The “Occupy Wall Street” phenomenon may last long enough to change the world for the better, or it may lapse into oblivion next week. Whatever the outcome, we should all watch this movement as closely as messianic enthusiasts watch for signs of the Anointed One’s arrival. If “Occupy Wall Street” really is what it seems to be, then — Wow! — we are witnessing the first super-charged, organic social movement since the 1960s.
That helps explain why the movement’s media coverage has surged. Just as many other post-modern societies, America doesn’t seem to produce many organic social movements lately. In stark contrast to Abolitionism, Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights, most movements in America today are lifeless at birth, owned and orchestrated to serve an oligarchy. Even if they start with a ring of visceral candor, large-scale outbursts of Vox Populi often run out of steam. They crest and fall. They often get co-opted by ulterior motives (typically, financial or political). In all these movements, somebody’s playing a chess game; somebody’s getting used as a pawn. Think of hip-hop’s journey from the angry fringes to America’s bland consumerist mainstream.
By contrast, unfunded, uncoordinated, unorchestrated movements are a rare and beautiful sight — civic life’s equivalent of a solar eclipse. Indeed, we may be witnessing a significant moment in world history. Whatever the Occupy movement’s staying power, its authenticity and the anger it reveals warrant close scrutiny.
We’ve known for a long time that the typical American’s trust in business, government and religious institutions has weakened steadily over the recent decades. Countless surveys have made it clear that people are losing their trust in Congress, large corporations, banks, the media and other institutions whose legitimacy and longevity hinges on public trust. In this crisis of trust, the public’s message is simple: “We don’t trust you. You are tearing us down to build yourself up.”
When the intended recipients of this message respond dismissively or derisively, people take to the streets. They are frustrated with conventional channels for voicing their grievances. They are no longer comforted by the token promises of politicians running for office (e.g., Obama). They find no comfort in the pre-recorded messages on corporate “customer-support” lines. They can’t possibly take seriously the robotic assurance that “your call is important to us”. And they cannot embrace the widening economic inequality in this country simply because some wealthy ideologue parrots the pre-fabricated talking point: “this is capitalism.”
This level of dialog is no longer acceptable. As long as Wall Street remains silent – as long as it responds as unintelligently as it has so far — public sentiment will not change. Trust will not strengthen. This country’s corporate leaders will continue to be perceived, accurately, as out of touch.