To those wondering whether to pay attention to the "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) protests, the answer is yes. This is more than just a nascent movement that will grow in the weeks and months ahead. It is part of a worldwide drive for greater social justice.
Like recent examples of peaceful grass-root protests -- from those that delivered the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions to the massive street demonstrations in Israel -- OWS has taken many by surprise. In just a few weeks, a self-organized group of diverse individuals planted the seed for what is becoming a national movement that exponentially gains energy and visibility.
Yet some observers seem to be repeating a mistake that many made in Egypt, Israel and Tunisia -- that of falling hostage to an outmoded way of thinking about seemingly-leaderless grass movements.
Such observers are quick to dismiss OWS because it is fragmented and lacks a detailed list of demands. They argue that it is long on criticisms of the past and short on solutions for the future. They note that it is not structured to navigate the current political setup. Accordingly, they conclude that the impact will be transitory and inconsequential.
While these reactions are understandable, this conclusion about OWS is likely to be proven wrong as it ignores a powerful reality: A peaceful drive for greater social justice can unify people from diverse cultural backgrounds, political affiliations, religions, and social classes.
If you doubt this, go ask the Arab governments overthrown by secular forces that they were slow in understanding and inept in reacting to. You could also ask an Israeli government recently forced to modify its policy stance in an attempt to pacify a national movement that, only a few months ago, did not even register on its radar screens.
OWS may pale in comparison to these country examples. Yet it would be both foolish and arrogant to dismiss three important similarities:
First, the desire for greater social justice is a natural consequence of a system shown to be blatantly unfair in its operation and, to make things worse, incapable of subsequently holding accountable people and institutions.
In the US, it is about a system that privatized massive gains and then socialized huge losses; allowed bailed-out banks to resume past behavior with seemingly little regulatory and legal consequences; and is paralyzed when it comes to alleviating the suffering of victims, including millions of unemployed (too many of whom are becoming long-term unemployed, slipping into poverty, and losing access to safety nets). The result is a visible and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in today's America.
Second, OWS's followers will grow as our economy continues to experience sluggish growth, persistently high joblessness, and budgetary pressures that curtail spending on basic social services (such as education and health). Other internal and external realities will also play a role.
At home, our elected representatives seem incapable as a group to respond properly to severe economic and social challenges. Continuous (and increasingly nasty) political bickering undermines the required trio of common purpose, joint vision, and acceptance of shared short-term sacrifices for generalized long-term benefits.
Internationally, Europe's deepening debt crisis amplifies headwinds undermining an already sluggish American economy that, in the absence of better policy responses, is on the brink of another recession, Should the economy slip from treading to taking on water, the social implications would be profound given that we already have high unemployment, a large fiscal deficit and, with policy interest rates already floored at zero, little policy flexibility.
Third, advances in social media help overcome communication and coordination problems that quickly derailed similar protests in the more distant past.
Facebook and Twitter are huge enablers of a movement fueled by legitimate popular concerns about inequities. Particularly in OWS's initial phases, they compensate for its lack of leadership structure, financial resources, and access to traditional media outlets.
For all these reasons, OWS will likely gain momentum in the coming weeks, growing in size and scope. It will develop deeper roots and more branches; and it will encourage similar protests in other western countries.
Indeed, the most consequential question is not whether, but how OWS will morph. Judging from international experience, there are two main alternatives.
OWS could (and, hopefully, will) coalesce on a common agenda, helping the current political and institutional setup to course correct. Alternatively, it could fragment, thus failing to make the tricky transition from a protest movement to an effective agent for much needed change.
This is where the media and politicians come in. Rather than dismiss OWS as "noise," they should listen to it as a "signal" of the challenges America faces as a compassionate society, and as a democracy built on the importance of fairness and opportunity.
It is important to understand OWS better and engage it appropriately. Through constructive collaboration, the movement's energy and intensity can - and hopefully will -- be combined with other influences to formulate forward-looking solutions for an America that must desperately regain its economic vigor, provide more jobs, and deliver better on its traditional commitment to social fairness and equal opportunities.
Follow Mohamed A. El-Erian on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elerianm