The Vagueness of Occupy Wall Street


I’m trying to write my thesis on the politics of loneliness. I am, really! But I’m preoccupied with the incredibly socially enabled Occupy Wallstreet movement in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan New York. I’ve been following the movement through my friends who live in New York and who have been protesting daily alongside the thousands of others who are marching for change. A change in what? The answers vary which I think is delicious and political.

However, the critical masses who are against the movement, or those indifferent or upset with how the movement has been organized, or “not organized at all” as many have been saying, are also gaining a strong voice throughout the social media. In the beginning stages the movement itself got little attention from the established media: newspapers, TV broadcasts, Radio. The reason is that the protest itself seemed unimpressive to these sources. As The New York Times reporter Ginia Bellefonte put it, “with a list of demands as schizophrenic as ending joblessness, “the modern gilded age,” political corruption, and capital punishment” protesters are thought to be young, wayward anarchists or pseudo communists, “pantomiming progressivism rather than practicing it knowledgeably.”

Judging the protesters’ efficacy on the appearances of the people who have shown up (colorful hair-streaks, Doc Martin boots, no ties), their ages, their class positions, and their political affiliations, many have dismissed the movements participants as a group of immature, out-of-touch kids looking for a party and a place to wreak havoc. “Get a real job,” many passerbys on their way to work on WallStreet have shouted, as though activism or even voicing one’s concern about the established “norms” of society were child’s play. As the ever poetic presidential candidate Herman Cain stated of the protesters: “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”

What I find most interesting is not the outright antagonism against the movement itself. Those people are predictably angered because they are resolute that the work they do for corporations and within the capitalist structure is important, necessary, and the only way to keep the economy in the US from collapse and their own pockets full. Their feelings of entitlement to a bare-minimum upper class existence is obvious even if maddening. I am equally as unsurprised by the reactions of people who fear the inconvenience of protesting in general. Their inability to comprehend that sometimes one’s personal pleasure and comfort needs to be interrupted to get change to occur is telling. As one enlightened blogger quips anxiously, “Planning to visit many of the key attractions in New York. Will the campers at wall street interfere with our enjoyment? Been planning this first ever visit for 6 months. Now worried it’s going to be a nightmare.”

For me though the surprise reactions come from those of us who profess to be political leftists, are well educated, are young and seemingly fired up for debates, and yet who are incredibly pessimistic about the protests. Likening the movement to a useless drop in an empty can that will only be heard by the few who bend down to either listen or shut the lid on the entire operation, many have dismissed the efforts completely.

How have we become so skeptical? My friends and colleagues, neighbors and family know there is something very wrong with the way that the west (yes, us Canadians included) treats what we patronizingly call “underdeveloped” countries.  We know that with the money that we make as Canadians there is no way that entire Continents should be suffering from famines, poverty, and illnesses when we get the privilege of heath care, insurance, and the potential that is ours simply by being born Canadian. In graduate school, for instance, in the Humanities, we sit in our offices and classrooms daily and debate the fact that the ways in which we live in the world with others today is directly influenced by our own greed and desire for more and more of everything. And yet, when a movement such as Occupy Wall Street comes along there are still a vast majority of us who are pessimistically indifferent, or problematically critical of the efforts of so many.

Why? Well, not sure exactly. An easy answer from me when I’m cranky is that we have become complacent in our ability to unsee that the everyday things we do and the ways in which we do them–shopping for back-to-school clothes, eating, raising our kids, writing papers, reading books, showering, going to Loblaws– in fact make a difference in the lives of many others we cannot see. We seem happiest to believe the blame for the unethical treatment of the majority of the world stems from some morons in government, or the very rich and greedy who refuse to give up their wads of cash. The idea that we are all implicated in this process of colonization and globalization seems unfathomable and too much to get our heads around. We need to live our everyday lives and concentrate on the things we can actually change, right?

Yeah, ok. But why though would we get upset at the group of people trying to make changes on our behalf? Those who get up off of their arses and show up at a park in the middle of Toronto, or who occupy bridges in New York, or who march down the streets of France seem threatening to us in some way. They evoke our contempt and negativity, enabling us to reduce these protesters to a bunch of dreamers who don’t know their politics from their pointy fingers.

I have no idea to be honest about why this might be. Jealousy perhaps, or a longing for that kind of blind-passion for a change. What does strike me about the criticisms of the protesters (other than people’s fears of violence, being inconvenienced by late buses, or upset with the spectacle of distraction) is the recurring complaint that the protesters are “planless.”

