The Occupy movement is now in hibernation, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty going on. Perhaps a better analogy for OWS’s current state of existence would be Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the desert, or the pre-enlightened Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Before either of those sages could map out the particulars of the message they would transmit to the world, they had to map out the message inside.
When OWS introduced itself to the world on September 17th, the primary targets of its disaffection were multinational corporations, and their calculated extraction of wealth from the middle class. Not far behind, though, was a government that allowed them to do it. Indeed, if there is a single impetus that could be pinpointed as being the spark that ignited OWS, it likely would not concern any single corporation, but rather, President Obama. Finally, the soon-to-be occupiers had had their fill of dumbed down stump speeches, war escalation, and lobbyist written-legislation. Despite a soaring campaign oratory that had at times suggested otherwise, a collective realization was made that this latest Wall Street financed, coddling, and appointing president had never actually represented anything more than the most recent of a long and seemingly endless line of false choices.
A common assumption among onlookers upon first encountering OWS was that it was a liberal answer to the Tea Party. If tea partiers favored limited government and free markets, occupiers favored more entitlements and tighter regulation. But this oversimplification didn’t hold up under scrutiny, given OWS’s clear indictment of government from the beginning and the many failed co-option attempts from the Democratic establishment.
Unlike the Tea Party, OWS’s opposition to government isn’t an ideological one. Most occupiers believe in the ideal of an effective government by and for the people, but have come to accept that the waters have become so muddied today as to make that ideal impossible. There may be a minority of occupiers who still feel it a worthwhile pursuit to try and bend the will of the 99% corrupt Congress, whose members will all of a sudden start rejecting corporate contributions and govern solely on populist grounds. The vast majority, however, recognizes that working for concessions from those directly benefiting from the system being protested is not a productive use of time, and only reinforces the tired storyline OWS seeks to rewrite.
That being said, is it logical to conclude, then, that one of the key areas of advocacy for OWS is and always has been a smaller federal government? This may seem painfully obvious, given the not exactly subtle anarchist and anti-government threads infused with the movement’s identity. It’s not as obvious, though, when you consider that the small government ideal is nothing less than the central bumper sticker talking point of the Republican party, as well as the Tea Party, and is in fact even something those dreaded corporations say they would welcome with open arms.
This apparent contradiction is easily diffused, however, with the utterly uncontroversial observation that, despite their rhetoric, Republicans have been every bit the champions of big government as Democrats the last 30 years – something that can be confirmed by simply looking to the more than 150 countries with a U.S. military presence today. And since most occupiers themselves aren’t much older than 30, the idea of a small or non-existent federal government to them has never been anything more than that – an idea. Still, coming to grips with the implications of an idea that has typically been rejected out of habit is not easy.
For tea partiers, the response to the prospect of a government-less world is simple – a religious, unquestioned belief in the boat lifting capacity of the free market. For occupiers, it’s not so cut and dry. If a doomsday scenario for the Tea Party consists of an unchecked government dictating the affairs of its people, the same scenario for OWS includes an unchecked corporate cabal doing the same.
So if OWS is against government, but also against an unregulated free market, what are they for? Or, as Mitt Romney is fond of asking them – “What would you replace America with?” For help answering that question, we can look to the main battle cry of OWS – “We are the 99%.” It’s a slogan with limitless potential of being understood and misunderstood in a variety of ways, but the most relevant interpretation to me simply speaks to the responsibility and power of the people. Ultimately, it’s the 99%, not the 1%, that is to blame for all the shortcomings of the world. Likewise, the 99% are the only ones capable of forging the solutions.
If we think of society as a home, and corporations as the thieves who would seek to ransack our home, is it possible that government is the key, or co-conspirator, that allows them access? The most obvious current illustration of this idea would be Citizens United, and the accompanying realization that the only reason corporations enjoy the legal status of people today, is because it was granted to them by the federal government. What about the EPA, FDA, or Fed? Are those institutions advancing the causes of environmental, health, and economic justice for the majority of people? Or are they enabling the hijacking of those causes by powerful, well-connected, self-serving interests? Slowly but surely, we are coming to understand that the answers to our most pressing problems won’t be coming from corporations or government, but from local communities managing their own households. This is something that was happening before OWS came along, and is something that has the potential of gaining steam now that a movement is here which recognizes the necessity of speeding up this process. Thankfully, the process doesn’t depend on the personnel occupying the nation’s corporate offices or halls of Congress, but it does depend on an awakened, engaged, and persistent 99%.
It’s interesting to notice that the ones who typically advocate for a romanticized notion of self-reliance, also advocate for an unrestrained free market, justifying their position with the reasoning that there should never be a cap on ambition, regardless of what effect someone’s ambition might have on others. But maybe true self-reliance includes the ability of communities to have full authority to manage their own affairs – to kick Walmart out of their cities if they so choose, to require clean energy from their utility providers, to write their own labor and trade laws, to utilize alternative currencies, or even do away with currency altogether. Is this the vision of a small federal government advocated by Mitt Romney or Walmart? If it is, the task for OWS just got a lot easier. If not, it’s just as tough as it was that first night in Zuccotti – but at least it’s a little clearer. Clarity is key.