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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT