Democratic Participation and The Tactics of Occupy Wall Street

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar rj says:

    If they want to raise “awareness” and show that they’re angry, then a very public tantrum lacking concrete goals is as good a way as any to do so.  If all they want to do is express themselves, then OWS as presently constituted certainly does the job.  They can atomize into a hundred little sub-tantrums sharing one space and go to bed at the end of the day knowing that they haven’t compromised with a rotten system.

    As for everyone else, we go from interest, to apprehensive support, to bemusement, to annoyance.  That doesn’t mean I think the NYPD should have open season on them.  It means that the movement is so “independent” that it is on its own little planet.Report

  2. Avatar Roger says:


    The best reason I can come up for in abandoning a “confrontational, obnoxious, disruptive approach” is that it seems to fellow Americans as like trying to influence your parents via a temper tantrum. Yeah, it has our attention. I am not sure it does anything to legitimize the complaints.

     “When more unruly avenues are being explored, suddenly our creaky institutions become beacons of the public will…”

    I wouldn’t expect libertarians to endorse unruly avenues that they believe can lead to coercion or violence. That path is worse than existing institutions. The fact that they want better tactics and institutions doesn’t lead to the conclusion that they should support worse.

    And yes, this movement has already been successful, unquestionably.

    At illustrating that these folks are clueless how to create value for themselves and others — yes. They are stuck in a zero sum, win lose model of the world and are crying for a larger share of the cookies. Pathetic!Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

      Crying for a larger share of the cookies? Have you seen the pie chart on the distribution of wealth in the US (PBS Newshour)? Or Here’s What The Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About,

      Unemployment. Three years after the financial crisis, the unemployment rate is still at the highest level since the Great Depression (except for a brief blip in the early 1980s)

      Jobs are scarce, so many adults have given up looking for them. Thus, a sharp decline in the “participation ratio.”

      And it’s not like unemployment these days is a quick, painful jolt: A record percentage of unemployed people have been unemployed for longer than 6 months.

      And it’s not just construction workers who can’t find jobs. The median duration of all unemployment is also near an all-time high.

      That 9% rate, by the way, equates to 14 million Americans—people who want to work but can’t find a job.

      And that’s just people who meet the strict criteria for “unemployed.” Include people working part-time who want to work full-time, plus some people who haven’t looked for a job in a while, and unemployment’s at 17%

      Put differently, this is the lowest percentage of Americans with jobs since the early 1980s (And the boom prior to that, by the way, was from women entering the workforce).

      And now we turn to the other side of this issue… the Americans for whom life has never been better. The OWNERS.

      Corporate profits just hit another all-time high.

      Corporate profits as a percent of the economy are near a record all-time high. With the exception of a brief happy period in 2007 (just before the crash), profits are higher than they’ve been since the 1950s. And they are VASTLY higher than they’ve been for most of the intervening half-century.

      CEO pay is now 350X the average worker’s, up from 50X from 1960-1985.

      CEO pay has skyrocketed 300% since 1990. Corporate profits have doubled. Average “production worker” pay has increased 4%. The minimum wage has dropped. (All numbers adjusted for inflation).

      After adjusting for inflation, average hourly earnings haven’t increased in 50 years.

      In short… while CEOs and shareholders have been cashing in, wages as a percent of the economy have dropped to an all-time low.

      In other words, in the struggle between “labor” and “capital,” capital has basically won.


      • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


        I am not disputing the state of the economy. I am definitely disputing the zero sum, win/lose way those headlines, Michael (and much of the rhetoric of OWS) convey the world.

        The reason we are anywhere from 20 to 100 times more prosperous than all the other generations ever — in the history of the entire human race — is because we created wealth. Wealth can be created and the path is voluntary division of labor and exchange. It is a positive sum win win process with a dynamic of perpetual problem solving around the needs of consumers.

