Should Occupy Embrace Specific Goals When It Reemerges?

With May Day approaching, observers are divided in the advice that they're offering.


With the rapid approach of May Day, when Occupy Wall Street plans to reemerge on the streets of America, Michael Lewis, who has written some of the best stuff about the global financial crisis, suggests a specific goal that he'd have the movement rally around if put in charge:

If I were in charge I would probably reorganize the movement around a single, achievable goal: a financial boycott of the six " too big to fail " Wall Street firms: Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo. We would encourage people who had deposits in these firms to withdraw them, and put them in smaller, not "too big to fail" banks. We would stigmatize anyone who invested, in any way, in any of these banks. I'd try to organize college students to protest on campuses. Their first goal would be to force the university endowments to divest themselves of shares in these banks.

In The Guardian, Slavoj Zizek offers contradictory counsel:

What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of "concrete" pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum - a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in in a proper way, since it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly New. The reason protesters went out is that they had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the third world troubles is enough to make them feel good... It is illusory to expect that one can effectively change things by "extending" democracy into this sphere, say, by organizing "democratic" banks under people's control... The emergence of an international protest movement without a coherent program is therefore not an accident: it reflects a deeper crisis, one without an obvious solution.

Though I don't know if Lewis' suggestion is optimal, I am very much in the camp that thinks Occupy ought to try accomplishing something specific in its next iteration. The notion that there is no prospect for meaningful change via democratic means is perhaps understandable, given the staggering influence financial interests wield in Washington, D.C., but it is also wrong. In America's history, pressure from activists helped to win women the right to vote, to end Jim Crow, to break up the trusts, to prohibit and re-allow the consumption of alcohol, and to transform the social contract, among other things. If you're like Zizek -- if you think improving society and a broadly capitalist system are incompatible -- then perhaps reforming rather than replacing the system doesn't make sense. But a very small subset of Americans sympathetic to Occupy think that way.

And for good reason.

Staggering advances in human dignity and material comfort have occurred under a broadly capitalist system. And while the end of "too big to fail" isn't a civilization-changing goal, surely it's sufficiently weighty to count as a significant victory for any reform movement able to bring it about.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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