This morning my department chair directed Rutgers media relations to me for a Q & A on Occupy Wall Street. Here are their questions and my quick responses. I’m posting them here unedited, they’re supposed to appear in Rutgers Today on Friday, we’ll see.
Why are they protesting, do they have a coherent message and what do they hope to achieve?
They’re protesting because they see their country’s future–what we used to call the American Dream–being slaughtered by the same butchers who brought us the Great Recession. Yes, they have a coherent message: they’re against oligarchy, economic royalism, income inequality, and do-nothing government; they’re for taxes on certain stock transactions, the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, public spending to address the unemployment crisis, and better financing for education, among many other things. People who say that OWS doesn’t have a message or a set of demands are just advertising their own ignorance.
They hope to achieve a more equitable, a more democratic America–one based on equal opportunity, not crony capitalism. This is our very own perestroika!
How do the Occupy Wall Street protesters differ from those in the Tea Party?
In one sense they don’t: both movements are against the power of big bankers to determine America’s future at the expense of the general welfare. For the Tea Party types, however, big banks and big government are two sides of the same coin. For OWS, government as such isn’t the enemy, and may well be a useful tool in restoring democracy and thus the American Dream.
Is this just a “moment in time” or will Occupy Wall Street continue to gain support and become a strong national/international movement?
Historians are notoriously bad at predicting the future, but I’ll venture this: OWS is a leaderless movement because the people who compose and support it elected Barack Obama to go in the direction they wanted, toward a more democratic country, a more perfect union. He orphaned them. Now they’ve regained their voice and their confidence, and they will, I believe, prevail, in part because they know they’re part of an international uprising against oligarchy in every shape and kind, whether political or economic–or both.
How likely is it that economic and social change will come out of these protests?
When the New York Times editorial board endorses a rag-tag protest in lower Manhattan, while its two most popular and influential columnists (Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman) compare Zuccoti Park to Tahrir Square, and when self-styled extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter compare OWS to fascists, you know the mainstream of opinion is going your way. That makes real change all the more likely.
Can Occupy Wall Street be compared to social movements of the past?
Hell, yes. The journalistic reflex–are we watching the Arab Spring in America?–is actually a good way of addressing the composition and the consequences of contemporary social movements. Did the people who gathered in Beirut or Tunis or Tahrir Square have a plan, a program? Did they really believe they could bring down dictators whose powers were virtually unlimited?
The example that springs to my mind, however, is the American Revolution, a movement that’s more or less leaderless until the war begins–but then Washington learns to defer to a rag-tag army of unruly militias–and that doesn’t come together as a coherent program until maybe 1787. It comes and goes for 25 years before it’s codified, in other words, and then the real arguments begin, in the 1790s!
But an even better example, closer to chronological home anyway, is the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia, whose DJ was Vaclav Havel, the big fan of Frank Zappa, the Fugs, and the Velvet Underground. Here’s what Havel said in “The Power of the Powerless,” the 1978 manifesto that circulated throughout Eastern Europe, inspired Solidarity in Poland, and landed its author in jail:
“The real background in the movements that gradually assume political significance does not usually consist of overtly political events or confrontations between different forces or concepts that are openly political. These movements for the most part originate elsewhere, in the far broader area of the ‘pre-political.'”