        When the process is misperceived as a win/lose struggle between interacting parties we are stepping back into the fished up world of the 10,000 prior societies that believed the path to prosperity is theft, coercion, master palnning and other forms of destructive win/lose squabbling.

        Free enterprise is not a system of business or CEO’s or labor or consumers winning at the other (voluntarily interacting) group’s expense. It is them both winning — by definition.

        I am not going to argue that there are not problems with cronyism or excessive regulations or privilege seekers. I will certainly argue that these are what threw sand in our system. To try to solve it with more sand is remarkably, pathetically catastrophic. The downside isn’t stagnation, it is the impoverishment and/or death of 6 out of 7 billion people.Report

        • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

          Roger, let’s bracket the previous generations and just compare amongst the democratic, developed world, say OECD members. Do you characterize societies with more progressive rates of taxation and more generous social welfare provision as beset by coercion and destructive win/lose interactions? Would you characterize the more social democratic outlook that more or less prevails in the rest of the developed world as smothering of opportunities for free enterprise, voluntary exchange, and win/win, prosperity generating interactions?

          Part of the ethos of the Occupy movement, as I read it, is to urge a reassessing of the status quo: What are the social cohesion based downsides of the current income/wealth distribution in the US? How does that inequality show up in other spheres of our society, health outcomes and educational opportunities for instance? Are the current wealth and income distributions in the US absolutely necessary to incent innovation? When CEOs were paid “only” 50x the average worker’s pay were they significantly less productive than CEOs paid 350x the average worker? What structures can the government put into place to ensure that more people have more opportunities?

          In my view, absent state action, social classes will tend to ossify. The wealthy and middle classes will use their advantages to perpetuate their advantage over the rest. The issue then becomes a lack of the human, social, and traditional capital to compete with classes that have tremendous stores of capital. Just as I see a class conflict that needs managing so the poor aren’t ground into the dust, there is a management-labor conflict that also needs managing. If the interactions between labor and management were so defined by win-win outcomes, there would be little difficulty as to how to divvy up the pie. Where should the gains from productivity go, higher salaries in the executive suites and dividends to shareholders or higher pay for the average employee? The levers to influence such things aren’t always obvious (and perhaps open to abuse). And yet, the government does have tools in its toolbox to steer in another direction. On CEO pay another PBS Newshour clip worth watching.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

            Creon, I will bracket our conversation to recent generations for argument’s sake, but will caution that it takes our attention off the larger picture of the role of positive sum creation, which is at the heart of the great leap forward in the welfare of humankind. My fear is we are fighting over the trees by burning down the forest.

            All things equal and over a necessary base minimum, I do believe that higher coercive taxes, more regulation and more coercive redistribution are destructive to the creation of widespread prosperity. Yes, I totally believe that the more social democratic outlook is smothering out these opportunities. I need to add though that it is not just a matter of more or less (taxes, regulation, redistribution) but also the quality. The reason is that these forms of coercion can interfere with the value creation machinery.

            Once we understand that free enterprise is sovereign to the decentralized needs of the consumer and that we all need to consume to live, it becomes clear that interfering with market outcomes interferes with the voice of the people. We create wealth by serving consumers. Everyone is a consumer. If you fail to serve consumers (or those serving producers that serve consumers) then the market signals you via prices and losses and low income. The market incentivizes changing one’s productive activities around the desires of humanity. All are welcome into the game, and rewarded well if and when they meet consumer needs.

            Yes, this will lead to unequal outcomes. This is virtually guaranteed. It also leads to standards of living — on average that are tens or hundreds of times higher than alternative systems. Inequality is the cost of free enterprise.

            Because we care for fellow human beings, we need social safety nets that protect producers that fail or that are unable to produce sufficient value. Taxes are one such way to fund this net, as are family, charity and insurance. We need to be careful that these safety nets do not destroy or interfere with the prosperity-creating machinery and incentives of free markets. It is a balance.

            In my view, building excessive regulations, rules, bureaucrats and redistributive institutions ossifies the system and sets it up for capture by powerful interests.

