When I was interviewed recently about the Wall Street protests by Triple J and Brisbane’s ZZZ, I stressed their significance as symbolic politics but expressed doubts about comparisons being made with both the Arab Spring revolts and the radical movements of the 1960s. Yet since these interviews the protests have grown and spread across America in a way that does compel some serious speculation that a new movement for social change is developing. Participants and commentators from my generation (broadly speaking the baby boomers) are heartened by the number of young people involved.
These young people are witnessing a massive decline in job opportunities at the very time that many of them have increasing debt due to heightened student loans. They also face a world in which the richest 1% prosper while the middle class shrinks, working class salaries are effectively cut, the official poverty rate is now above 15% (whereas ten years ago it was at 11%) and black rates of poverty and incarceration signal an intensifying racial divide. The protestors in Wall St. want to turn that world around, want the financiers to be held accountable for the wreckage they have created, want a more equal society and one that does not squander its wealth on the military industrial complex and imperial adventures abroad. Sounds like the Sixties? At one level, yes, but at another not quite.
For a start, of course, the 1960s in America were a time of economic prosperity. The radical dreams of that decade were fuelled, in part, by a boom economy and an optimism of spirit that sprang from a world of opportunity. There was, to be sure, poverty and racism and these were central issues for organisations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And here is where the key difference between the radical Sixties and Occupy Wall Street lies – organisation. Occupy Wall Street has not yet spawned a genuine movement because it lacks organisations with clear goals and clear leaders. Paradoxically, this is also what makes it refreshing and reminiscent of what could be called the anarchist and countercultural spirit of the 1960s.
Without organization, leadership, clear strategies and goals, the protests will, I fear, fail to produce the sorts of radical movements we saw in the 1960s. Nonetheless, the fact that they are happening at all and that they are drowning out the babble from the Tea Party is enough reason to hold out hope that a radical politics can be revived in America.
*Anthony Ashbolt is a Senior Lecturer in Politics who is writing a cultural history of the radical Sixties in the San Francisco Bay Area– www.pickeringchatto.com/sixties