Straining the Plank: Why Occupy Wall Street Failed

The Tea Party movement began as a set of right-wing protests following the election of President Obama in 2008.  It’s original intent was to institute financial reform, by way of reducing government spending and lower taxes across the board.  Subsequently, it began to add more and more elements from the conservative end of US political spectrum, largely by way of influence from the evangelical Christian right, to the point that the two political movements became synonymous with each other by its latest incarnation (thereby alienating the strong libertarian and moderate capitalist wings that may have been inclined to support its original message).

Similarly, Occupy Wall Street was a serious of protests that launched in late 2011, whose stated goal was to address the economic inequalities brought about by crony capitalism, and called for system-wide economic reforms to be instituted within financial and political sectors.  (That was the focus of the movement from the beginning, and it was articulated very clearly for those who were willing to listen; despite several media outlets repeatedly claiming confusion on what the goals of the Occupy protesters were from the time of the first sit-ins in Zuccotti Park).

What made Occupy Wall Street (OWS) unique was the fact that it wasn’t organized like a rally (like most protests of this nature usually are, including the aforementioned Tea Part protests), but a sit-in, with tents and separate “tent-communities” being set up for what most people there expected to be an indefinite stay.  The protests lasted for months (some would count it in years) after the initial sit-in in NYC, and it’s even been argued that fragments of it are still going on, and have expanding into several cities and countries around the world.  The message is slightly different from region to region, but the main points (it is argued) remain the same.   Yet, I would argue that from very early on a vital shift in focus (or loss in focus, as I would put it) doomed the movement before it really gained real traction.

Like the Tea Party rally, early in its development OWS started adopting several social issues to its already ambitious platform.  And like the case with the Tea Party, I personally think this was an unwise move on the part of whoever makes up the ranks of the main organizers for these things (yes, there is always a core group of organizers in these things, otherwise nothing would ever happen).

The central theme of the current financial system needing serious reform is a cogent message to the majority of people who might potentially support your activism.  People will disagree about the methods and phrasings, but the basic desire for change will be heard.  The problem is that as any movement gains a following, social interests groups will naturally gravitate to them in hopes of bringing attention to their own concerns and issues.  Though seemingly a benign move (and I have no reason that it is in any way motivated by malice), it can have the inverse effect of drowning out the original message, which attracted the majority of attention to begin with, spiraling the whole discussion into irrelevancies that only appeal to a select minority of participants.

It’s what I call straining the plank, where too many issues are put on one surface, causing it to eventually bend and break from over-extension.  This is not to say that the social interests advocated for aren’t worth promoting, individually.  It does mean that if you allow every seemingly worthwhile concern to be heard under one tent, at the same time, almost no one’s interests are going to be addressed due to the fact that everyone sees her or his pet-issue as the rightful focus of the discussion.

By far the most valid criticism that can be targeted at my occasional posts on sociopolitical matters is that, while I spend a great deal of time writing polemics against other people’s ideas and reasoning, I offer little to nothing as an alternative to the (in my opinion) faulty thinking I’m so fond of ranting against.  Fair enough, and allow me to break this annoying cycle today.

If I was a more politically active person (the sort that starts and supports social movements; in other words, someone completely unlike me), and I was setting out to reform the global financial system, I would focus on reforming the global financial system.  If, for example, in the midst of my efforts I was approached by an environmentalist group, or a social liberties group, or any other sociopolitical activist group whose affiliation with financial reform is only tangential at best, looking to incorporate their message in with mine, I would greet them, give them the number to an already established organization that caters to their specific interests, wish them well, and telling them that if their group’s interests ever directly correlate with financial reform, to give me a call.  But not before.

In other words:  Do the environmentalists wish to promote their cause?  Great, give them the number to Greenpeace, and continue to focus on financial reform.  Gay rights, you say?  Absolutely, I believe GLAAD would be more than happy to have your time and contributions, while we continue to focus on financial reform.  Anti-war?  Women’s reproductive rights?  Separation of Church and State?  All wonderful and worthwhile causes, all very important, but if our focus is financial reform, then our focus is financial reform, and it is the cause we have decided to promote at the moment.  Period.

This might sounds heartless and elitist to many, but I see it as being focused on the task that’s been set out.  Strength in numbers only works when everyone pulls in the same direction.  100 different hands, placing pressure in 100 different directions just creates stagnation, and deforms the shape of the original platform.  The problem with wanting to do or reform everything in one go, under one banner, is that you will undoubtedly end up doing and reforming nothing of long-term value (biting of more than you can chew in one sitting, so to speak).  Resulting in the possibility of finding yourself part of a movement that either dead on arrival, or–worse yet–whose stated goal(s) has become unrecognizable to you.

What Occupy Wall Street failed to understand is that there is nothing compromising about picking one’s battles, one at a time, and not being distracted by 50 other equally pleasing objectives.  In fact, if real political change is your goal, I would submit that it’s pretty much a necessity of the game.

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