            Yes, those that succeed via free enterprise fear the system that created them. Free enterprise thrives on change and improvement (that is where the wealth comes from) and those at the top (big corporations, CEO’s,  unions and other fat cats) are the first to game the system and the most capable of assuming control of the regulatory apparatus. The destitute are fooled into crying out for the system that is then used against them. Useful idiots.

            It is the excesses of the regulatory apparatus itself which are being used to ossify social classes.

            We raised a generation of kids that are unaware that prosperity comes from serving the needs of fellow consumers. They took out big loans for feel good degrees and are wondering where their share of the pie is. I don’t blame them. I blame my generation. We raised a generation of brats.


    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:


      If as James suggests it’s the case that Wilkinson never really sought to emphasize  alienation between the governed and the government by questioning the representative nature of existing democratic institutions, then there’s no conflict in his preferring those to what he’s seeing on the streets.  i wouldn’t expect any libertarians to like that any too much.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

      On the tactics – the thing is, the complaints’ legitimacy is not at all themovement’s problem.  They’re not morally legitimate in your mind, but the program does not a have a popular legitimacy problem, at all.  Even the tactics are not serving to undermine the actual program’s popularity.  The movement’s only real problem, other than its organizational limitations, is its own image.  But they simply haven’t gone about their business in such a way to give us a reason to think they much care about that.  Given that, and given how easily lost is the American public’s good graces, and how easily demonized any group of activists is in our culture, I just have a hard time coming up with a reason why they would opt to walk the tightrope of trying to retain or regain the public’s favor rather than simply stick with the high-visibility strategy that has had such evident effects thus far (including getting your attention and making you think they look like spoiled children, which a lot of them are).  As rj above said, he(?) went through a bunch of more pleasant reactions before arriving at annoyance, but my argument is that OWS would have been cool with having achieved annoyance to start out with, and maintained it all the way through.  That’s what it looks like to me, in any case.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:


        Yeah, I agree, if the desired goal is greater equality the legitimacy of the desired end is popular. The majority of Americans believe in the myth of a zero sum world. If value and prosperity were zero sum, I would be lobbying for my piece too.

        As I wrote the other day, Pogo was right.Report

        • Avatar karl in reply to Roger says:

          Okay, the ever-popular creation of wealth is not zero sum — but the distribution of wealth is zero sum — and if my percentage of the pie decreases even as the pie grows then I have a legitimate beef (pie).Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to karl says:


            Distribution is not zero sum if it is voluntary. The market works via voluntary division of labor and exchange.  The first is to become an integrated specialist to create unfathomably more than can be produced by solitary generalists. The difference between a Dreamliner and a sharpened stick.

            The creative actions are aimed ultimately at serving the needs of consumers. The specialists must exchange what they have created for something else of value. Voluntary exchange is positive sum. Both parties expect — and can realize — benefit by the interaction. Ricardo and Smith have long since proven that trade and specialization benefit all parties.

            Forced REDISTRIBUTION is zero sum. That is what I am arguing against. Your comment gets to an underlying — often totally unexamined —  fallacy at the core of progressive ideology.

            Progressives tend to see the world in zero sum terms and to assume planning is a centralized top down activity.  The incoherence of their ideology pretty much flows out from these two bad assumptions.

            Exhibit 1: OWS.Report

            • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

              You could have saved a few keystrokes and just written “A rising tide yadda yadda” and left it at that.

              Which actually is quite true. An enlarging economy CAN produce wealth for all, in the wonderous free exchanges you reference.

              But that isn’t what has been happening over the past 30 years is it?

              Over the past 30 years the yachts have risen, and the dinghys have sunk.

              The unfettered free market that produces wealth for all is as much a fantasy as the perfect commune. The greatest production of middle class wealth occured during the period when we had the most progressive taxes, the greatest level of unionization, and the most comprehensive social safety net. When these things were removed, the economy became “bifurcated” as economists so gently phrase it.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Liberty60 says:


                My above comments to Creon may address some of these concerns.

