Why #OccupyWallStreet does not, and will not, have my support

I’ve gone back and forth on this for the last week or so. When the now-worldwide phenomenon known as #OccupyWallStreet movement began making sounds about a manifesto of sorts several days ago, I was encouraged — and further encouraged when several workers’ unions started showing up in support.

But every time a list of demands or goals emerged from one quarter of the movement, the “General Assembly” has been at pains to point out that these do not, in fact, represent the movement as a whole. In fact, this lack of direction is presented as a feature, not a bug — discussions with several supporters, who are also in some cases close friends over Twitter, have made this clear. 

Indeed, Nathan Schneider has written an informative “primer” on the movement over at The Nation, which lays this out in some detail. The whole thing is worthwhile reading, but here’s a relevant-enough excerpt: 

Get ready for jargon: the General Assembly is a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought, and it’s akin to the assemblies that have been driving recent social movements around the world, in places like Argentina, Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and so on. Working toward consensus is really hard, frustrating and slow. But the occupiers are taking their time. When they finally get to consensus on some issue, often after days and days of trying, the feeling is quite incredible.


Fortunately, though, they don’t need to come to consensus about everything. Working alongside the General Assembly are an ever-growing number of committees and working groups—from Food and Media to Direct Action and Sanitation. Anyone is welcome to join one, and they each do their own thing, working in tacit coordination with the General Assembly as a whole. In the end, the hope is that every individual is empowered to make decisions and act as her or himself, for the good of the group.

(Emphasis mine)

Time and again, when I’ve voiced skepticism over Twitter about the efficacy of this approach to taking on the asymmetries built into the American corporate finance system, supporters of the movement have insisted that this skepticism indicates a failure to understand the problem. It does not — I understand that the middle class has been shafted out of quite a lot of their deserved earnings by obscure and sometimes completely opaque means: unclear or even cruel loan terms, a derivatives market that resembled nothing more than a high-stakes blackjack table, retirement funds pinned to mortgage-backed securities… the list goes on. These were all created and used undemocratically, by banks and financiers enjoying an ever-less-regulated environment in which to play by their own rules.

But to understand the problem is not to agree on the means by which to address it. There is a mechanism in place to handle unruly financial markets — it’s called Congress, which is composed of members elected by the populations of their districts. Congress can make laws governing the kinds of transactions allowed on the totemic Wall Street, and these laws and regulations matter a lot more to the tie-wearing staff there than anything agreed to by a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based group of disgruntled citizens who decide one day to take up residence in a nearby park.

There is no reason, however, to imagine that Congress in its current incarnation has much inclination to do this. The House of Representatives is of course controlled by a majority of Republicans, who have ceded all agenda-setting power to a small subset of tea party-backed freshmen. These members won their seats in 2010, when Republicans swept into the House and made inroads in the Senate as populist rage inspired high turnout from conservative voters. This was matched with anemic turnout from liberals, who, feeling not enough of their preferred policies had come to pass under the new Obama administration, opted instead to stay home on election day.

In a very real sense, then, this new expression of frustration at Wall Street can be understood as misguided buyer’s remorse. Far from being “beholden” to Wall Street, as some liberal critics of the president have charged, Obama spearheaded an effort to make meaningful reforms to regulations governing the financial sector — a version of which was passed last summer in the Dodd-Frank Reform Bill. True, it would have been nice if the bill had gone much further, but as with every legislative act, some kind of majority vote is required for passage, and the terms as they are in the bill are the terms that were needed to secure the necessary votes for passage. 

Now, unfortunately, and for reasons described above, we have a much worse Congress that is far less inclined to take any kind of regulatory action on Wall Street. I don’t need to go over the sola scriptura approach this new crop of conservative legislators takes to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. Take it as read that the position of workers in the legislative collective bargaining scenario is now even worse than it was, and we only have ourselves to blame.

But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. There is, after all, a rather effective means available to every citizen over the age of 18 in the U.S., and that is called voting. Especially voting en masse.

This is not a “both sides are corrupt” situation. This is not a time to disengage from the political process. Taking either or both of those positions is a guaranteed path to failure. And if #OccupyWallStreet does anything other than to mobilize voters against Republican legislators, and against Republican control of the White House, it will do more damage to the cause of the working class than it can even imagine.

And I don’t see that happening. Every indication, right now, is that #OccupyWallStreet is anarchist, and at the most will launch some kind of quixotic campaign of support for a third party presidential candidate, such as Ralph Nader, whose effect on the election will be to strip liberal votes away from Obama and effectively guarantee a win for whichever anti-union, pro-business Republican manages to win the GOP nomination. This candidate will then have the ability to nominate Supreme Court justices, an institution already tilted 5-4 toward the monied class and away from the low- and middle-classes.

Should saner minds prevail, count me in. But if this movement continues along its apparent course, I have no choice but to oppose it with every means I have at my disposal.

As Rush’s Geddy Lee once sang,

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.