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Weighing Occupy Wall Street's Impact

Author: Christopher Alessi
November 22, 2011


The Occupy movement has faced a police crackdown throughout the United States, most recently, at the University of California, Davis (Slate). In New York, Occupy Wall Street protesters clashed with police during a national "Day of Action" (VOA), two days after police dismantled (NYT) their encampment. Across the Atlantic, legal action was also taken to evict Occupy London protesters camped outside St. Paul's Cathedral.

The trajectory of the global movement remains uncertain. Yet, OWS continues to galvanize a debate over economic inequality in the developed world, elbowing into a policy discourse that had been largely focused on debt, deficits, and budget austerity.

What's at Stake

For the Occupy protesters, the stakes run broad and deep. They say intensifying unemployment, spending cuts, and income stagnation are hurting the so-called "99 percent." They are frustrated with the response to the global recession that they blame on Wall Street, and what they regard as tepid government action to spur the economy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, real median household income has declined 6.4 percent since 2007. Meanwhile, the income of the top 1 percent continues to rise.

The biggest economic factor driving the Occupy movement is youth unemployment, which is nearly 15 percent, says CFR's Terra Lawson-Remer. She argues that issue is the "common thread" between 2011's pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Spain's indignados movement (Reuters), and the Occupy movement.

The Debate

Some analysts say the Occupy movement should form coherent policy aims and mobilize politically. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer suggests that the "freeform, leaderless" protesters should learn from the "agenda-driven campaign" against the Keystone XL pipeline, which succeeded in getting the project temporarily halted. Writing in the Boston Globe, Joshua Green says that OWS has done nothing to garner political support in Congress or the White House, the "institutions best positioned to address their grievances." The Economist suggests that it's time for OWS to "get on with the tiresome and frustrating grind of actual democratic politics."

For other observers, the Occupy movement has staying power precisely because its demands are broad and its powerbase outside electoral politics. The energy of OWS will certainly spill over into the 2012 presidential campaign, and has already begun to shift the political discourse in the media, New York University's Bill Caspary told Salon's Andy Kroll says the movement won its first victory earlier this month when Ohio voters overturned a law that cut bargaining rights for labor unions.

Policy Options

Jeff Madrick of the New York Review of Books says policy responses to pursue include renewed fiscal stimulus, investment in public works, and a higher minimum wage. But CFR's Lawson-Remer predicts that OWS will not mobilize for specific policy prescriptions. Instead, she says, it will "raise consciousness" about broad issues, such as student debt, housing foreclosures, and wealth inequality. Similarly, NYU's Caspary says it would not make sense for OWS to throw their lot in with the Democratic Party, as the Tea Party did with the Republicans. The Democrats are a part of the very corporatized system OWS is protesting, he says, adding, "They are funded by the 1 percent."

Background Materials

In the New York Times, David Carr asks whether OWS will keep its hold on the collective media imagination.

In Foreign Affairs, Rory McVeigh says the impetus will be on OWS to meet violence with nonviolence.

Volatile global economic conditions have prompted hundreds of thousands of people around the world to demonstrate in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, explains this CFR Analysis Brief.

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