A video from day 14 of the Occupy Wall Street protests shows an impressively huge crowd flowing through the arches of the NYPD headquarters in New York City. The crowd is chanting: "The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching!" While that may not be the case yet, we're getting there. And that brings up a pretty big problem for the protesters and the future of the movement: If the whole world does end up watching, what exactly will they be watching?
Like lots of leftists, I'm inspired by this movement, and elated that it's happening. But I'm deeply worried it could end up falling upon the sword of its own self-imposed ambiguity. Nothing sums up that ambiguity better than a quote from a recent article on the protests:
When [a protester was] asked how long he was planning to be there [he replied]... "Until change is made to the financial structure."
What that change might look like, no one can say for sure.
Here's what the occupiers are getting absolutely right: protesting and gaining attention for it. The world needs to know that there are those among us who are ready to take action, and not stand by while a ruthless, soulless elite hijacks our civilization and flies it into the ground.
But besides declaring "we're not going to take it" -- which is certainly an important thing -- the only other declaration the protesters have made is "we're angry, we're fed up, and we believe in a better world." And that's what they're doing wrong. Public outrage with the status quo is not news to anyone.
What the world needs to hear is an answer to the questions: "Where do we go from here? Is there a truly workable alternative to capitalism? How do we solve the myriad crises of capitalism?"
I understand there is a natural allergy among the protesters to taking this awesome amorphous mass of people power they've assembled and solidifying it around a core set of leaders or defined principles. And indeed, there are plenty of good reasons to avoid entrusting the voice and vision of the movement to a spokesperson. This is a people's movement; it's not a search for a messiah of hope to pull us out of dark times. It's about learning to pull ourselves out.
But while you don't need a spokesperson, that doesn't mean you shouldn't have "spokes-principles" -- a core set of ideas or answers to the crises of the Wall-Street Empire that speak for you, that communicate who you are to a public that's tuning in more and more every day.
Without that set of spokes-principles, the public may have sympathy for the protesters' motives, but it will ultimately fear their objectives. And the organizers will have done the world a great disservice by earning a big public spotlight and failing to shine it on answers that the world urgently needs to know and start talking about if we're going to have a fighting chance of saving our civilization.
The right spokes-principles can encompass all of the fluid, diverse, populist beauty and verve of the protests and channel it into a vision that the broader public can see itself and its aspirations reflected in.
If it's about anything, Occupy Wall Street is about challenging the economic imperialism of Wall Street. Naturally then, the movement's spokes-principles should be the principles of economic democracy as roughly defined here:
This Declaration of Economic Democracy is by no means an exhaustive list. But it is an endlessly expansive one. One that is broad enough in its framework to incorporate and synthesize the wide diversity of dreams, grievances, demands and aspirations of the many people involved in the protests. It's one that can help the broader public understand and identify with the movement, and help the movement build an identity that's powerful enough to bring down the Wall and build a better world.
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