An Occupied Consciousness: The Two Biggest Critiques of Occupy Wall Street

By Jamie Way, Alliance for Global Justice

Many have complained for some time that the corporate press had failed to pay attention to the grassroots movement against corruption and profit over people. It would be hard to argue that is the case now. Occupy Wall Street has garnered a great deal of press, (even more than the Tea Party did initially according to a recent survey.)

With all of this attention has come quite a few critiques. Among the cacophony of opinions, it seems that critiques of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) can be distilled down to two main complaints. First, OWS is accused of lacking vision due to a lack of clear leadership. Second, there has been talk (primarily through conservative outlets) about who is funding the movement.

Leaving aside entirely the debates these arguments are meant to illicit, there is a rich irony in their assumptions. The Occupy Wall Street protests formed in response to an overemphasis on profit and the concentration of power with a self-interested elite few. Why then should it be surprising when they refuse to imitate that structure? I fear that the answer lies in the limitations on our collective imagination that we have just starting to shake loose.

The first critique of OWS claims that due to lack of a defined leadership, the movement has failed to put forth a clear message. (Reading their website should show otherwise.) As the argument goes, “All the “Occupy Wall Street” events around the country lack leadership and focus. It’s one massive camp-out loaded with energy but devoid of message. I’ve been waiting for a collective demand to emerge, yet nothing happens.”(Letter to the Editor in the Baltimore Sun. ) Another letter to the editor in the Pacific Coast Business Times shared the same sentiments, claiming that “The lack of any organizational hierarchy means that Occupy Wall Street’s rapid expansion has resulted in confusing suggestions…The call for change has been diluted by the myriad of different calls for change.”

This line of logic becomes especially problematic at the point of prescription. Lack of leadership has resulted in a lack of clarity, or so the argument goes, and should be remedied with more hierarchy and presumably a set leadership. This view fails to connect the various complaints being made by occupiers and see their relationship to a deeper economic and governmental structure. Due to this failure of vision, critics seek to homogenize them by imposing the only structure they are capable of imagining: a hierarchical ruling elite.

The second argument seeks to change the focus away from the corruption of our financial and governing system and instead focus on the funding of the movement. Even the Alliance for Global Justice has been the target of ridiculous accusations about who funds our organization, due to our role as fiscal sponsor of Occupy Wall Street. OWS’s success and creation is in large part a reaction to a society and political system that have valued profit margins over human beings and allowed a self-interested elite to decide the fate of the majority. Corporate media cannot fathom how something so powerful that has garnered international attention cannot be either the result of money or have at its core the goal of generating capital.

In my view, the Occupy Wall Street movement has come to represent the anti-thesis of these critiques. That is the whole point. It seems to me a strange limitation of the mind to try to fit OWS into the structure which it formed to challenge and change. That is, for the vast majority of grassroots participating in the protests and to the unpaid staff, money is clearly not the primary concern. The country has hit the streets not because an elite few bought us, but instead because we refuse to be bought or sold.

And yet, money and a neat leadership with a clear list of demands has become the main interest of so many commentators. They no longer ask what problems brought us to this point or how we can change them. Instead, they try to impose a structure based on the values of hierarchy, control and greed on the movement. Unfortunately, I believe that this is not done with malicious intent. More concerningly, I think these critiques demonstrate that our civic community has by-in-large lost its ability to imagine a world outside of the status quo.

Since these critics fail to notice the deeper structure that enables all of the diverse calls for change and groups to come together at OWS (yes, environmental issues do connect to corporate greed) with a common target for change, they see them as unrelated. Instead of noting the obvious systems that have done so much damage to so many, they must search to for meaning through their traditional forms for understanding and knowing. They must insist that leaders be assigned to explain whose goals are important, and who should be ignored. They must imagine that profit and money is the driving force behind or at least the goal of anything that has generated such energy. These critics have failed to imagine that OWS might instead be a diverse group with diverse demands, all resulting from the same problematic structures of greed and corruption.

Our challenge as part of this movement, is to reignite the imagination of the polis. We must demonstrate how the world we envision can function without an elite few controlling us through corrupt practices and an emphasis on profit over people. Instead of falling back on old habits and ideologies, we must imagine the possibilities that a world with the values we share can create.