According to so many, a protest is ineffective and useless if it does not have a clearly stated point and message. Some protesters are chanting, ““Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” Others carry signs that say things like: “Like Cairo we stand united,” or “don’t be a douche,” or “Ignore me, go shopping,” and my personal favorite, “I won’t believe Corporations are people until Texas Executes one” (which I originally read as “I won’t believe corporations scare people until Texas Executes one.” Oddly both work!

The fact that a leader of this movement cannot be found, the notion that when interviewed about why they are there each protester seems to have only a vague idea, or many ideas, and the reality that a lot of the protesters themselves are confused about the ramifications of their actions seems to be disturbing us the most.  As one socially conscientious blogger states, “After weeks of protests I am no more sure of what they stand for, or what policies they hope to create than before this all started.   There are too many disparate interests coming from clearly discontented people that makes the message muddled and confusing.” (For more information about this argument you can read this blog post here:

What I want to suggest here is that the undefinedness of the movement itself might be one of its largest assets. This lack of knowing about what it is that is making us upset, but the acknowledgement that we are, indeed, upset is a huge step to making change happen. The realization that the feelings we have that something is very wrong about the way we are treating others globally coupled with the fact that these “bad feelings” are getting people to show up at parks, streets, and gatherings of variously like-minded and confused people is encouraging. Change cannot be made without first recognizing that we are feeling shitty about the way we are living, treating others, and being engaged with. These lonely realizations are what can get conversations started about what we need to do next, no?

About newdaynewmood

A Lonely lesbian trying to write about everyday life and everyday ways to negotiate the tough political issues therein.
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2 Responses to The Vagueness of Occupy Wall Street

  1. carolyn says:

    Great post. I share your sentiments. In fact I wrote a section of a conference paper I just gave articulating some pretty similar thoughts. Here’s a quote:

    “While CNN anchor Erin Burnett might suggest that ‘nobody seems to know’ what the protest is about, in fact the question is not one of knowledge but action. Whether or not we understand each divergent request that’s emerged from the 99%, we understand the sentiment: corporate America is getting rich while too many people are suffering the consequences of destructive policy and economic decisions. What is most interesting to me about Occupy Wall Street is its failure, as yet, to outline a set of ‘actionable items.’ Precisely by not articulating demands, participants emphasize the complication and contradiction of the situation in which they live—a situation in which there are no clear or easy answers. To articulate a set of demands would only force a teleology on the situation and would give commentators the false sense that this is an argument over ends, rather than means. To move into a series of action-items would systematize a protest that is about the searing inequalities of current systems. To make demands would imply that politics is not already full of demands that have seen little to no follow-through. As critic McKenzie Wark suggests, the absence of demands instead focuses attention on the absence of process, or the evacuation of politics within politics itself. I want to suggest that the non-teleological nature of the Occupy Wall Street movement also points to the abstraction, vagueness and disorientation that defines the lived conditions of many. Not only has politics been evacuated, but the sense of agency we continue ascribe to the individual through notions like freedom or democracy is also empty. We live cynically. We feel cynical and yet this feeling can bring us together. This doesn’t make the occupiers apathetic, or resigned, in fact we can see they are anything but; they remain deeply cynical and in so doing, they embody and express the ambivalent gap occupied by the subject of late capitalism, as one protestor’s sign reading ‘This Space Intentionally Left Blank’ captures.”

    Hmmm, maybe I should extend this into a blog post of my own…

    • Hi Carolyn,

      Thanks so much for your comments here. Wow, fantastically put. I’m blown away by the continued critical coverage about the lack of organization to these protests as though only those who can walk a straight path, following strict guidelines, can critique a Capitalist system that is anything but organized. Or, I suppose, one might also say that the capitalist structure we all inhabit is tightly organized around a few principles (lowering taxes for the wealthy, ensuring domination and freedom, positioning the West as the wiser, more powerful parental figure who reigns over the rest of the world– which also works to attempt to legitimate torture and violence against non-westerners.) I agree completely with you that the disorientation we are seeing from these protests is wonderfully necessary and speaks to how we are feeling about the West and the way we choose to live within it. When you say “we live cynically” I smiled. So true. I wonder also, though, if the loneliness that stems from living cynically, or as Sarah Ahmed would say, as the “killjoys,” might also help mobilize larger disorientations, the ones needed to keep the West dizzied and not too focussed on securing its own “democracies” which prove incredibly unsettling to other people in the world?

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