The Underpants Gnome Theory of Social Change

by Josh Barro

It’s not just me. Now Barney Frank is warning that Occupy Wall Street’s disdain for the political system renders them ineffective. He says:

[S]imply being in a public place and voicing your opinion in and of itself doesn’t do anything politically. It is the prerequisite, I hope, for people getting together and voting and engaging things.

And I understand some of the people on Occupy Wall Street are kind of critical of that. They think that’s conventional politics.

Well, you know, the most successful organization in America in getting its views adopted is the National Rifle Association. They are in many cases a minority. But in addition to everything else they do, they very effectively identify who the members of the Congress are, the legislatures and vote for them.

Occupy Wall Street is operating under an Underpants Gnome theory of social change. They say the “system” is too corrupted by corporate money for them to bother with traditional political engagement, including the issuance of actual policy proposals. Okay, now what’s their alternative? It seems to be:

  1. Camp out in a park and wave signs about your discontent with the system.
  2. ?
  3. Social change!

Certainly, Occupy Wall Street is succeeding in attracting attention. The protesters say they won’t be ignored, and they’re not being ignored. The movement is even polling pretty well—probably because it picked an unpopular target and has been so vague about policy that members of the public can project their own views onto it.

But the endgame isn’t media coverage and good poll numbers. I could start an Anti-Kardashian movement and I would probably poll in the mid-80s. It wouldn’t lead to policy change, though. If you want to change policy, eventually engaging the political apparatus isn’t optional. Michelle Goldberg gets this right:

The movement has been enormously successful at capturing people’s imaginations and giving them a place to gather, air deep and legitimate grievances, and be invigorated by the power of group solidarity. But coming together and creating a counterculture is ultimately not enough to effect real and lasting change. For that, leadership and structure are ultimately needed.

The question is, will the movement be able to withstand leadership and structure? It depends what its members want. If they can agree on modest goals—things like greater tax progressivity and certain new banking regulations—that might well work. But coalescing around a marketable goal set would involve marginalizing not just the anti-Semites and cranks, as Goldberg says, but also the less trivial subset of protesters who reject capitalism altogether. I don’t think those people are going to go quietly.

If structure is going to lead to fracture and disarray, then maybe Occupy Wall Street really can’t engage the political system in the way Barney Frank suggests. But in that case, adhering to the Underpants Gnome theory isn’t an alternative path to success—it’s just a way to stave off inevitable collapse.