Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why Occupy May Day fizzled

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
Occupy Wall Street participants stage a march as part of May Day celebrations in New York
Occupy Wall Street participants stage a march as part of May Day celebrations in New York
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amitai Etzioni says Occupy Wall Street's May Day protests made little splash
  • He says general strike sometimes effective in history. But Occupy's goals too vague
  • He says it's no focused tea party, which has affected policy, helped elect officials
  • Etzioni: Occupy has contributed a slogan, but where's its real influence on policy?

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

(CNN) -- Occupy Wall Street called on the masses to skip work and school on May 1, and to close their wallets. All this was supposed to amount to a general strike, if not an American Spring. Some even talked about bringing down capitalism. But the small demonstrations in many American cities and in other cities across the world had little effect.

Rush hour on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, supposed to be a major center of protest, flowed. In Los Angeles, two blocks were closed by the authorities in anticipation of possible disruptions. Reports were that protesters in New York did not shut down traffic, as they planned to do. Some 2,000 demonstrated in Athens, and 7,000 next to a Greek factory, one of the most poorly attended demonstrations in the recent experience of this troubled land. Workers marched in several other cities across the world, as they do on every May 1.

Historically, general strikes were considered a powerful tool, meant to demonstrate the power of the people (often organized labor), able at least to gum up the working of major segments of the economy. In France, general strikes were used to force the government to make significant concessions. For instance, the 2006 demonstrations over the controversial CPE (or contrat première embauche, first employment contract, which would have made it easier for employers to fire young workers) lasted two months before President Jacques Chirac scrapped the legislation.

Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni

In the United States, the last general strike took place in 1946. While some 100,000 workers from 142 unions participated, it did not lead to concessions by the powers that be, let alone bring down anything.

This time? If the past is any predictor of the future, the deliberately nonhierarchical Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy messages and vague goals, is not going to leave a major mark.

Seattle 'Occupy May Day' gets ugly
CNN Explains: The Occupy movement

Occupy May Day "fizzled?" Not so fast, say iReporters

Some observers saw, at least initially, "an irresistible symmetry" between Occupy Wall Street and the tea party, despite some clear differences. An article in TIME described Occupy Wall Street as a "new outpouring of protest ... driven by the same fuel that gave fire to the tea party." In an October 2011 interview, President Obama said, "I understand the frustrations being expressed in those protests. In some ways, they're not that different from some of the protests that we saw coming from the tea party."

The comparison is informative, but in a rather different way. It highlights how weak the left is and how strong the right is in American politics. The tea party has a sharply edged message and has used its considerable following to elect public officials, who in turn have affected public policy.

For instance, they prevented the GOP leadership from compromising with Obama on raising taxes in exchange for cutting entitlements and government outlays. And the tea party put deficit reduction on the top of the political agenda. Speaking about the August 2011 deficit deal, Sen. John McCain said, "I don't think without the tea party we would have had an agreement." There is little in Occupy Wall Street's record that compares to these political victories.

Defenders of Occupy Wall Street may well argue that it was never meant to be a political power, but rather a cultural force, more like the counterculture of the '60s than a new civil rights movement. Jonathan Schell argues that "it was not a new set of policy ideas that was being born — the world was already overloaded with these, unacted upon — but a new spirit. ..."

But the cultural messages Occupy Wall Street carries, say, environmental responsibility or divorce from capitalism, are far from clear. And while the counterculture could thrive (briefly) in an age in which America was well-heeled, the message of opting out of the prevailing system does not seem to bring out the masses who seek employment, to avoid foreclosure, or simply to make ends meet.

Arguably the greatest achievement attributed to Occupy Wall Street is that it put inequality on the agenda of American politics, with its most memorable slogan: "We are the 99%." Writing in The New York Times, Brian Stelter described this line as a new "national shorthand" for the vast economic disparities facing the United States, noting that "whatever the long-term effects of the Occupy movement, protesters have succeeded in implanting 'We are the 99%'...into the cultural and political lexicon." Even an article in the conservative Weekly Standard declared Occupy Wall Street has changed the public discourse, making inequality the topic of the day.

There is no question that inequality has been rising in the United States and that it raises numerous issues concerning what is a fair distribution of income and wealth, what taxes we ought to raise, and how to prevent those who acquire great economic power from also gaining excessive political power (through campaign contributions).

I share these social justice concerns. However, I cannot help but note that there is a world of difference between putting something on the front pages of the newspapers for a few weeks and achieving changes in laws and, above all, in the distribution of wealth.

Given that Occupy Wall Street has not advocated any specific ways to reduce inequality and does not have the political organization to back up such an agenda, either others will have to find ways to curb inequality or we will see little progress on this front in the great budget battles to come shortly after the 2012 election.

Most assuredly, a general strike that fizzles will not serve the cause of reducing inequality, or even help Occupy Wall Street find its sea legs. Occupy Wall Street will have more opportunities to show that it did not flame out; however, it had better come up with a more cogent strategy, or it will soon be one more wasted force, one more protest movement that vented feelings but engendered precious little real social change.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT