Right gained increasing control over the national political agenda after the 1960s, movements of antiracism, black, Latino, and Asian empowerment, feminism, and LGBT liberation also advanced, transforming how American society deals with these forms of exclusion in law, policy, and culture. Just as important, the U.S. workforce itself has become far more female, more multiethnic, and more multinational. Unlike the 1960s (or the 1890s) when the popular image of the American worker was white and male, labor is increasingly identified with immigrants and workers of color, especially women of color. For these reasons, populist assertions on the left today are more inclusive and credible than they were in previous populist movements. In order to be successful OWS will have to draw in the groups most affected by the mortgage crisis, joblessness, and other aspects of the recession, which means blacks and Latinos. For example, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute study African Americans face not recession but depression-like conditions in six U.S. cities. A new sub-movement called Occupy the Hood is highlighting the connection between race and class as it works to draw in more people of color.

THE OCCUPY movements’ claim of broad representation was ingeniously strengthened by the initial lack of specific demands or formal organizational structure. This direct-democratic impulse left the occupation what Ernesto Laclau calls an “empty signifier”—it allows a diverse array of people to attach to it their own grievances, and participate in their own way. This opens up the possibility for groups excluded from prior notions of populist majoritarianism—blacks, Latinos, LGBT folks, and women–to insist on full inclusion and direct participation.

The “99 percent” meme skirts another difficulty for the Left since the 1960s: nationalism. The post-60s Left has opposed chauvinism, imperialism, and nativism, but the 99 percent can be viewed in a patriotic light: it is a national identification insofar as it demands changes in the U.S. political system. Yet the term is vague enough to include both the citizen and the noncitizen immigrant. And by identifying Wall Street as the enemy in an era of neoliberalism, the 99 percent also stands for humanity across borders in alliance against a common global foe.

The moment it engaged in an extralegal direct action in the heart of New York’s financial district, OWS radically opened up the terrain of the possible. It performed the rage felt by millions of Americans about the economic and political wreckage wrought by the financial sector. The occupation symbolically broke out of the business-as-usual, incremental reform politics that typify progressivism today, offering instead a protest that indicts not just Wall Street but both major parties for the crisis in which we find ourselves. The principled militancy of the occupation inevitably resulted in police violence early on, but this only served to underscore the drama of the action and the conviction of the actors involved, while metaphorically playing out the brutality of the system being protected. Footage of the gratuitous pepper-spraying of a young woman by NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, along with images of bloodied protesters, went viral on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, making the silence from the mainstream media at the beginning on the occupation irrelevant. With social media OWS created its own compelling and easily digestible spectacle.

The antiauthoritarian orientation of many of the first occupiers contributed not only to OWS’s militancy but also to a horizontal, egalitarian, and creative style of protest, which has inspired participants and made clear its autonomy from the ossified institutions that currently run politics—including progressive institutions such as unions and other inside-the-beltway groups. The immediate antecedent of OWS’s organizational style are the counter-globalization protests of the 1990s, which, cresting in the powerful yet short-lived “Battle in Seattle,” emphasized participatory democracy and direct action for principled and strategic reasons. But while the actors in that social movement sought broad alliances with labor and environmentalists in opposition to multinational capital and global financial institutions, the targets were too abstract and the protesters too marginal to do more than grab occasional headlines. Under current conditions, however, that model has proved its worth, politically and strategically.

The ubiquitous use of the tools of social media has aided the attempt to remain democratic and “leaderless.” Forging ahead in uncharted political territory, the “open-source populism” of this potential social movement seems committed to empowering the multitude of voices of the 99 percent to speak. This is not to suggest the activists have no structure; they have implemented an inclusive, participatory, and consensus-based set of rules and practices at general assemblies to guide their organizing, decision-making, and direct actions. Smaller committees or working groups focus on specific themes or tasks to be taken up in more depth and then brought back to the broader group for discussion and action. This flattened and democratic model suggests that OWS might be leaderless, but it is not rudderless. Assuming the assemblies stay inclusive and don’t get paralyzed by ideological rigidity or agents provocateurs, OWS has the potential to continue to grow while maintaining its open-source and democratic decision-making structure.

OF COURSE this movement faces many challenges, from without and within. The most significant external challenge the protesters will face (besides the coming winter weather) is outright state repression. As the occupation spreads to cities across the country and around the world, local police directed by political elites might infiltrate, attack, or bring trumped-up charges against protesters, as has already happened in Boston and other cities. While this could backfire and add more fuel to the fire (as happened with the pepper-spray incident and when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to remove occupiers under the pretense of cleaning up Zuccotti Park), challenges to political and economic elites remain vulnerable to various forms of state aggression. Given the extraordinary rein given by the Obama administration to the FBI and its recent harassment of antiwar activists, we should assume that the movement will become a target, if it hasn’t already.

But OWS’s internal challenges are just as important. First, while OWS has the potential to overcome the racial and nativist limitations of its populist forebears, there is still much work to do. The commonality of the claim to the 99 percent could become a belief in a homogeneity that flattens out important distinctions that we should acknowledge, struggle with, and benefit from. Participants need to learn how to confront internal forms of hierarchy, and understand the ways that different social locations of participants (according to race, gender, class, and sexuality) can shape movement culture, structure, and strategy, and even the content of demands. It is encouraging that many of the occupations are already raising and struggling with these issues. At the same time, such struggles should not devolve into self-criticism circles that paralyze the hard-won populist character of the movement against its common enemies.

Second, the movement will need to develop clear organizational tools that can help build, sustain, and prevent it from being undermined. While consensus is an honorable goal, as a decision-making structure it has major problems and trade-offs. It is democratic and participatory in small groups, but in large groups it allows small minorities to stymie majoritarian will by vetoing proposals. Consensus has frustrated the potential of many organizations that value direct democracy. The use of consensus in the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1970s, for example, allowed police infiltrators to sow discord and prevent action. OWS will also need to channel its energy toward specific goals at some point, although in our view, the broad critique of capitalism and the failure of democracy inherent in the current message allows for the assemblage of a broad counter-hegemonic movement, one that may foster numerous organizations with differing but associated goals, as has been the case with all large social movements.

Finally, OWS will require vigilance to avoid co-optation by other political organizations or the Democratic Party. The participation of labor, for instance, has been extraordinary and essential to OWS’s current buoyancy (and overcomes the 1960s legacy of the divide between “hardhats” and the antiwar and black freedom movements). But union participation may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, while unions can provide bodies, resources, and organizational power, they can also potentially steer the movement away from the dramatic militancy that struck such a chord to begin with. Insofar as organized labor is a core constituency of the Democratic Party, the temptation of unions to try to direct OWS toward the party or the Obama re-election campaign will be hard to resist. Vital social movements always have their greatest impact outside conventional channels where their moral power is most compelling, their demands remain uncompromised, and they are free to pursue a wide range of disruptive actions.

Yet despite these external and internal challenges, we are confident the protesters will stay true to their core critique of the nation’s financial interests and broken political system, as well as OWS’s radically democratic ethos. OWS is a uniquely twenty-first century movement committed to end elite rule and establish genuine democracy, and we hope that the protesters continue to garner the crucial resources necessary to sustain it. If the movement can overcome the inevitable challenges facing those who confront extreme concentrations of economic and political power, Occupy Wall Street and its model of open-source populism has the potential to be as transformative as prior populist movements on the left—or even more so.

Joe Lowndes is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, and author of From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism. Dorian Warren is an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Image: David Shankbone, Flickr creative commons, 10/6/11