Symbolism and Social Change: More Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street
I went to protest with Occupy Wall Street yesterday. I was not alone. Peter, a veteran of protests, came too. In fact, he helped organize the NYU student walk out yesterday, and has written about the protest eloquently here. Read him, and also Ezra Klein, who’s been doing a good job of covering OWS.
It’s easy to be cynical about big public protest movements. It’s also easy to overly romanticize and glorify them. It’s true that some conspiracy theorists and 9/11 truthers are tarnishing the movement’s good name. It’s true, the protesters don’t represent 99% of Americans. It’s true that they are targeting oil companies, and prisons, and military efforts that many not be directly associated with Wall Street. But the people who wore “I am Troy Davis” shirts weren’t all Troy Davis. “We are the 99%” is a slogan. It refers to the top 1% of American earners, but that should not be read literally. It simply implies that many people, people on the left, are angry. Wall Street is not their only target. But Wall Street is a convenient symbol, and not an inappropriate one, for their ire.
It’s true that the protests have radical, anarchist roots. I don’t consider myself a radical, or an anarchist. I’m not even one of the 99%, because I’m Canadian. But from what my friend and fellow protester and I saw, the bulk of the protesters aren’t after radical change. Of course, change is a funny word. It was the big tent mantra of “Change” that saw radicals, progressives, liberals, moderates and even some conservatives unite behind Barack Obama in 2008, never knowing what the word really meant to the campaign. These protesters also have disparate demands. But they are different. They are moving the conversation to the left. That is a good thing. The question is: how far left?
To be sure, they want significant change: a reduction of inequality, a more progressive tax code, an expanded welfare state, particularly in terms of healthcare, greater regulation on Wall Street, more protection of the environment, an end to foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These would all be good, monumental changes. But they would not be radical. They would not overturn the capitalist system or shatter the market economy. They would not abolish government. They would simply make things better.
And sometimes achieving non-radical change takes radical effort. The labour unrest of the first few decades of the 20th century led to the New Deal. Many of those huge strikes and protests were led by socialists. But the New Deal didn’t bring radical change. It brought the beginnings of the modern welfare state within a capitalist framework. I think that OWS can be seen to follow in that tradition.
Eventually, protests can move politicians. These people feel alienated from the political process. Many Americans do not feel adequately represented by either party. And so they march. They occupy. Maybe the unions will help give them direction, and more concrete policy suggestions. Maybe the Democratic Party will find a place for them, like the Republicans did with the Tea Party. Maybe it will all fizzle and die. I don’t know. But I’m at least a little excited, and hopeful, that it will lead to meaningful change.
I’m especially excited because by targeting Wall Street, the movement identified an old bete noir of mine. I have complained in the past about the pernicious effect of corporate recruiting on campus, how it makes smart students mind-numbingly dull. At the protest yesterday, I held a sign, pictured above, that read: “Wall Street Made My College Classmates Boring.” I got a lot of compliments on it, people taking my photo with the sign. That made me feel good. The sentiment still resonates. What was going on at that protest yesterday was weird, sometimes hopeful, sometimes impressive, sometimes scary. But it was never boring.
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