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/ November 7, 2011
NYU Hosted A Panel To Explore The Implications Of Occupy Wall Street

When it comes to “Occupy,” media speculation is just as anarchic as the movement down at Wall St. and elsewhere—downplayed here, and glorified there. But where exactly is this thing going? How would it translate into real-world policy-making, if at all? More interestingly, what broader implications does this civilian-led worldwide effort hold for us?

On Thursday, The Journal of Global Affairs hosted a panel called “Occupation to Policy: A Discussion on the Political, Governmental, and Economic Implications of Occupy Wall Street” to provide a coherent but spontaneous environment to address some of these questions.  Panelists included Peter Cunningham, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, US Department of Education, George Shulman, Professor at Gallatin, Peter Rajsingh, Professor at Stern and Gallatin, Prasad Shankar Adjunct Associate Professor of Public Administration at Wagner, and Lily Defriend, an active participant at the think-tank section of Occupy Wall Street.

Global economic meltdown, bailout of the instigators, political gridlock tightened further by the complete ineptitude of the government, and the ensuing widespread angst standout as some of the causes and frustrations of OWS. While many explanations focus on unemployment figures and income gap, these panellists attempted to interpret the phenomenon under a more socio-political context.

Rajsingh launched a staunch criticism of a system that resembles a “post-modern feudal, oligarchic regime where the minority people commandeer the gear sticks of power which essentially disenfranchise[d] the metaphoric 99%” thereby taking away their status as stakeholders in the system. Shulman provided a more moderate spin, identifying the key source of the movement as the insensitivity of governments, “It’s about regimes that are unresponsive to people. In the American case, it’s about regimes in which there is a complete disconnection” between citizens and the political arena. He went onto explain that the reason why OWS as a movement is also disconnected to the political system was because the system “has failed for many years.”

Shulman on the other hand cast doubt on any precipitate policy-making on the whim of a movement like OWS because “…what makes political change is something that’s very much slower, not always so visible. And then at the tip of the iceberg, you get something like the Voting Rights Act, or Fair Housing Act…” He nevertheless conceded that having a sense of faith in achieving what “most people say is actually impossible” eventually could lead to dramatic changes, “It’s the same kind of assertion one heard when people began to attack Jim Crow laws, the war in Vietnam…every political change in history has been strictly speaking impossible.”

Prasad added to this point emphasising the elevation of “political awareness” spearheaded by Occupy movements, something that would result in a much higher electoral turn out, drawing those that used reside with the “apathetic” segment of the population.

With the 2012 election approaching, everyone is dying to see how OWS will affect America’s democracy. A poll by CNN back in October found that OWS-friendlies outnumber haters 32% to 29%, and a stout 54% of Americans say they lost confidence in Wall Street to do the right thing for the country. Embracing OWS might seem like a good starting point for Mr. Obama to salvage any chances of re-election—republicans might very well fancy the idea too.

Cunningham, given the rare opportunity to say anything remotely interesting due to his position in the administration, remarked with a sudden zest, “Democrats will miss a huge opportunity,” and that it would be “a huge mistake” not to tap into the general frustrations exhibited by OWS, “huge segments of the traditional democratic party have been affected by the economy.”

Prasad also commented that “its undeniable” that there will be “policy entrepreneurs who will take this OWS to try developing policy solutions.” On the other hand, Shulman retorted with a does of scepticism, “I don’t see the democratic party picking this [OWS] up the way the Republican party picked up tea party…Democratic politics is sometimes very episodic and very fugitive.” Rajsingh marked a more “nuanced and sophisticated” nature of OWS that made any responsive policy-making inherently difficult, in comparison to the “black and white” disposition of the tea party.

The best part of the panel was its inquiry into the wider cultural impact of OWS. Rajsingh seemed to be over the moon by the fact that OWS represented a reconstruction of the moral notions that “annulated the very concept of the American republic: the notions about life…dignity…and justice. Opponents of the movement…discredit this [moral high ground OWS seeks to establish]…that the movement lacks moral character.”

Shulman also seemed fascinated by how Occupy movements would shape American culture, “It’s a chance to rethink a lot of things and do things differently, and that’s recasting how the culture understands its basic practices and values…just by the virtue of saying stop, pause, and think…” He went on to explain that such movements returned “a sense of democratic entitlement” to the people who had been “disenfranchised” by the system.

“We need that—it [provides] that sense of authorization… when people overcome despair someway, get together and say we can make a difference… We can change things that people believe to be impossible to change, which has happened all over the world”—referring to the momentous scenes of the Arab Spring that saw the downfall of several decades-old dictatorships in the Middle East. On top of that Rajsingh gave exposure to  “the cross-pollination aspect” of OWS that knitted together several different constituencies with markedly varying demands—a phenomenon so unorthodox to American politics, and “a complete reversal” of James Madison’s precocious concerns for the problems of factionalism.

To the theoretical speculations Shulman and Rajsingh mounted, Defriend gave her impressions procured from groundlevel at Zuccotti Park. She spoke of her amazement at the “remarkable symbolic values” of an encampment entirely run on a “consensus” basis with no leadership. Indeed the OWS encampment downtown is almost entirely self-sufficient with an array of different sections serving food, medical care, media equipment, clothing supplies, cigarettes, think tanks and general assembly meetings. She also said “There’s definitely a sense of urgency…It’s very obvious that everyone wants to see this thing go somewhere…until [OWS] see a reform that is as dramatic as the bailout of the banks, there isn’t going to be much that will top them from that frustration.”

(photograph by Jake Moore)