The Moral Power of Occupy Wall Street

NEW YORK (Frameshop) – During an appearance on David Letterman’s show, Bill Clinton took the time to praise the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) for sparking a positive debate, but then warned the movement about the need to get “specific”:

I think that, on balance, this can be a positive thing, but they’re going to have to transfer their energies at some point to making some specific suggestions or bringing in people who know more to try to put the country back to work (link)

Good advice or bad advice? That is not such an easy question to answer.  To evaluate and decide whether Clinton’s advice is good, we need to step out of the more common discussion about political celebrity and force ourselves to engage and, ultimately, lead  a much more important discussion about political power. 

I think most people on the left have a love-hate relationship to Bill Clinton and his ideas.  We hate how his administration contributed to the deregulation that ultimately led to our current economic disaster, but we love how he has used his position to achieve so much good in the world of non governmental organizations.

But that is not what I want to discuss in response to this quote. Whether or not political advice comes from someone we admires or not–that question is not germane for OWS.  Issues about a politician’s likability are hallmarks of our tendency to evaluate political advice solely in a framework of celebrity instead of tackling more interesting and more valuable questions.

What matters is not what we think of Bill Clinton, but what will result in terms of power by following or ignoring his advice.

In other words, the key question to ask in response to Bill Clinton’s remarks is not,”Do I like Bill Clinton enough to agree with and, therefore, heed his advice?” Instead, it makes more sense to ask:  When seen through lens of political power, what would be the consequences of following Bill Clinton’s advice?

To get from one framework to another, it is helpful to do a bit of translating.

If we translate Bill Clinton’s advice into the language of power, we might get three statements that look like this:

  1. OWS has value because it has sparked debate, but it does not yet have power.
  2. To have power, OWS must either craft economic policy or support economic policy crafted by others.
  3. Political power comes from improving people’s lives in economic terms.

Anyone who has ever heard Bill Clinton speak is familiar with his general, economic definition of political power.

Want to pass environmental legislation? Point to jobs that your environmental policy created.  Want to pass civil rights legislation? Point to jobs your equal rights laws created.  Want to wage war abroad? Point to jobs your military attack lead to in the aftermath.  And so on.

Many, many people in the Democratic Party view politics through the lens of Clinton’s economic definition of power.

So, is it wrong?

It is not wrong in the abstract, but it is often wrong in application.

Bill Clinton, in the past ten years, has become a master at finding situations where his definition of political power holds true.  And there are many.  The non-governmental organization world, in which he is now the leading global figure, is chock-full of success stories where political support has been garnered by those who deliver greater economic prosperity.

In the 2011 American context in which most of us live, however, there are just as many if not more situations where people garner political power not only while failing to improve the economic conditions of their supporters, but while actually undermining or even destroying them.

The rise of the current incarnation of the Republican Party is a perfect example of this scenario.

From 1980 to 2008 the Republican Party became more and more powerful while advancing economic policies that helped a smaller and smaller number of their millionaire and billionaire supporters, all while gutting the economic prospects of the rest.  If we stick to an economic definition of power, we miss what actually happened.

So, what accounts for this?

The answer is easier than many of us think, but most of us simply do not ever think about it because our current political moment has become so saturated by the economic definition of power.

Good economic policy that benefits a person and their community does not de facto translate into political power. Instead, political power comes from influencing others through a deep connection with their sense of what is right and what is wrong–their principles and values.  This connection leads to agreement and anchors policies in legitimacy.

This moral definition of power might sound like this:  Political power comes from doing what is right and standing against what is wrong.

Embedded in this definition, of course, is the reality that if nobody agrees with your definition of what is right and wrong, then you are not able to build very much power.  The more people who agree when you stand up for what is right and what is wrong, the more power you garner, and the more the legitimacy of your actions can endure.

Having arrived at this distinction, between an economic definition of power and a moral definition of power, we might ask the obvious question: If our definition of power depends on doing what is right, who decides what is right?

In a word: you do–you decide.

At this point in the discussion, it is helpful to look at how the OWS has acted, because it is a great example for understanding how moral power takes shapes, expands, and builds enduring legitimacy.

