The Occupy Wall Street movement has generated a slew of questions from those outside the occupying ranks: Who are these people? What do they really want? Which city will be next? How will our public officials respond? And as the protests have stretched well into their second month, when will it all end? These questions represent an understandable attempt to make sense of a complex, diffuse and divisive movement. They attempt to explain what is happening. But they aren't the questions we really need to ask. Instead, we should be asking why it is happening. And more importantly, we should be asking what we can learn it.
This isn't an easy leap for business leaders. After all, we're the enemy here. On its website, Occupy Wall Street sets its raison d'être as follows:
"#OWS is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations." It goes on: "The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future."
There it is. It is the 99% versus the 1%, the rest-of-us against the richest-of-us. This framing sets the two groups in complete opposition. It has the potential to lead to the wholesale demonization of our business leaders on the one hand and the utter dismissal of the arguments of the occupiers by those very leaders on the other. This is the worst possible outcome. Anger and resentment on both sides mean the two groups shout at and ridicule one another, rather than attempting to listen to the arguments on the other side.
Business leaders, the famous 1%, need to resist the urge to dismiss the whole movement based on the scattershot and at times ill-conceived nature of the arguments on the placards. Our task is instead to parse the protest, understand the nature of the legitimate complaints that underpin the movement and to attempt to create smart remedies to those complaints.
In other words, we need to acknowledge that some of these protesters have a point. Decisions made on Wall Street (and in the City) have indeed caused massive financial disruption around the world. But while the bankers at Goldman Sachs (GS) and the traders at AIG (AIG) made decisions that helped tip us into a global recession, it does not necessarily follow that Wall Street is irredeemable. The problem isn't that Wall Street broke the rules to their own benefit, it's that the rules themselves are unhelpful.