                Let me ad that the last 30 years have been the greatest ever — by a wide range — for humanity. More humans exited extreme poverty in the last decade than any ever. This may not be as good as it can get, but it is the best it has ever been.

                The US has been at (or among) the forefront of the prosperity creation process. Even here, the average poor person is much better off than 30 years ago. Longer lifespan, better health, larger houses, air conditioning, cell phone, blah, blah, blah.

                They would have been even better off though if we hadn’t encouraged free loading, hadn’t built licensing requirements that kept them from going into business for themselves, hadn’t raised minimum wages to remove the first rung of the economic ladder, hadn’t built privileges for corporate cronies, hadn’t raised taxes and fees to pay for pensions for bureaucrats, hadn’t stifled health care innovation, hadn’t forced them into schools that serve the needs of unions rather than kids and hadn’t thrown sand into the engine of progress.

                I do see bifurcation happening though between those that are educated in productive fields (engineering, product development, health care, computer science, math), those that are in exploitive fields (government service monopolies, protected industries) and those not productive or exploitive.Report

    • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Roger says:

      “They are stuck in a zero sum, win lose model of the world and are crying for a larger share of the cookies. Pathetic!”

      You are speaking, of course, of the Republican minority in the Senate.

      The Republicans lost control of the Senate and decided en masse to shut the government down and filibuster every bill that was proposed, every appointment that was put before them.

      What is their tactic if nothing more than a polite version of blockading a street and shutting down the traffic of government?

      OWS is counseled to play the game by the rules, which are in fact rigged against them. THAT is what is truly pathetic.Report

  3. Avatar James K says:

    Just to clarify, I know from reading Wilkinson that he doesn’t count himself a sceptic of democracy.

    As me, I am a sceptic of democracy, but I think direct democracy is worse than representative democracy (for that matter I’m not aware of a system better than representative democracy so I end up supporting it grudgingly), so I will naturally defend representative democracy while I complain about it.  I’m not being hypocritical, I’m adhering to my preference ordering.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James K says:

      Thanks for that, James.  I try to read Wilkinson fairly closely, but I wasn’t sure on this. Perhaps I should have left that observation alone, as it was peripheral to my main inquiry.Report

  4. Avatar Scott says:

    Let the hippies disrupt the status quo, but they shouldn’t be surprised if many of us working folks cheer the police cracking heads.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:


    Sounds perverse. Do you really cheer using violence on people?Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to Roger says:


      It depends on whether or not they deserve it. OWSers want to break the law and resist police efforts to enforce it, and then act like victims when the cops use force. That’s when I cheer.

      On the other hand, I have a nephew who was mistreated when the cops raided his house for drugs. They wanted the Hispanic kid in the carriage house behind his place but were sloppy. He and his female roommates wanted to sue but none of the attorneys in his college town would take case. So, I know the difference.Report

      • Avatar Herb in reply to Scott says:

        So the Hispanic kid in the carriage house deserved to be mistreated then?

        Maybe we could move more into the “no one deserves to be mistreated” direction.  Wouldn’t that be nice?Report

  6. Avatar trizzlor says:

    Great and thorough post, as usual. Two stray observations:

    1. I think these kinds of tactics are going to have the most significant negative impact on OWS. It’s pretty amazing how quickly the “People’s Mic” has gone from a tool for promoting equal speech to a tool for shutting down unwelcome speech. Jason’s prescient observation about the tendency of a “leaderless” movement to percolate the worst kind of leaders is spot on.

    2. With all of the urging for OWS to engage in the traditional democratic process I think it’s important to point out that such attempts by the Tea Party were largely unsuccessful. Where the Tea Party did make progress was in providing political cover for the GOP to more vigorously pursue their pre-existing agenda. That this agenda was partially aligned with Tea Party goals made the movement a success. For OWS, however, it’s not at all clear that their motivations align with the Democratic agenda; and so the same strategy make a lot less sense.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to trizzlor says:

      trizzlor, thank you, and these are both good points.  I’m not really too clear how the People’s Mic concept has evolved.  if it has ended up functioning more as a devise to clear the way for action and to temper the extreme consensus-dependent decision making process that prevailed in the early days, perhpas that as a necessary evolution.