Consider t how the OWS protesters have made decisions, thus far.  People come together to make decisions by consensus, arriving at decisions by reaching a point of unanimous agreement (read: everybody involved in the decision agrees that the decision is right).  The result of this process is that the decisions garner legitimacy–and are, therefore, respected by all.

This system works great when numbers are small, but ultimately, the problem evolves as the number of participants grows.  To guarantee that the greatest number of people can agree on decisions, thereby maintaining the legitimacy of the system, a political system operating in a framework of moral power often puts down principles in order to facilitate larger and larger decisions by more and more people.

When such a list of principles are held up to distinguish the new system of right from the current corrupt system, the list is often called a “declaration.”  When these lists of principles are expanded and refined, they are typically called a “constitution.”

At this point, all of this should be starting to sound familiar because American history itself was launched on the back of a moral definition of power that resulted in a group of people doing the hard work of generating principles, declarations, and constitutions to sustain the legitimacy of the system.

And, thus, we return to our opening question: should OWS follow Clinton’s advice or not?

Initially, they should not.

OWS should not put aside what it is doing in order to focus on generating economic policy proposals with the idea that the success of those proposals will result in the success of the movement.

OWS should continue in the direction that has brought it so much success: declaring that the legitimacy of our political system has failed because a majority of Americans no longer view the economic decisions being made as being consistent with our widely held set of principles–or shared idea about what is right and wrong.

Instead, millions of Americans believe that our nation’s economic policies have abandoned the principles that should be guiding our public policy to benefit 99% of the country. We see that far too many of our economic policies have an immoral goal: to benefit the top 1%. We see it, we are sick of it, and because OWS speaks out against it on our behalf, we feel a deep connection to them.

The OWS participants have highlighted this widely held national concern by pointing a finger at corporate and financial sector greed and, as a result, their power and their potential is growing rapidly.

Bill Clinton is not wrong when he says that economic policy must ultimately benefit the most number of people. OWS will get there.  But getting down to the specifics of those policies is less important at this stage than the work of bringing our politics and our country back to a moral discussion about power.

And on that difficult charge–attempted and failed by so many in the past decades–OWS has been wildly successful in a very short amount of time.


8 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Ahem. I believe this sentence is miscast: “This moral definition of power might sound like this: Political power comes from doing what is right and standing up for what is wrong.”
    Just sayin.

  2. Anu Anzu,

    Just about every issue raised by OWS has it’s roots springing from one main issue. Corporate money in our legislature via direct contributions and the support they can now givee or take via commercial media. Getting that money out should be our primary focus. It’s a long war we have engaged in. Focusing on immediate resuls will be conterproductive.

    • I agree and would just add that the big issue is economic injustice in all its forms–which has been voiced very effectively at all levels of the movement.

  3. James Belcher,

    President Clinton said “at some point.” The world’s greatest politician is giving political advice. *At some point*, it would be wise to take it.

    In my lifetime (I’m 41), the economy was best under Clinton. He didn’t come to his policies alone, either. Bob Woodward’s The Agenda details how his advisers persuaded him to hold off on most big policy moves until he fixed the economy. Point being that there’s a mix of moral and economic power that can make the right things happen.

    One more bit worth remembering: when Clinton left office, we were track to have *all* our debt paid off by 2013. Let that sink in.

    • Absolutely. I would just hold that moral power is a far greater source of enduring legitimacy that the form of power that comes through economic improvement–particularly economic improvement that’s measured in terms of cash and accounting (as opposed to labor, resources, health, etc.). Personally, I think Clinton’s greatest economic success was the way he took down big tobacco, which probably saved this country so much money in health costs that it cannot even be measured. Because that action was built on such a strong moral foundation, it’s legitimacy endures.

  4. Buck Turgidson,

    I think Dean Baker makes a lot of sense in his article on President Clinton’s economic “expertise”: .

  5. James Belcher,

    The Clinton economy was hardly the house of cards Baker portrays. But he’s a free-trade centrist, which pisses a lot of people off.

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