#OccupyWallStreet's Failed Revolution


Over the past weeks, urgent calls to action have occupied my social media networks, streaming in from a loose, passionate digital network of anarcho-syndicalists, working-poor advocates, post-Third Worldists, and World Social Forum participants. These activists, representing a broad coalition of the global radical left, have called on their fellow world citizens to #OccupyWallStreet, staging mass demonstrations against American greed, corporate person-hood, federal corruption, and the exploitation of the global working class.

Admirable goals, to be sure. In official statements, Occupy Wall Street activists have called for heightened accountability for corporate fraud during the global financial crisis, a more equitable distribution of national prosperity, and a fairer, less oppressive tax code. And, if the New York Times’ “man on the street” interviews are any indicator, the protestors are also calling for greater environmental responsibility, the abolition of the Federal Reserve, and the de-escalation of the United States’ drug war in Mexico. 

Judging from its evolution in the digital sphere, the Occupy Wall Street movement developed as a top-down demonstration, organized by the progressive magazine Adbusters and disseminated through Facebook, Twitter, and a variety of offline social networks. Facebook messaging for the demonstrations appropriates the revolutionary power of this year’s Arab Spring movements, calling on activists to mobilize, Tahrir-Square-style, around the nucleus of American authoritarianism — New York’s financial district. Try as Occupy Wall Street advocates might to differentiate the movement’s historical situation from the dissatisfaction and organizing spirit of the 1960s, the Occupy Wall Street protests bear a more striking resemblance to the anti-Vietnam Grosnevor Square protests of March 1968 than the revolutionary upheavals witnessed in Yemen, Syria, and Egypt. 

For the movement organizers, the historical problem is not the global left’s approach to radical politics and social change; rather, the failure of socioeconomic equality and mass mobilization is a tactical question. On the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page, the Adbusters messaging presents Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square as a paradigmatic transformation in contemporary understandings of organizing tactics: “A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future,” emboldened by “the spirit of this fresh tactic, a fusion of Tahrir with the acampadas of Spain.” The protesters are certainly abounding with tactical innovation: creative street theater presentations, well-publicized confrontations with overly aggressive NYPD officers, and social media blitzes have effectively captured the attention of local news and digital media sources. 

Absent from Occupy Wall Street’s discourse, of course, is any semblance of a strategic perspective on mass mobilization, the future of socioeconomic equality, and the prospects for change within the American political system. The multitude of perspectives on Occupy Wall Street’s policy indicate the obscurity of the movement’s strategic endgame. Muddled targets — Wall Street bankers, President Barack Obama, the system of capitalism — decrease the movement’s effectiveness, rendering its calls for economic equality, political fairness, and accountability little more than loud declarations of principle. 

Most importantly, however, is Occupy Wall Street’s lack of an articulated, aspirational vision for an American future. Revolution can certainly provide a solution, but the type of social upheaval the protesters discuss will hardly do more, over the short- and long-term, to ensure accountability, equitable prosperity, and democratic governance in the U.S. Occupy Wall Street has unsuccessfully demonstrated the value of an expedient, temporary urban occupation, but remains unclear on the path forward for collective mobilization, communitarianism, and the revitalization of an egalitarian basis for social interaction.

The urgency of corporate accountability, responsible governance, and political support for equality is, from a democratic perspective, indisputable. With economic inequality in the U.S. on the rise, individuals and communities increasingly disaffected with the nature of Washington politics, and heightened polarization between grassroots actors and decision-makers, a strategic, progressive, and networked vision for the future of U.S. politics is essential to the march of American equality. Despite their passion, Occupy Wall Street’s tactical revolution is entirely insufficient.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Click here to return to the Georgetown homepage.