Occupy Wall Street: You Say You Want a Revolution

Changing the world is a messy business, and for the Occupy Wall Street groups camped out in parks and squares around the world, it’s also a cold, damp one. But it can be done. There’s even a pretty good formula for figuring out whether beating a drum and sleeping on the ground is likely to provoke change or whether it’s just so much earnest, feel-good street theater – the Change Formula.

At its core, creating change without tanks is a communication issue. (You could argue that sending in the tanks is also a form of communication, but let’s stick with what Ketchum does, which is peaceful persuasion.) When you look at the version of the Change Formula that Ketchum professionals are guided by, all the available levers to create the change are based in strong, clear, compelling communication.

Our Change Formula states that likelihood of creating change depends on these:

  • How miserable are we?

  • How attractive is the vision of a different future?

  • How hard is it to get there?

  • Is all that enough to convince the people who have to pay for it to actually pay for it?

The Occupy Wall Street movement seeks really big throw-the-bastards-out change. They have a new vision for how society and most of its institutions function. It is change on the scale of the American and French Revolutions, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cuban Revolution or the Arab spring.

Are we as dissatisfied as those people were? Is “mad as hell” mad enough?

Maybe, says the movement. Their placards say 99% of us are disenfranchised and downtrodden. If that’s true, then a political solution is a sure thing. We don’t need a violent revolution, like Libya, or a complete social and economic collapse, like the Soviet Union. What candidate for political office wouldn’t want to be on the right side of an issue that has the backing of 99% of the electorate? Even motherhood, babies and singing high school vampires aren’t that popular.

But the fact that no political candidate anywhere is stepping up to run on a “raise taxes” platform suggests either that 99% of us have failed to adequately communicate our dissatisfaction with the status quo. Or that the number is inaccurate.

It’s undeniable that some people are dissatisfied with their treatment in our society. It’s undeniable that some people make a lot more money than others, and that some people, because of their wealth, have greater influence than others who lack wealth.

Can the Occupy Wall Street movement make a convincing case that these disparities are so unfair and so pervasive that we must have fundamental change? Can they connect to and amplify a vein of pessimism running through society – a belief that anyone engaged in business or politics is corrupt?

It’s hard to predict the future, but it’s easy to make the case we aren’t on the verge of a social collapse into abject despair. On the same weekend that a few hundreds and in some cases thousands of people started their occupations, Apple sold more than four million of its 4S iPhones.

On a scale of one to 10, how does Occupy Wall Street rate on the Change Formula variables?

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo: Its argument that the current economic system is unsustainable is supported by a couple of severe global economic crises, and its argument that our social systems are failing is supported by lots of data and countless painful stories about real people treated badly. That ranks it somewhere above our dissatisfaction with the new TV season but substantially below our dissatisfaction with the knowledge that there is a new iPhone available and we don’t have it. Rating: 3.

  • Vision for the future: TBD because a vision hasn’t been described, though elements of it have. Bank executives will make less. College tuition will be free. The gap between the haves and the have nots will be closed. Rating: on hold for more information.

  • How easy is the process to get there: It is unfathomable. Either candidates will have to be elected and laws changed, or a process for mass hypnosis invented. Rating: 1.

  • Cost to those affected: There’s the real cost and the perceived cost. Redistribution of wealth through tax regime change and other regulatory changes might be a painful 7 or 8, but the perceived change is likely an intolerable 10 depending on how deep you’re going to go. Hit every household that earns above $100,000 with a tax increase and this change will be unachievable. Rating (with difficulty): 9.5.

You can argue that our priorities are all screwed up, but if Occupy Wall Street can only rouse a tiny fraction of the number of people who were willing to get up in the middle of the night to watch the televised wedding of Prince William and Kate, it’s hard to make the case we are highly motivated to change.