Occupy Austin
Source: Austin American Statesman

With New York City police and cities around the country cracking down on Occupy Wall Street encampments, it seems like the nascent movement might dissipate even before winter sets in. While a full assessment is obviously premature, it is fair to ask whether or not OWS possesses characteristics that have made past movements successful. At this point, will OWS’ legacy be more significant than getting Bank of America to waive its $5 fee on its debit card?
One of the main criticisms of OWS that emerged quickly, perhaps too quickly, is that it was unclear what the movement wanted. End capitalism? Higher taxes on the wealthy? Ending corporate privilege?

One of the emergent lessons of social movement theory is that campaigns that lack an overarching goal are likely to fail. My work with Ethan Kapstein suggests that the AIDS advocacy movement was largely successful because it coalesced around treatment. Jeremy Shiffman, now at American University, has argued that advocates for addressing maternal mortality lacked such consensus. A similar analysis has been offered by UVA’s Jeff Legro with respect to grand strategy in foreign policy. While crisis, he argued, may delegitimate an old grand strategy, for a new grand strategy to take root, there must be a single dominant idea to replace the old one.

Others have critiqued the movement for its non-hierarchical organizational structure, which seems like it would work okay for small groups but likely to become cumbersome the more people get involved. Almost two weeks ago, The New York Times provided ample anecdotal evidence of the creaky mechanics of such horizontal consensus-based decision-making.

In that piece, the Times interviewed a number of scholars of social movements who offered similar criticisms. Marshall L. Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard, whether a similar question to the title of this blog post: “Is it a moment or is it a movement?” Jeff Goodwin, a sociology professor at New York University, sees the NYC movement’s park-based focus as a distraction. Ultimately, he says, OWS has to focus on political change to make a difference: It’s inconceivable that the movement can get what it wants without engaging legislatures.”

Another scholar, David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine, is also quoted in the piece, his emphasis on the absence of leadership. Thinking about past U.S. movements like the Students for a Democratic Society, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he said it either “falls apart, or it gets seized by disciplined factions from within.”

It is relatively early days in the movement, and other scholars of social movements are more sanguine about the prospects for OWS to succeed, based on past campaigns. Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, had a more positive view of leaderless campaigns. While Mayor Bloomberg may be able to snuff out NYC OWS, the movement may live on elsewhere. As McAdam said, “Successful movements start out as expressions of anger, and then quickly move beyond that. It’s very difficult for opponents to control or repress a movement that has many heads.”

Zuccotti Park being cleaned 11/15/11
Source: New York Times

I want to be sympathetic to the movement and am willing to put aside my snarkiness about drum circles and the like. I understand the source of OWS anger. I am angry too, both by deepening inequality and an unwillingness by some politicians in this country, particularly on the right, to ask the privileged to pay their fair share.

I credit OWS for changing the conversation, for agenda-setting and creating political space so that Republicans are having to countenance new revenue sources as part of any broader deficit reduction package. However, when I think about successful advocacy movements, like the Jubilee 2000 campaign for developing country debt relief or the AIDS treatment advocacy campaign, they had clear targets for advocacy and a clear “ask.” As William Galston of the Brookings Institution said this week, “What do you do for an encore when you’ve gotten people’s attention?”

If the movement does nothing else, it may create space for President Obama’s deficit agenda to succeed, which may look more moderate by comparison. However, the movement itself could play a role in making that happen, not by explicitly endorsing that plan but getting the disparate pieces of OWS to coalesce around a common platform rooted in the possible. The non-hierarchical nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement allowed it to go viral and spread to many cities, but lacking central direction or a common platform, OWS can become a chapter or footnote.