"There's a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young said recently of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. "This is an emotional outcry," he went on. "The difference is organization and articulation." Young knows something about social movements: as a young pastor in the South, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was jailed for participating in demonstrations in Alabama and Florida. But his suggestion that what is happening today in lower Manhattan lacks real momentum rings false -- the civil rights movement is not a precedent one can use to understand Occupy Wall Street. Neither is this movement a Tea Party of the left, as some observers have suggested. Occupy Wall Street is a movement of a completely new type.

Both the civil rights movement and the Tea Party were created to serve specific constituencies -- in the first case, African Americans suffering under the burden of Jim Crow in the South; in the second, older, white middle-class Americans who saw themselves as victims of an overweening federal government. "This is about the people who work hard to bring home the bacon and want to keep it," one Tea Party group declared. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street puts forward few policy proposals and has a shifting configuration of supporters as it spreads across the country. The closest its activists have come to issuing a clear statement of aims was in the "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," posted on September 30th. "As one people, united," the declaration proclaimed, "we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors." That is hardly a policy platform. But policy platforms are not the point of this new kind of movement.

Charles Tilly, the late Columbia sociologist, divided movements into three types, based on the policies they demand, the constituencies they claim to represent, and the identities they are trying to construct. Both the civil rights movement and the Tea Party combined the first and second goals. Occupy Wall Street is what we might call a "we are here" movement. Asking its activists what they want, as some pundits have demanded, is beside the point. Participants are neither disillusioned Obama supporters, nor a "mob," as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor cynically described them. By their presence, they are saying only, "Recognize us!"

If Occupy Wall Street resembles any movement in recent American history, it would actually be the new women's movement of the 1970s. When that struggle emerged in the wake of the civil rights movement, it shocked conservatives and befuddled liberals. The first saw the activists as a bunch of bra-burning anarchists; the second considered them unladylike, or, well-meaning liberals gone off the reservation. Although the leaders of the new women's movement had policies they wanted on the agenda, their foremost demand was for recognition of, and credit for, the gendered reality of everyday life. Likewise, when the Occupy Wall Street activists attack Wall Street, it is not capitalism as such they are targeting, but a system of economic relations that has lost its way and failed to serve the public.

Periodically, thousands of Americans from no single social class or region, and with no explicit goal, come together in what the Cornell political theorist Jason Frank has called a "constituent moment." Likewise, the Yale constitutional theorist Bruce Ackerman names three such moments in American history. The most recent was during the Great Depression, when hardship and outrage came together in a wave of strikes and demonstrations, some of them far more mob-like than Occupy Wall Street. They had no specific policy agenda, but they demanded recognition and radical change in the relations between government, the people, and corporations. 

The parallels between the 1930s and today are striking. The economy has plunged to historic levels of unemployment and hardship. The economic crisis again is global, forces of obscurantism and reaction are afoot (think of the anti-immigrant legislation recently passed in Arizona and Alabama), and policymakers are demanding savage spending reductions. The Supreme Court, which, in the 1930s, was unaware that the judicial doctrines of the nineteenth century were hopelessly inadequate for the economic problems of the early twentieth, today has returned to a doctrine of originalism, which seeks to go even further back -- now to the 18th century.

But the energy gathering behind Occupy Wall Street may very well not bring on another New Deal. Perhaps no "constituent moment" will result from it. During the Depression, unemployment topped 25 percent; today it is 9.1 percent. Then, the United States had a president, Franklin Roosevelt, who said of the plutocrats who opposed his policies and hated him personally: "I welcome their hatred!" Like the Wall Street protesters today, he spoke of "government by organized money" and of the "forces of selfishness and lust for power." The response was electric, and Roosevelt was re-elected by a greater majority than in the previous election. The difference this time is that the White House and the Democratic Party offer no leadership to the inchoate anger that Occupy Wall Street reflects. In his press conference last week, after acknowledging that he understands the anger of the protesters, President Barack Obama was quick to assure the financial sector of his continuing support.

"We are here" movements often flare up rapidly and fade away just as quickly, or disintegrate into rivulets of particular claims and interests. Others, like the new women's movement, eventually coalesce into a few organized sectors, each with its own set of policy demands and political identities. It is too soon to tell which of these will be the fate of Occupy Wall Street. But one thing is certain: we are hearing a wake-up call to a complacent corporate sector and its Washington enablers, signaling that there is a new force demanding change at the grassroots of American society.

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  • SIDNEY TARROW is Emeritus Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government at Cornell University. He is the author of several books, including The New Transnational Activism and Contentious Politics.
  • More By Sidney Tarrow