Left-wing populism has never recovered from the sixties. No more damning evidence of this exists than the current “Occupy Wall Street” protests, which despite ample internet promotion and no shortage of passion, have fallen dismally flat, and failed to stir even the most basic conversation about finance, social justice or anything in between. Even ideologically friendly news outlets have dismissed the protesters, as Glenn Greenwald notes with some discomfort here.
Why? Perhaps a good place to start would be with the works of Saul Alinsky which (besides being allegedly influential on the President) provide a damning critique of this protest. Below are three reasons why Alinsky would call these protests abject failures.
1. No clear condition for victory
In his seminal work “Rules for Radicals,” Alinsky writes “The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.” By contrast, the Wall Street protestors not only have no discernible goal – they seem uncomfortable with the idea of such a thing. Why? Because goals require means, and means require organization, and Occupy Wall Street bills itself as a “leaderless resistance movement.”
Moreover, despite being clearly on the Left ideologically, Occupy Wall Street has tried to do half-hearted outreach to conservatives, billing themselves as an “anti-corruption” movement. However, most draft lists of their anti-corruption goals have gotten tied up in the protests’ General Assemblies (a term with the wrong connotations if you want to attract conservatives).
Furthermore, without a central organizer (or even “community organizer”), the protests sound more like a bunch of different people talking at once than a single voice calling for a single result. It is, in other words, arguing over which means to use and not using any of them – a classic failure under Alinsky’s model.
2. Failure to speak within the experience of those they’re trying to reach
Alinsky is famous for telling his followers to push their agenda in a way that will appeal to a large mass of people. “Never go outside the experience of your people,” Alinsky wrote. This means blending in with the communities you’re trying to change. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street and its ancillaries in other cities are filled with people who, to put it nicely, stand out.
A quick look at the videos floating around of the protest prove this. Moreover, the usage of terms like “postanarchism” by the sponsor group AdBusters might endear the protestors to your average lefty college student but do little to appeal to the mass of Americans, for whom anything with the word “anarchism” in it is ominous. The protests, therefore, come off as self-indulgent and divorced from the concerns and experience of the average Americans they claim to want to help.
Tim Phillips, President of Americans for Prosperity, summed this problem up succinctly when speaking to FrumForum: “Their message is of such limited appeal to the majority of Americans – destroy the free market economic system that’s been the most prosperous and the best way to bring people up out of poverty and despair that the world has ever created -when that’s your message, you self-limit because so few Americans can identify with that kind of radical viewpoint,” Phillips said.
3. No actual inconvenience to the people being “occupied”
Perhaps no video can better sum up the weakness of the Occupy Wall Street movement than one that depicts protesters marching in lock step, chanting “We are the 99 percent” while a group of bemused and well-dressed Wall Street Executives look on, sipping champagne.
Alinsky, in Rules for Radicals, relates a story of how he got a group of protesters to completely stall a Tony Department Store’s clothes-shipping operation by having them all order expensive clothes from the store and then refuse the packages when they arrived. The store caved to the protesters’ demands.
If the Wall Street “occupiers” have done anything like this, the world hasn’t seen or heard about it. In fact, the main defense the protesters have used when complaining about police brutality has been “We weren’t doing anything!” Alinsky would probably only sigh at this point and say, “Exactly.”