Liberation psychologist Bruce Levine argues in Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite that in a corporate-controlled environment, there is mutual dependency between the corporate elite and elected officials. On the one hand, both Republicans and Democrats rely on the corporate elite for campaign contributions. The corporate elite also possess the ability to make the stock market rise or fall, thus impacting the political fortunes of elected officials. At the same time, the corporate elite rely on the government to squash protests that threaten their excessive wealth and power. They depend on the government’s ability to send in the troops when protesters start to make demands that might actually upset the status quo of corporatocracy.
So what about the Occupy Wall Street protests continuing this week in New York, which have inspired similar movements across the country and been lauded as American’s Arab Spring? It is inspiring to see a new generation of protesters emboldened to engage in activism in a nation where for generations the young, poor, and people of color have been screwed over by a shrinking minority of greedy rich carrying politicians in their back pockets. The elite have bought the government, and therefore our policies dare not seriously challenge the financial interests of the very wealthy. Meanwhile, first-time college students are saddled with loan debt and working families around the country are kicked out of their homes. We all know this story, and many of us have become cynical. The Occupy Wall Street participants, mostly under the age of 25, believe that they are starting a movement which will restore American democracy. 700 of them were arrested on Saturday after they spilled onto the Brooklyn Bridge (there go those government troops protecting corporate interests again). If nothing else, these protestors remind us that getting fed up enough to rebel against an oppressive force is still a valid strategy, and very therapeutic.
But will it be effective? It depends. The protest has already been criticized for not having any clear agenda or list of demands. It also doesn’t have any visible leaders, which could be seen as a strength or weakness. Though most of the demonstrators don’t seem bothered by any of this, the danger is that they will eventually fall prey to one of the corporate elite’s favorite little tricks: divide and conquer. Diversity is fine (the movement has attracted Liberals and Conservatives, Socialists and Libertarians, although the ethnic and economic variation has been disputed) but without a common strategy they may find their attention deflected, and themselves divided into distrusting camps that are then easily sidetracked on important issues.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators may be correct to target corporate power rather than government power (which is too often corporate-controlled anyway) and to focus on full-blown, disruptive social change rather than electoral politics (which too often involve demoralizing, morale-sapping compromise). But they might also be well-served to remember that this is not a black-white issue. Yes, there are the haves and have-nots. But Wall Street moguls, and the corporate elite in general, are not as monolithic as they often appear to the rest of us. It’s sometimes the case that what’s good for one industry is bad for another. If anti-greed activists can tap into this reality, they might find that they are able to pit one corporate entity against another, thus utilizing the divide-and-conquer strategy in the interest of the broader society.
But first, they would have to develop a collective strategy. And for many of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, it seems like venting is enough. Collective strategizing for long-term change may not be a part of the plan.