The writing is on the wall. After months of remarkably peaceful protests and the igniting of a global social movement that may change politics and even herald a new era, it’s time for the Occupy Wall Street movement to move to a new phase.
Winter is coming, the thousands of devoted supporters contributing time when they can are being drawn away by other life concerns, and there is a danger that the crowds could become more militant and needlessly confrontational. With tents and sleeping bags no longer allowed at Zuccotti Park, the viability of a long term presence declines. Continuing the occupy movement now risks losing the profound message of the need to expand democracy and transparency lost with the shift of power to global financial and corporate interests.
To mark the end — and make clear that those who are violent and destructive are not representing the movement — the Occupy Wall Street leaders should proclaim a global day of protest and solidarity for the cause of democracy and transparency. December 1st would be a good day for that, maybe call it “Democracy day.” They should call on everyone to come out and engage in peaceful protests to underscore the efficacy of the movement so far and show that while they’re ending the first phase, it’s not an end to their efforts. That way the “occupy” portion of OWS ends in a confident victory rather than stories of police confrontations and declining numbers.
The next phase should be to maintain connections across the globe, coordinate protests at various points (including flash protests to show the latent strength of the movement), and most importantly mobilize and energize especially the youth to be politically active and engaged. The US has a major election coming next year, and across the planet the current economic crisis leads to new challenges. 21st Century protests shouldn’t be run in accord with 20th Century norms; arrests and unrest is a mark of failure not success. Occupation of space is only valuable to garner attention, in and of itself it is unimportant.
The fact is that neo-liberal de-regulation and a “hands off” approach to the economy has failed. For thirty years government has become less willing to regulate the economy, taxes have declined, and debt has grown. The result is a mountain of debt, the largest maldistribution of income since the 1800s, an economic crisis, and a decline in democratic accountability as non-state actors grow in prominence and power.
The “Tea Party” movement recognized this too, and their solution seems to be rooted in nostalgia. They want to go back to the America they used to know. At one level that’s good — they remember an America with a bustling middle class, a strong work ethic, and a sense that you are responsible for your own destiny. I daresay OWS wants the same thing, but disagrees that you can get there just by cutting government. That “painless” solution ignores the fact that the world is fundamentally different now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Some on the tea party fringe want a culture war over homosexual rights and immigration, but that’s something they can’t win — since about 1300 western civilization doesn’t go backwards, it progresses.
Some OWS folk also look backwards, to failed ideals of socialism, Marxism and big government. Yet enough in both movements also look forward. They recognize that high debt levels are unsustainable, that power has become centralized to a big business/big government nexus, and that average folk are increasingly unable to have a strong voice in how the polity functions.
The common bond between left and right here is a desire for democracy and a rejection of centralized power. The left is concerned about centralized corporate and financial power while the right is more concerned about centralized governmental power, but if each is honest, they’ll realize both have a point. Big business funds, finances and supports big government. Big government answers to big money. If the left and the right choose one “side” and demonize the other it just perpetuates the problem.
Expanding democracy and citizen voice will not be easy. Due to the information revolution, the loss of sovereign powers by states and the obsolescence of current political structures, it’s not something that an election can “fix” or a few policies can address. We’re looking at the need to transform political structures and use technology and communication to not only increase transparency but make clear how power is being exercised.
But that’s OK. OWS doesn’t need an end game now, the fact that they don’t have specific goals and demands is a strength. It reflects the reality that these problems require a political transformation so fundamental that we have no real understanding of what it will look like. Right now the process of expanding knowledge about the situation and waking people up to the fact things need to change is important. That’s why the lack of a clear agenda is a good thing — no one knows where this is going.
I hope the OWS leaders realize that long term occupation is not feasible, and that they have already had a powerful start to a movement that represents an historic and monumental shift in global politics. They have to keep this going, and the way to do so is to move from ‘occupation’ to spreading ideas and expanding connections.