Over the Edge of Politics

The “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration that has grown over the past few weeks has attracted growing media attention, but not always much respect.  Reporters are captivated by the odd assortment of protestors that keeps showing up. Commentators sense it is important, but they don’t know what to make of it.

That seems to reflect an ambiguity among the demonstrators themselves.  They have no specific goals, no way of knowing even when they will have succeeded, or when it will be time to go home.  Charles M. Blow called it a “festival of frustrations” in today’s New York Times, and noted that it highlights “the failures and ineffectiveness they feel from the current government.”

He is correct in that.  The demonstrators not only fail to call for specific reforms, they bypass electoral politics entirely.  Blow goes on to link the demonstrations to a new Gallop Poll that shows that 81 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed.  “Americans’ confidence in the people who run for or serve in office is also at a new low.”  (See, “Hippies and Hipsters Exhale.”)

But he doesn’t emphasize another defining characteristic of the demonstrations:  the focus on Wall Street.  To me, that means they grasp that the problem is about money and corruption.  It is not just unemployment, the loss of social benefits, or the collapse of consumer credit.  These are concerns, to be sure, but the demonstrators are united in the conviction that they can’t trust politicians to represent their real interests because moneyed interests have taken over.  Government has become indifferent to the interests of the vast majority or, at worst, an instrument of exploitation.

Earlier in the week, a remarkably wide-ranging article on the front page of The New York Times noted that protestors around the world are showing “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.”  (See, “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe,”)

Usually the issue is played in the media as a matter of self-indulgent citizens who do not want to give up the benefits they got used to enjoying but hadn’t really paid for.  This is designed to isolate the protestors, and prepare the ways for their defeat.  But the piece in the Times makes clear how widespread this is and how multifaceted.

Some commentators see signs of hope in a younger generation that is using social media in creative ways and evolving more participatory forms of organization.  But as someone who shared in the hopes of a new era of democracy in the sixties and participated in the protests back then, I too am struck by the lack of any specific focus.  Then, we wanted the Vietnam War to end.  What does “Occupy Wall Street” want?

But the protestors in Spain and Athens, New Delhi, Israel, London and, now, New York may be less about agitating for a new era.  A better analogy might be the canaries that warn of toxic levels of fumes in coal mines.  Perhaps they are telling us that ours is longer a viable democracy, not even a very good oligarchy.

Will it end up in anarchy and some form of dictatorship?