With no agenda or demands, the protesters may be on a winner

 

WALKING BY the Occupy Dame Street camp at the Central Bank of Ireland in Dublin during the week, I asked one of the protesters how long they were willing to stay there for.

“Ten years, if that’s what it takes,” he answered, with an unshakeable belief in the rightness of their cause.

You don’t see that kind of conviction often.

The reaction to the Occupy movement, and particularly how the depiction of the Occupy Wall Street campaign has changed over the past month, has been revealing. Since a few hundred campaigners began to occupy Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in mid September, coverage of their activities has undergone a kind of media-morphosis.

The reflex reaction to large-scale protests usually adheres to a sort of practised condescension. Media coverage, particularly on 24-hour news networks, will focus on arrests and violent misconduct; analytical newspaper articles might enumerate the grievances but tend to dismiss the protesters’ chances of success. Privately, many people have an instinctive eye-rolling suspicion of those who are passionate enough about an issue to get out and protest – the “damn hippies” reaction of 1968 is still an effective form of disparagement, it seems.

Occupy Wall Street, however, has rapidly made those modes of dismissal redundant. Any violence has been predominantly carried out by law-enforcement officers, so the preferred tactic has been to point out the lack of specific demands. These people can’t achieve anything, goes the logic, without having goals to aim for. Their lack of an agenda, it seems, illustrates a lack of seriousness.

The benefits of the Occupy approach, which could be characterised as nebulous indignation, are actually fairly obvious. By not settling on specific demands, the movement remains broadly inclusive: the goal is one of fairness and simple social justice, and that’s a widely appealing cause.

Distilling that message down to the manifesto of the 99 per cent versus the 1 per cent is inspired: the numbers are automatically in its favour. In reality, of course, the protesters are indignant because the numbers that matter are decidedly not in their favour: income and wealth inequality are reaching grotesque proportions in the US, with 65 per cent of all economic growth there in the past decade going to the top 1 per cent, and the top 400 wealthiest Americans having the same net worth as the bottom 50 per cent.

As if that sort of inequality wasn’t bad enough, the American writer Glenn Greenwald makes a critical point: “What makes this inequality so infuriating (aside from the human suffering it is generating) is precisely that it is illegitimate: it is caused and bolstered by decisively unfair application of laws and rules.”

In the face of such a monumentally unfair system, how long would a list of demands have to be to make any meaningful difference? The lack-of-demands criticism suggests that the Occupy movement can’t win, but this is a classic glass-half-empty approach. The primary benefit of not issuing specific demands is actually that it can’t lose. You don’t need extensive experience of a bureaucracy to predict how a “victory” might pan out: a bill addressing, say, increased taxation on capital gains and reform of the banking system will be so diluted and filled with loopholes that any apparent victory will be utterly nullified.

Instead of pretending to be a policy think tank, the Occupy movement is transparently a campaign of civil disobedience, and it has had immediate success. It has already altered the parameters of the debate, with talk of balanced budgets and deficit reduction – pernicious euphemisms for small government – rapidly being supplanted by talk of inequality. And by reframing the debate the Occupy movement has already perceptibly shifted the ground on which next year’s US presidential election will be run, forcing Democrats to the left. It has achieved all this in a month.

Ultimately, issuing demands is another way of saying you can be bought off. But you can’t buy a fairer society, you can’t buy a more equitable distribution of wealth and you can’t buy governance free from corporate corruption.

For those goals to be achieved, every actor in a society has to consistently work at them – it’s a process, not a transaction.

Perhaps the Occupy protests’ main achievement, then, won’t be any piece of legislation or banking reform but the legitimisation of protest itself. If they succeed in that, maybe 10 years on Dame Street won’t sound so absurd after all.


Shane Hegarty is on leave