Occupy Wall Street: Lessons From Women’s Suffrage

We can learn from the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

Finally, it is happening! Waves of people are hitting the streets. They are camping out at the bastions of casino capitalism. They are organizing, demanding change. It started in New York, with Occupy Wall Street and is now spreading to cities across America.

We at the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) have long advocated that a mass movement such as this was possible, and we have worked hard to prepare for it. Now it is happening, and we are thrilled. But there is much hard work ahead, not to mention uncertainty. Let me lay out for you what is ahead, and how the USPX will be involved.

First of all, movements like this don’t succeed quickly. They take years, often decades to achieve results. The Arab Spring may be the model for Occupy’s street demonstrations, but it cannot be the model for what comes next. Toppling dictators is like amputating limbs. When the time comes, you can do it quickly. Reengineering a financial system is like fighting cancer. If you are too aggressive, you can kill the patient. It takes time, and in a democracy like America, it takes a lot of time.

A better model for today’s demonstrations is the Women’s Suffrage Movement launched at Seneca Falls in 1848. Approximately 300 people gathered for that first meeting. Only one survived seven decades to see the day women would actually vote in national elections.

A couple days ago, Occupy Boston demonstrators promised to regather on Earth Day to replant the grass their encampment has destroyed. Believe me, the only way these demonstrations will finish up by Earth Day—six months from now—is if they fail. If you are taking part in the demonstrations—and I hope you are—think in terms of decades, not months.

Another lesson from Seneca Falls is the transformation that occurs when a movement defines itself. The purpose of the 1848 meeting was to present for debate and a vote a Declaration of Sentiments and an accompanying list of resolutions. The most controversial resolution was the one that women have the right to vote. Lucretia Mott argued against it. Frederick Douglass spoke for it. The resolution passed. But in the days following the meeting, a number of participants asked if they could scratch their names from the list of signatories. They were too embarrassed by the controversy the meeting had caused.

The Declaration of Sentiments and resolutions passed at the Seneca Falls meeting defined the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Other than a meandering list of grievances against corporations, Occupy has produced nothing similar−no principles, resolutions, goals or demands. You can understand the hesitancy. When they do that, it will define the movement. Like signatories scratching out their names, some people will look at those principles or demands and say “this isn’t for me.”

No movement can claim to represent 99% of the population for long. This isn’t bad. It is part of the growth trajectory of any successful movement.

With Occupy approaching a crossroads, which route will the movement take? I see four possibilities:

  1. Hesitancy and internal divisions might prevail. The movement fails to endorse clear principles and looses momentum.
  2. Or Occupy might embrace a broad liberal agenda, positioning itself as a sort of Democrats’ answer to the Tea Party.
  3. Another alternative would be that Occupy sticks to its initial financial/economic agenda but embraces the notion that capitalism is the problem. The movement would then turn towards socialism.
  4. Finally, the movement might stick to its initial financial/economic agenda but accept that the problem is broken capitalism and not capitalism itself. They would then advocate for fundamental repairs to American capitalism.

Given our commitment to capitalism, and the fact that we are non-partisan, the USPX cannot endorse the Occupy demonstrations unless and until they take the last of the above four courses.

But that need not sideline us. Engagement is not endorsement. We need to be engaged. Yesterday, I formed a members group on the USPX website to discuss how we should be engaged. That discussion is in its early stages, so I encourage members to join this group and share your thoughts. Early discussions have identified two ways we should be engaged:

  1. If things take a negative turn with Occupy, there are going to be disaffected supporters who believe in our “repair capitalism” agenda. We need to reach out to those people—at least let them know we exist.
  2. More importantly, we need to work to ensure Occupy doesn’t take a negative turn. These demonstrations could represent an historic turning point for our country. We cannot sit idly by and see the opportunity squandered or take a turn that harms our country. We have a voice and compelling ideas about how America’s broken capitalism can be fixed. The Occupy Movement needs us. We must speak out.