Since the first Occupy Wall Street gathering on September 17, protesters have demonstrated on streets across the nation to express their unhappiness about growing financial disparities, among other things. To find out more, I talked with professor Doug McAdam, director of the urban studies program at Stanford, who researches youth activism and social movements—from Teach for America to Occupy Wall Street. Excerpts:
How do you define this movement? Is it mostly a protest against income inequality in the United States?
Inequality broadly is clearly underlying the protests. A lot of the encampments harken back to the anti-globalism, anti-neoliberal protests of the '90s and the 2000s, starting with the Battle in Seattle in 1999. Those folks have always been opposed to rampant capitalism and its effects around the world.
What has Occupy accomplished so far?
It clearly has changed the conversation politically in this country. It's made more concrete a kind of growing anger or frustration about inequality in the United States. It's created a lot of space for conversation around these issues. I want to see more attention to specific issues, so I understand the frustration with Occupy at some level. But lots of movements start exactly this way, with amorphous expressions of anger. The modern women's movement [in the late '60s] started with protests with no particular goals. Even the civil rights movement really started with a one-day symbolic expressive protest. They began to come up with some goals like desegregating buses. Think about the Tea Party. It started with generalized anger at the bailout and frankly, I think, at Obama's election. It took a while for it to morph into its present incarnation, which has turned into an electoral movement. If you can wrap your mind around when you first heard about the Tea Party, there's an image of people showing up, some of them in revolutionary war garb, talking about dumping tea. They didn't have any specific set of goals initially, but over time it has morphed into a much more focused electoral movement. And it's had clearly lots of consequences. The mid-term elections were dominated by the Tea Party energy. I wouldn't consider Occupy a movement yet. It's been a long series of protests and, increasingly, confrontations with local authorities, but that doesn't a movement make.
Who's listening to Occupy?
There is some systematic withdrawal of funds from big banks and putting them in small credit unions. Bank of America and others announced charges for debit cards, and they withdrew those. The other day [some banks] had signs up for free donuts and coffee. You can't convince me that that doesn't have something to do with the present moment. You've got to be warm and fuzzy. You can't be the bad guys. Historically, the movements that have had the most effect disrupt or threaten to disrupt business as usual. You bet the "powers that be" get nervous. In that sense, they're listening.
What do you think about Occupy's spread beyond Wall Street?
If you look at movements that have been successful, it's a very good thing it's all over the place and doesn't have a centralized structure. The fact that it's all over the place makes it much harder for authorities to control. The civil rights movement was a collection of local struggles that popped up all over the place. The women's movement was similar. Movements that have a single, organized structure are rare and tend to be easier to control. People go, "Gee, they need a leader." Almost no movements have leaders. Gandhi was an exception. King didn't lead the civil rights movement. Name a 'leader' of the women's movement. Name a leader of the environmental movement. People go, "Oh, gosh, this movement needs a leader. It needs a more organized structure." No, it doesn't. What would really make this more effective and really give this legs as a movement is if [serious] campus activism started, or if unions started to engage in more systematic campaigns in the spirit of Occupy. You'd then have a movement you couldn't put back in the bottle. If that doesn't happen, I think the encampments will dissipate, and we won't have much memory of this.
How does a "leaderless" movement work?
It's not truly leaderless. The culture of a participatory movement is that lots of people essentially help shape decisions, but you don't have a single individual who is in control. I came of age during the late '60s, early '70s, and was active in the early anti-war movement. Some of the consensus drove me crazy. You'd sit in a room for four hours. You'd respect the impulse to create these very democratic processes for making decisions. But it could be so time consuming. To give many people opportunity to share ideas so there's some collective decision making, I agree with, and it makes movements stronger. At some point, they need to get on with it.
What historical movement is the most comparable?
I might say the Tea Party. They began as these diffuse protests oriented to the bailout and to the economic fallout from the last [few] years. In that sense, they're responding to a palpable sense in this country that something has gone very wrong.
Does it matter that Canadians initiated Occupy?
No. But that's part of what should alert us to the anti-globalization roots of the protest. This is an international movement. The Battle in Seattle drew lots of Canadian protesters. It doesn't have any real consequences or undermine the movement here or weaken its credibility.
What good has come out of Occupy so far?
If you look at data, we've never been super equal. There's always been a big gap between rich and poor. We were most equal on most dimensions of inequality—including health care and income—sometime in the mid- to late-'70s. When you put our inequality numbers or measures up against other comparable industrial countries, we were in the middle of the pack. Starting around 1980, not surprisingly with Reagan's election, we have moved in a very clear and stark direction. We are now the least equal country. We have never been more unequal. That ought to concern all of us, even the 1 percent, and it literally is true that only the top 1 percent of wage earners has done better, and the rest have done worse. The standard line is that we were on the verge of serious revolution early in the Depression. It was Roosevelt and the New Deal that saved capitalism. It's even in the interest of the 1 percent to reverse these trends and to reinvest in education and try to create a bit more equality in this country, if only to stabilize things. This country has not been this divided politically since the Civil War. There's growing unrest because of these trends and all the uncertainty that lies ahead. What made this country great was its commitment to trying to create a more or less level playing field. The effort to try to create broad equality of opportunities in value terms is a very noble thing. We always pride ourselves on that commitment. For the last 30 years, we haven't been committed to that at all. Our policies have been absolutely contrary to those values. That should concern us. What Occupy has done is focus attention to these issues in a very powerful way.
Any negatives to Occupy?
I don't see any big downsides. If this does dissipate over the winter and nothing bubbles up to lend more focus to these issues, then it's possible it will reinforce the generalized fatalism and cynicism that is out there about the possibilities of real change. It's possible we'll look back six months from now and see this as having sapped the energies of many people. As of right now, the movement has changed the conversation in this country about politics and economics.
What can people do if they want to support the movement but don't want to camp out in the street?
The best support that anyone could give the movement would be to think of other forms of activism that are broadly sympathetic.
Such as not banking with a big bailout bank?
That's one form. Another is get involved with local campaigning or the presidential campaign. One of the clearest policy suggestions that follow from these protests is yes, do away with the Bush tax cuts on the top 1 percent wage earners. To me, that's the clearest, most immediate policy implication of these protests. Other groups could pick up that very specific issue and engage in letter writing campaigns and petitions. It doesn't have to be street protests. A mass write in-campaign around that issue might embolden the president. He's been saying that we need to do this. There's got to be some way to mobilize support for that single policy goal and put enormous pressure on Congress to act on that measure.
Who are Occupy's most active supporters—the young and unemployed, or the middle-aged and disgruntled?
Definitely not one category. In general, the encampment folk are disproportionately young. It’s kind of a countercultural community.
Like the Vietnam War protesters?
Yes. The street-protest left, going back to the '60s, tends to be young, tends to be not super diverse. But if you look at survey data at who says they're sympathetic, it's diverse. What I'm waiting to see is if other constituencies under that broad umbrella start to mobilize.
Is Stanford involved with Occupy?
There's an Occupy Stanford group. It doesn't have any of the inherent drama of Occupy around the country. They've had two or three events that have not been heavily attended. There is a group called Occupy Colleges. They're trying to coordinate protests across campuses. This week [November 11 at 11 a.m.] there are 70 colleges holding a coordinated event.
Will Occupy exist indefinitely?
It won't exist forever. No movement does. I guess I put my money [on this being] sustained because other groups will pick up on this and will seek to mobilize different constituencies, using different tactics, hopefully with more clearly focused goals. It could go either way. If somebody held a gun to my head, I'd say I think this has generated enough attention. Unions have gotten involved to a certain extent. One thing I'm really curious about is whether any of this energy will get channeled in a more focused way into next year's election. The Tea Party is clearly putting their energies there. This is going to be a pivotal election in U.S. history, and you'd think that would be a logical place for some of this energy to go.
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I like when Stanford address issues and provide an understanding of them through objective and clear questions. That has been made by Ms. Springen. There is a concern in society on the gap between top earners and the rest of us. And also there is a growing concern on the power that has been allowed to corporations to influence on the political systems through contributions to political campaigns, electoral as well as through legislation. Bottom line we are asking about Representative Democracy and how it works in America today.
Posted by Mr. Fernando Espinosa on Nov 14, 2011 9:38 AM
Good to have this discussion, but what will Stanford as an institution do to change the negative direction of the USA since Reagan, which has led to growing inequality in all aspects of society, growing instability and weakening of USA democratic political institutions? USA is on its way to being a failed democracy without a stable and increasing middle class.
Posted by Mrs. Pamela H. Collett on Nov 15, 2011 1:36 PM
I have difficulty with economic inequality as the subject of protest. Ever since learning at Stanford about Pareto Optimization (did I remember it correctly?), I've had a problem with complaining about the fact that someone else got something as long as no one else got hurt. That's not to say that there isn't a lot to complain about, it's just that inequality is not the core issue. I don't care how rich the richest among us get, but I do worry about the the dropping economic floor (or safety net) and the disappearing middle class.
Posted by Mr. Joshua Garth Genser on Nov 15, 2011 1:54 PM
Regarding Mr. Genser's comment above. I think the problem is that there are a lot of people who have been economically hurt by unlawful and unethical tactics of many of the top 1 percent. Ill name just a few: The deregulation of financial institutions allowing for the exploitation of the financially naive, The usury practices of credit card companies, and The utter disregard of sound environmental practices because it cuts into corporate profits which are already excessive. Meanwhile many of the people who really do most of the work in any corporate organization are grossly undercompensated in proportion to the top wage earners. Don't tell me those people haven't been hurt by the greed of overpaid executives and the people on Wall Street who do nothing except move money around. They don't make anything. They don't produce a product. They dont even offer a service. Oh, and one more thing what about all the jobs that have moved out of this country to further line the pockets of the already-wealthy, causing job losses here and the exploitation of workers in other countries. Tell me that hasn't hurt someone. There are many more examples, but I will stop here. I agree that ending the Bush Tax cuts would be a good place to start if one were to focus on just one item to start. I will write another letter today. We should all do this.
Posted by Ms. Susan Ann Grose on Nov 15, 2011 11:54 PM
Perhaps you'd like to take a look at an interesting graph developed by Harvard Business School professor Michael I. Norton from his research on Americans' perceptions of our degree of economic inequality. It illustrates what his research subjects would consider to be an equitable distribution of wealth, what they believe to be the current distribution of wealth in the U.S., and, finally, the actual distribution of wealth in this country. Although it doesn't specifically address the 1%, it's easy (even for an English major like me) to extrapolate. Check it out. harvardmagazine.com/2011/11/what-we-know-about-wealth
Posted by Mrs. Kathryn Perry Fields on Nov 16, 2011 12:59 PM