Rebels without a cause?

The Occupy movement may be made up of disparate voices but it is not inarticulate or incoherent

The main complaint against the Occupy movement that has sprung up in New York, Boston and other cities has been that the group lacks focus: the distribution of wealth, rising unemployment, unaffordable college tuition, lobbying, the iniquities of the tax system, bailouts. . . What do these people want? How can we identify with a movement that is angry about everything? Being mad is not, after all, a social agenda.

The Economist magazine has gone so far as to label the demonstrations the “inkblot protests.” The variety of groups involved – the homeless, professional labor organizers, college students, veterans, and the recently laid off – only adds credibility to these worries.

But the charge of incoherence is both exaggerated and misguided.  The disparate complaints of the Occupiers do have a common thread: the protestors are pointing to a breakdown of democracy. Liberal societies are supposed to allow individuals to fulfill their potential and pursue their aspirations. The role of government in such polities has, traditionally, been to make sure that these individuals don’t harm each other in the process, and, in addition, to guarantee a degree of fair play.

We cannot be promised that things will work out for us, but our failures and successes should depend largely on our efforts. Government’s job is not to tell us what to think, or to guide us towards certain values; it is, rather, to put in place a set of legal arrangements and institutions that allows us to figure these things out for ourselves. These are the benefits that we have, so far, taken for granted and that Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians have been dying for in order to obtain for themselves. 

According to the Occupiers, this basic view of politics is now under threat in America. Government is turning from an enabler of individual freedom to a partner of certain interests; important institutions (the tax system, the legislation process) are seen as systematically favoring some groups over others. 

More importantly, the critics charging incoherence misunderstand how political protest works. Social movements are rarely the products of a linear progression from political philosophy to political action. The process, if it can be called that at all, probably operates in the other direction: problematic social conditions generate a not-quite articulate anger, a dissatisfaction which eventually becomes difficult to contain.  The unrest and dissatisfaction are, with time, channeled into a set of arguments; and it matters a great deal which kind of arguments they get channeled into.

But these articulations are just that – ex post facto clarifications and refinements of what was already there in raw form.  This is particularly true when the dissatisfaction is not the result of violence on part of the government but rather of entrenched, difficult-to-pin-down practices carried out by institutions we used to trust.  The Arab Spring has been a coherent and focused movement because there is not much room for ambiguity when your government’s police forces are shooting at you. But the Occupiers are protesting something much more elusive. 

It is true that anger, resentment and disappointment are not, by themselves, a basis for policy-making. We are often angry at events even if they were not brought about by human agency or malice (we may be angry about a natural disaster that has devastated our home, or about a freak accident that has killed a loved one). And letting such free floating anger or disappointment guide us is ultimately both irrational and ineffective. The Occupy people will have to make the case that they are upset at something that has been caused by the agency, callousness and neglect of actual human beings.

The success and legitimacy of the movement will depend on articulating the way it sees the social contract – what kind of opportunities can people expect in a liberal democratic society, what obligations does government have to create access to these opportunities, and how has our government failed to fulfill these obligations. Powerful, effective social movements do end up standing for something. They do end up articulating both an explanation of what is wrong with the current arrangement and offering a more reasonable alternative.  

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Angry energy is channeled and harnessed to an idea. Without such an idea the occupiers will not be able to keep their constituents engaged and will not be able to justify their acts of civil disobedience. And such an idea does seem to be emerging from the protests.  Serious, substantial articulations of what social movements are about takes time. That Occupy does not yet speak with complete clarity is not sufficient reason to dismiss it, especially because the wrongs it protests are difficult to articulate and identify in the first place.  The Occupiers are bearing witness to something important. We should give them more time to articulate it. 

Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University where he directs the Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His recent book is Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation (Martinus Nijhoff, 2010).