In recent years, we have seen vividly the problems of the systems of governance and economics in the United States. Many of us have felt them personally. Our wealth -- both as individuals and as a society -- is precariously situated, ready to fall from our hands in an unstoppable flow (if it has not slipped away already). Our national political system is dysfunctional, characterized by halting, irregular movements, marked with corruption and cronyism (corporate ethics have become political ethics), and fueled, it seems, not by any virtues of civic duty or social responsibility, but by personal rancor, distrust, and petty disputes over who knows best. Our government's enactment of democracy has become so warped that we can barely see how its objective is, at the end of the day, to provide us with freedom, equity, and well-being above all else.
But we know all this.
We know that we are in a crisis that has been intensifying for years. And we know that every attempt by ordinary citizens to remedy it, undertaken through normal political channels, has ended in failure or its approximation. We see that nearly all of the positive energy that citizens put into politics, after making its way through the halls of government where things are supposed to happen, results in nothing of substantial worth to our country and the vast majority of its people. It seems more and more that anything positive and proactive we endeavor to accomplish leads to an ignition of partisan conflict and a paralysis of governmental activity. We see that, in this regard, the category democratic citizen has become mostly a sham.
Yet, when a movement swells up at an epicenter of this malfunctioning system and presents itself as a radical alternative to the prescribed modes of political engagement -- those modes that have been failing us so completely -- many commentators turn up their noses and say that nothing serious is being done, that these people aren't making a "real" political engagement.
These commentators, for one reason or another, are ignoring the fact that their "real" political engagement requires the utilization of a slimy, inefficient, and, recently, ineffectual political machine. They forget that Congress has proven, especially since the financial collapse, to be completely insulated from any rational appeal from the citizenry for major regulatory or structural reform and that, consequently, any effort to lobby for specific policy exposes itself to the rot that is eating away at our entire system of law-making.
Hopelessly lost outside of our historical moment, these commentators would rather scoff at the supposed naivety of the Wall Street protestors, ridicule their vaguely utopian ambitions, than take a critical look at the story of United States politics in the last three years. In that story, they might find where the truly naïve expectations lie: that politics-as-usual, and the "proper" political channels, will provide our country with a practicable way out.
Were they to look critically, they might see that, in fact, an injection of mass, non-partisan dissatisfaction (with a dash of utopianism), could be precisely what our country, and more especially our government, needs to pull its head out of the sand. Maybe this other voice -- the voice of the Wall Street protestors, the one refusing to give in to demands for legibility because it knows that the political language afforded to the citizen has been rendered ineffectual and basically non-communicative -- is the one that will provide an engine that will allow politics to really start happening again in the United States. Because what we have now in the governance of United States is not really politics. We have, at every turn, the failure of politics.
Maybe the protests, by evading the traps and lures of party politics, will help to generate the nationwide sentiment that is required for policy change; maybe they will inspire a small corner of our congresspeople to push the agenda that so few of them, fearful of agitating their donors and alienating misinformed constituencies, seem willing to push. At the very least, as we are beginning to see, these protests will generate conversation about possibility, which is really the basic material of democracy.
Among the countless opinion pieces criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement for failing to create real movement in political discourse, we find a crucial truth: these pieces, each offering its own insight and persuasion, each its own critical take on the problems of our country and how to engage them, represent a beginning to the real conversation on reform, newly invigorated. And we should be careful not to forget where this conversation found its genesis: in a group of shambly, inarticulate hippies camped out with bucket-drums in the financial district of New York City.
If we are attempting to locate the movement at Wall Street within the frame of our contemporary American political landscape, and to measure its value and efficacy according to the norms of this landscape, then the failure to make a political critique is not on the part of the protestors, but on our own. If the protestors are lacking a clear and resounding call for reform, it is because Washington has denied the permissibility of that voice.