Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why Occupy May Day fizzled

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
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
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT