What Exactly Does the Occupy Movement Want?

You say you want a revolution?
Well, you know, we all want to change the world.
…You say you got a real solution?
Well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.

— Lennon/McCartney, “Revolution”

Occupy Wall Street and the greater Occupy movement it inspired (abbreviated interchangeably here as OWS) is becoming a ubiquitous social phenomenon. Predominantly populated by unemployed and disenfranchised young people in thousands of cities across the United States and abroad, Occupy protests appear to be an understandable reaction to the economic chaos unleashed in 2008. However, what exactly the Occupy movement is about is difficult to discern given its intentionally anarchic and leaderless composition. The result, unfortunately, appears to be less like orchestrated social change and more like “rebel without a cause.”

Writing in the Guardian on November 25, author Naomi Wolf shared her attempt to draw a sharper picture of the Occupy movement by simply asking: What is it you want? The responses to her online solicitation came fast and furious, and from there Wolf distilled them into three specific agenda items.

The first item Wolf identified is a desire to reverse the Citizens United decision by which the Supreme Court largely dismantled election finance laws that limited, but certainly didn’t prevent, the influence of money in U.S. elections. Second, occupiers want to reform the U.S. financial system to “prevent fraud and manipulation.” In part, this would include reinstating the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that prohibited joint ownership of commercial and investment banks. (Glass-Steagall was repealed in part by an act of Congress in 1999 with more or less bipartisan support.) The third agenda item for the Occupy movement, as identified in the Guardian piece, is the need to prevent politicians from using their government positions to benefit corporations in which they own stock.

Wolf’s article, titled, “The Shocking Truth about the Crackdown on Occupy,” did cause a bit of an uproar, but not for any of the above agenda items. Rather, it was her contention that the Obama administration had given the Department of Homeland Security the green light to orchestrate police crackdowns on the various Occupy protests. This claim was traced back to Rick Ellis, a Minneapolis-based journalist writing for Examiner.com who later debunked it. In addition to the furor caused by Wolf’s article, it should be noted that she was arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest on October 20, and had thus already become part of “the story” herself.

However, beyond the immediate publicity surrounding this one article, the more significant issue remains: What is the Occupy movement after? Is it the three goals identified by Wolf, or something else? Looking closely at those three goals suggests that it must be something else.

First, reversing the Citizens United case may well be a worthy goal, but doing so would merely return campaign financing laws to the “halcyon days” of the last election cycle, in which money nevertheless still played an outsized role. As such, going back to the election finance laws of 2010 is hardly the stuff of revolution. Rather, OWS appears to be more about wealth disparity (see the “We Are the 99%” signs toted by many occupiers), the gross expansion of which was going on hot and heavy in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, long before the Supreme Court issued the Citizens United decision in 2010. Cleansing our electoral system of monetary influence may well be a good thing, but is it really what’s gotten people into the streets?

Second, for the last several years the systems of financial regulation in the United States and the world have been undergoing an extensive (and expensive) overhaul that is complex, difficult, and time consuming to craft. If that’s what OWS is about, OWS is late to the party. Essentially everyone, including the financial services industry, has been in agreement on this for three years. It’s very difficult to achieve, however, and not everyone agrees on exactly what will work best, not because of political bickering so much as the fact that effective financial regulation is exceedingly complex. As for the Glass-Steagall Act, the notion that the recession could have been prevented were it not for the repeal of the investment/commercial bank ban is overly simplistic. Was its demise a factor? Probably. Was it the cause? No, and simply reinstating it won’t prevent fraud or manipulation.

Third, preventing elected officials from passing legislation that benefits corporations in which they are investors (be they in Delaware, as Wolf highlighted, or anywhere else), is a concern best left to conspiracy theorists. Owning stock in publicly traded companies only really constitutes a meaningful conflict of interest if legislators pass company-specific laws, which is virtually never done. Passing laws that affect all corporations generally does not favor one over another—you’d have to be a real paranoiac to smell a rat in that. Finally, legislators, as well as judges, are already prohibited from passing laws that impact companies in which they hold any significant interest. In practice, those safeguards are rarely tested because there are extremely few people with enough money to own any more than a fraction of stock in major publicly traded companies. As for insider trading, that has always been illegal and will continue to be so. Wolf cavalierly stated that legislators get rich trading off inside information. However, there is really very little evidence of such conduct for the good reason that, perhaps contrary to popular assumption, it’s too easy to get caught. Politicians’ business dealings are subject to wide scrutiny by the public, the press, and law enforcement.

Clearly, some members of the Occupy movement must have listed these things as the goals of their cause (presumably Wolf didn’t make them up), but hopefully it’s about something more basic and profound: the gross financial inequality in American society. Changing that for the better isn’t impossible, but it’s not simple either, and that’s where a little leadership within OWS would help. Increasing the top income tax brackets and capital gains taxes would be a good and actually fairly simple place to start. Unfortunately, while many people’s eyes can quickly redden with fury over taxes, they can also glaze over as soon as anyone begins to discuss them in detail, which is what counts. Yet if OWS can begin to express itself with some level of direction and detail, something truly revolutionary could be in the works.

Anarchy undoubtedly has its charm, but effective civil disobedience needs a message and a goal. The people who are braving the elements, depravation, and the police in the various Occupy protests deserve and need a voice. Without one, they’re limited to the Naomi Wolfs of the world trying to read their tea leaves, for better or worse.