It took Occupy Wall Street just three months to go from Twitter hashtag to global movement. Since the first protest promoted by the anti-consumer magazine “Adbusters” set up camp in lower Manhattan, the number of Occupy sites around the world has surpassed 2,500. There have been marches, arrests, evictions, and growing media attention.
While police cleared out camps in major U.S. cities, Time magazine named “The Protester” as Person of the Year, comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. This was a major endorsement for a movement that has been criticised for its inability to articulate demands anywhere as clear and concrete as, say, free elections or the resignation of a ruler. The Time cover is also testimony of the movements’ biggest achievement to date—occupying the public discourse.
Broad, multifaceted and complex as it may be, occupiers do express a central concern—income inequality and overall economic disenfranchisement—captured by the slogan “We’re the 99%.” Occupy Wall Street has made it hard to ignore that the proportion of wealth amassed by a small elite in the United States has increased dramatically over the last three decades. Consider the following comparison. Between 1975 and 2006, average family income grew 32.3 percent in the U.S., whereas it only grew 27.1 percent in France. When you remove the top 1% of earners from the calculation, however, the increase drops nearly by half in the U.S. (to 17.9 percent), and by less than one point in France (to 26.4 percent). This means, incidentally, that the income of the American 1% grew by 1447.9 percent over that period—80 times more than the rest of the population. Few Americans realise or approve that the top 20 percent of earners hold over 80 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 40 percent hold only 0.3 percent of it. Or that according to the latest census, nearly half of the U.S. population lives below, or only just above, the poverty line. In the face of such numbers, is it surprising that people take to the street?
It’s not about the money
For some, it is. Americans, after all, don’t resent people with great wealth. They believe in their right and ability to make money. The idea that one can make lots of it with a lucky break and a lifetime of hard work is at the core of the American dream. This is evident in the wave of mourning that followed Steve Jobs’ death in October, at the same time as the Occupy movement was gathering speed. Jobs was a corporate titan and a member of the 1%. But he worked his way up. He was the bright kid who started a company in his parents’ garage and built it into a global giant. And crucially, as a student of mine put it, “he made stuff”— stuff that people enjoy and use, among other things, to communicate while they occupy Wall Street.
What bothers occupiers, however, is not just the fortunes held by a small elite. It’s the growing disconnect between that elite and the rest of the population. The problem is both the amount and the nature of their privilege.
Seen from the protesters’ eyes, contemporary elites have few Steve Jobs in their ranks. Instead, they have come to resemble an aristocracy, whose privilege is inherited or won by skilful manoeuvring of markets or corporations; self-serving or primarily used for their own benefits; and sustained by tight bonds between corporate and political powers. It’s not the existence of an elite that angers protesters, or even its disproportionate privilege. It’s the impermeability of that elite—the perception that a feigned aristocracy has replaced meritocracy as its underlying operating principle. The ‘1%’ is no longer felt as either representing the ‘best and brightest’ in society, and their success is felt to contribute little to, and possibly to undermine, the opportunities available to the rest. Wall Street is merely a symbol of an elite that no longer ‘makes stuff’ for others but only makes wealth for itself.
What’s the point?
If the goal was to raise awareness about systemic inequality, protesters may have already succeeded. If the goal was to end it, clearly, there’s a long way to go. Beyond making a point about inequality, however, I believe Occupy Wall Street may serve a larger purpose. The movement is best understood not as a machine, that is, a deliberate means to a conscious end—but as an art installation, that is, a symbolic expression of a less conscious concern. Art is always important for a vital culture. When dissent and change are called for, however, it is necessary. Evocative art awakens. It implicates the viewer and creates a compelling need to make sense of it. We respond to a work of art not by asking, “What does it want?” but rather wondering, “Do I like it?” “What moved the artist?” and “What does this mean to me?” These are the very questions the Occupy movement is raising.
The work of art, when art works, is to challenge what we take for granted. This is what occupiers are doing. The movement’s defining feature, its aesthetic of living and organising, stands in stark contrast with institutional structures we have come to accept as necessary. Look at the tiny tents cast against the backdrop of the glass and steel skyscrapers; the general assemblies pitted against the corporate hierarchies and Washington lobbies. As much art, Occupy is born out of, and dramatises, a mixture of distress and desire. Distress for inequality and desire for community, for the kind of democracy where individuals’ voices count, not their wallets.
With time, occupiers may develop specific policy proposals out of the many discussions they are hosting and provoking. They may play a role in the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections, influence the choices of consumers, and inform the debates in academia. Whatever happens, the movement highlights the need for new forms of leadership and organising. It has made the point that there is only one way a new generation of leaders will regain the public’s trust, and prove that they embody and represent the organisations they serve, and the communities in which they are embedded. It won’t be by living in tents or following prescriptions of leadership professors. They, and their followers, will have to be ready and willing to keep a conversation going.
Gianpiero Petriglieri is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, currently on leave at the Harvard Business School. Find him on Twitter @gpetriglieri.