The Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged in the summer and fall of last year was a creative new development in American politics. Their novel tactic of nonviolent mass trespassing will probably continue to influence events for years to come. It is becoming clear, however, that the Occupy movement will have to transform itself to achieve its objectives of greater equality in the American economy. Other tactics and new organizations will be needed. Patience will be needed.
Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the Arab Spring of one year ago, but the results have been quite different. Simply by occupying public spaces, the people of the Arab Spring were able to transform the political balance in their countries. The Arab Spring, of course, is not yet complete. The continuing bloody struggle in Syria, some continuing resistance in Libya, and the unsettled balance of forces in Egypt, Yemen and other countries are all post-revolutionary struggles. Every important revolution has been followed by post-revolutionary struggles. Nevertheless, the people of the Arab Spring created their revolution.
By contrast, Occupy Wall Street has not created a revolution. This difference illustrates the error of a popular belief about dictatorship and democracy. The popular belief is that dictatorships are stronger governments than democracies, but the opposite is true. No government exists that is not actively supported by some fairly numerous group, even if only by those on its payroll as police agents. Similarly, all governments rely on the passive consent of the larger number. In a dictatorship, this passive consent is based on the expectation of the population that any active opposition will meet violent repression. To a great extent this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The government must rely on its active supporters to do the work of repression. Where the number of active supporters is small, the government will be able to carry out its repressive threat only if there are very few in active opposition. By mobilizing large numbers to active opposition, the people of the Arab Spring were able to demonstrate the weakness of the dictatorial regimes simply by their continued presence in the public places.
What we call a democracy is a form of government based on compromise among the large, politically active groups in society. It is what game theory calls a “coalition” among those groups. But that word could be confusing because it has a different meaning in parliamentary politics. In Germany, for example, the current government is a coalition of the Christian Democratic Party and the Free Democratic Party, and their supporters are part of the Democratic Compromise, but the supporters of the opposition Social Democratic and Green parties are also part of the Democratic Compromise. The Loyal Opposition is always part of the Democratic Compromise.
Democratic countries are stronger than dictatorships, as a rule, because the number of active supporters is greater. There are several reasons for this. First, they are drawn from more groups, including the Loyal Opposition. Second, the possibility of a shift to a different governing coalition after the next election encourages more of the supporters of all groups to remain active. Third, when new groups shift from passive consent to political activity, they may be able to make some progress by conventional political activity and become members of the Democratic Compromise, as, for example, the Greens have done in Europe. Fourth, even when they are excluded from conventional politics, a new activist group may find innovative ways to include themselves in the Democratic Compromise, as the American Civil Rights Movement shows. Finally, for all of these reasons, the dynamic of the Democratic Compromise is to include more and broader groups within its framework, whether as active or passive members, as history shows. By contrast, the dynamic of dictatorship seems to be to limit the active support to smaller and smaller groups since fewer pigs at the trough means more swill for each pig.
All of this means that the power balance in a democratic country will be more resilient in the face of large-scale opposition than a dictatorship can be. It presents the people of Occupy Wall Street with a three-way decision. On the one hand, they might continue their innovative, unconventional tactics in the hope that, like the Civil Rights Movement, they can shift the Democratic Compromise in that way. On the other hand, they might try to enter into conventional politics by, for example, contesting Democratic Party primary elections. On the gripping hand, they might take a strictly revolutionary position, outside and in (nonloyal) opposition to the Democratic Compromise as a whole. In my opinion, their objective — a much more equal distribution of opportunity in America — cannot be attained without major changes in the legal framework of American capitalism. The latter two options offer a clear pathway by which these changes might occur, but the obstacles are great and the probability of success (in my judgment) slight. For the first option, the path to success is far less clear, and as a result the probability of success cannot be assessed. There is evidence of some division among the occupiers on this choice. The coming year may well be “interesting times.”
Roger McCain is a professor of economics. He can be reached at email@example.com.