      On providing cover, I agree entirely.  The difference is that the GOP happily took the opportunity the Tea Party gave them to advance the agenda they have always had  – cutting taxes for the rich (or keeping them low), and drastically cutting spending.  They ran with it, and good for them.  The question is whether the Democratic Party will be as responsive to this outcry.  There is a part the party that does have programmatic overlap with OWS’ program, but it is a much smaller part of the party than was the part of the GOP that essentially matched the aims of the Tea Party.  The Tea Party was pretty much just a distilled and concentrated expression of mainstream Republican tenets, and the party responded as such.  The Democratic party contain much larger moderate and conservative factions, and in large parts of the party, hippie-punching is the favorite pastime. It is unlikely that the response will be as extensive as was the GOP’s to the TP, and as such, I’m reinforced in my skepticism that de-escalation and a focus on currying public favor is sound strategic advice for the movement at this time.  A large part of the Democratic establishment will be hostile to this movement almost no matter what it does.Report

  7. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I almost missed this post.  I’m surprised to find my comment became the subject of a post, and wishing I had written it with enough clarity not to cause confusion for Michael.

    To try to make my position clear.

    1) I don’t really support OWS, for a variety of reasons.

    2) I fully support OWS’s right to protest peacefully (even to disrupt traffic), and as I wrote on my own blog, I think cities should allow them to continue occupying parks–to fully honor and respect the First Amendment–assuming they keep things safe and sanitary.

    3) The cities do have the legal authority to roust them, even if would prefer they not do so.  But if they’re going to roust them, there’s no excuse for doing with military-style tactics.  When I say I disrespect those who support the rousting, I don’t mean those who just think the OWSers should be evicted (although I can’t say I’m very impressed by them), but those who support the military-style tactics of eviction.

    4) When I say OWS needs to “face up” to the fact that it’s not just the 1%, I mean there’s a substantial portion of the 99% who are not-supportive of OWS.  Some are not supportive of their goals and never will be, even though they are part of the 99%.  Others are not supportive of their methods, even though they have sympathy with their goals.  However good “we’re the 99%” is as a slogan (and I think it’s pretty good, really), they’ll be limited in their ability to be effective if they allow themselves to believe it’s literally true.  That is, while they are indeed a subset of the 99%, they are not necessarily representative of the 99% as a group–not through any limitations specific to themselves, but because the 99% is diverse enough that no select group is going to be representative of them.  They don’t necessarily need to end their in-your-face tactics (although that’s always an important strategic question); I’m just instinctively opposed to any group claiming to speak for so many others.  It’s like politicians telling us what “real Americans” believe.  If it’s purely tactical on OWS’s part, then it’s pretty good sloganeering; if they truly believe they are the vanguard of the 99% or something like that, I have a whole bunch of conservative friends I’d like to introduce them to.

    5.  Fair enough to call me on what portion of the public I was talking about.  I was vague because I haven’t seen any polling yet.  But scanning the blogosphere it’s clear that lots of 99%ers are not on-board with OWS.  And I was just making a seat of my pants prediction, based on my belief that there’s a deep streak of authoritarianism–near fascism–among some in the American right, that the militaristic response would have some support among that very 99% the OWS would like to represent.  I won’t claim to have insight into the number, but ramble around the blogosphere and I doubt they’ll be hard to find.  Or just read Scott on this thread.  Sigh.


