For a very long time there has been a gaping void in our political discourse. The social issues that divide the country all have vocal, well-funded advocates on both sides of the debate. But in the economic arena the story has been very different. Powerful corporations and the business/financial elite have built an army of lobbyists, consultants and media entities to support their interests, formulate legislation in their favor and mold public opinion. Who has spoken for the other side -- for the economic interests of average Americans? For far too long, the answer has been no one. It has been a one-sided war waged against an absent opponent.
Now, remarkably, the Occupy Wall Street movement has stepped aggressively into that space. An opposing force has at last become visible, and that in itself is cause for celebration. The question, however, is how can the campaign be carried forward -- so that void will continue to be occupied and defended? And, most importantly, how can the movement be translated into genuine change?
I'd like to offer a couple of practical suggestions. First, Occupy Wall Street should reach out to average Americans and build a real organization. I am imagining an organization that might function somewhat like the AARP. It would speak for the interests of average people just as the AARP promotes the interests of retired people. It would have the staffing and the ability to engage in the kind of political trench warfare that will be required to effect real change.
This new organization could be funded in two ways: First average people could be offered a chance to join and pay a nominal membership fee. Second, wealthy individuals, organizations and, yes, perhaps even corporations could be approached for financial support. The objective would be to build a true brand: a trusted organization that would speak for the economic interests of average Americans -- for the 99%. An organization that would advocate, educate -- and help legislate -- on issues like jobs, education, student loans, healthcare, social safety nets, and investment in the infrastructure upon which nearly all Americans rely.
In order to fulfill that role, it would be crucial for the organization to remain focused exclusively on economic issues: its sole purpose would be to occupy and defend that void. At all costs, it must not make the mistake of veering off into the endless debate about social issues: this is the well-worn path to defeat. Social issues are the wedge that has been used to effectively divide the bulk of the American population against itself, and thereby ensure victory for the economic elite. That trap must be avoided from the onset. There are, after all, other organizations to take up those causes.
A formal organization would not necessarily co-opt the entire Occupy Wall Street movement. It could serve as a companion. Those protesters who prefer a more informal approach could continue their activities -- but, ultimately, a real organization will be critical for effecting material change.
Some feel that it is enough to simply raise awareness of inequality and corporate greed and that politicians will then somehow respond with new policies. They will they not. No matter how much noise protesters make in Zuccotti Park, the sound of corporate money will ring louder in the politicians' ears. Real change will require a real organization that can take the battle to Washington and to the halls of Congress. Translating the Occupy Wall Street ideals into real legislation and policy initiatives and then defending those proposals from the inevitable corporate onslaught will be a long, tedious and expensive process. A real organization is essential.
If that organization is built, it might be able to orchestrate ways to extend the protests into the realm of consumer activism. There is evidence that this is beginning already: protesters have been encouraging Wall Street bank customers to move their accounts to smaller, community banks. This is an idea that could be greatly extended. Our new organization might engage in educating consumers about which corporations actively support policies that are detrimental to most Americans, and then invite those consumers to make their shopping decisions accordingly. This is something that would need to be done with great care and with a well-defined strategy. Lawyers would need to consulted as there are laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act, which govern consumer actions of this type. All that again argues for building a real organization that can manage the complex issues involved.
Consumer activism might be an especially effective approach because the Occupy movement has now spread globally. A broadly supported consumer action powered and sustained by social media and crossing national boundaries could potentially be an instrument of shock and awe. Such a campaign, if it could be carried off on a large scale, might be transformative. It might turn out to be the stake: the thing to be driven into the moneyed heart of the plutocracy.
If this new organization -- perhaps it could be called "OccupyTheEconomy" or maybe "OccupyTheFuture" -- were successfully built into a trusted brand, then it would become a place and a resource where average people could turn for information and for the truth about the policies that affect them. Once that happened, many corporations -- especially those that remain dependent on a vibrant consumer market in the U.S. and other developed countries -- would likely line up to offer support. They would want that organization and that brand with them -- and certainly not against them.
I'm writing this because Occupy Wall Street has stepped into a gap that I have been thinking about for a long time. The initial focus on Wall Street is appropriate, but the issues are much broader. There are structural shifts occurring in the economy and the job market. Globalization and especially technology are among the primary forces driving us toward increased concentration of income and a dearth of opportunity for average Americans. As I have written in my book The Lights in the Tunnel and elsewhere, I believe that trend will only continue and that it may well be greatly amplified by technological progress over the next decade and beyond. In other words, things may soon get even worse, and the time to act is now.
I hope that those leading the Occupy Wall Street movement will seriously consider seizing this moment and building an organization that will endure. Effecting real change may take years, or a decade, or maybe even a generation. Build something that will last and that can carry the fight forward. Do it now -- while you have the public's attention, and before cold weather sets in and makes things more difficult.
Martin Ford is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a PDF download). The book argues that accelerating information technology, and in particular robotics and artificial intelligence, is likely to have a disruptive impact on the future job market and economy. He also has a blog at econfuture.wordpress.com.