    As to your real question, about tactics.  Those tactics were indeed successful at bringing people’s attention to OWS, but that goal’s been accomplished, and now they’re in the position of trying to figure out what’s next.  As their goals change, I would expect that in fact their tactics do need to change, because tactics appropriate for one type of goal may not be appropriate for another.  So when you say, “All the previous things can be done without abandoning what has been so successful thus far,” I’m dubious, but not on grounds of dislike for what they’ve done or how they’ve done it to date–purely on the basis of thinking strategically.  But I haven’t thought deeply enough about their strategy so far, and am too ignorant about what their evolving goals are, to actually suggest any concrete advice about whether to shift at this time or not.  (But, for example, if they decided to effectively run candidates, as the Tea Party did, I think their current tactics would be a dreadful way to run an electoral campaign.)


    • Part of my reason for supporting OWS is my own experience in politics – it’s true that the channels of influence are flooded with money and privilege. This is true in every process, from when candidates are chosen to when they are elected to when laws are formulated and voted on. Some people just count “more” in our system, because they have access, or because they can buy it.

      It’s not that this is in and of itself a bad thing. Every political system has its elites, whether they are chosen by intensity of participation or because of wealt or influence. It’s that in our current system the tilt has gone so far in their favor that the very rules of politics and business are different for the rich, thanks to things like the capital gains tax rate, Citizens United, and so on.

      We can argue back and forth about what optimal distributions of wealth and power are. But when the non-wealthy and the non-powerful are so completely shut out of the system, when 99% are second-class citizens, well, then it’s time to change, to revolt.

      Refusing to engage the system on its own terms is an essential elment of the protest against it. There are dozens of nonprofits that already work for transparency and accountability in America, but none of them is saying what OWS says: that the game is rigged and we won’t play it anymore.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to James Hanley says:

      “I mean there’s a substantial portion of the 99% who are not-supportive of OWS.”

      aka “We are the 53%”.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

      James, thanks for the clarifications.  I think the only one I’d want to respond to is #4, your reaction to the We Are The 99% slogan.  Many people had the same reaction as you, not unreasonably. Obviously, to some extent, this is precisely an example of the brash tactics designed to provoke a response, even if it’s not a sympathetic one.   At the same time (as you say) it’s pretty darn good slogan, you gotta admit.  And it’s one thing to say “We are the 99%” (strictly true, though it would be more clear if “of” were added); it’s another to say “We accurately represent all of the 99%.”  They don’t say the latter, and it’s actually unreasonable to imagine that they are saying that — because it would be so unreasonable if they were saying that. MInimal charity in hearing the slogan, keeping in mind that it’s a slogan, would lead someone to an understanding that they do not claim to speak for all of the 99%, but merely to point out the difference in trajectories of earnings between the top 1% and everyone else over the past few decades.  At least that always seemed clear enough to me.  How could anyone think that one set of ideas could actually represent the views of 99% of any diverse group of people, much less a nation?Report

      • Michael,

        I may be slightly uncharitable, but that is largely due to my personal experience with leftists (distinguishing them from garden variety liberals), who like to emphasize the concept of “false consciousness.”  Those folks say, “All these proletarians who disagree with us only think they disagree with us; in reality they do agree with us because their true interests are the same as our true interests, they just don’t recognize it.”

        I’m sure that most OWS folks don’t think that way (and I’m sure a few do), but that’s what immediately leaps out at me as a possible, even plausible, interpretation of the slogan.  And of course the more sincerely they believe the 99% bit, the more effective they are at promulgating it, whereas the more they treat it as a tongue-in-cheek slogan, the less persuasive they are.  And the more deeply committed folks are, the more likely they are to buy into it.  So the distance between slogan and belief is not always as great as it might appear.  Not that I can speak for any particular OWS folks, of course.Report

  8. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    How can the TEa Party, pretty much made up of olde White people and not prone to shutting anything down, and getting permits, and cleaning up after themselves be so politically successful and these White 30 something, basement dwelling wankers, who rape, crap on the streets, hate Jews, and demand handouts not get any support except from the radical Obamacons, the commie media, and a few confused Democrats?Report