The movement as a whole has been accused of being incoherent, which is fair, because to some extent it is, but also irrelevant, as any decentralised movement is going to be a little vague at the outset. In one sense the target is obvious; if the protesters consider themselves "the 99%", then they are defining themselves in opposition to "the 1%", the slice of people at the top of the economic pile. But if you hang around a protest you'll hear people complain about Wall Street workers more generally, about politicians, about the parties, the Federal Reserve, the media, the system, etc. "I don't want to get all conspiracy theory, but you know the Black Hand?" one man asked me, going on to describe a shadowy network of the world's old-money players, including the World Bank, the IMF, the Rockefellers, the Koch brothers, and the Queen of England.
Still, I think the core complaint is actually pretty straightforward. The protesters feel like working Americans have been treated unfairly. This becomes more clear if you reflect that the American conception of fairness has more to do with equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome. That might be a contentious point, so let me unpack it a little. Foreigners often comment on the fact that, for such an ostentatiously egalitarian country, America has a rather striking degree of economic inequality and social ossification, both of which are reinforced by factors such as the relatively high cost of college tuition and the lack of a single-payer health-care system. And yet, Americans seem to support this system.
Some critics (such as Thomas Frank in his book "What's the Matter with Kansas?") see this as a sort of false consciousness. I would argue, however, that many Americans are sanguine about inequality because they believe any individual has the capacity to make something of themselves if they take the opportunity, work hard, play by the rules, and so on. The truth of this is debatable because the metrics we typically use to measure an individual's capacity for social mobility are actually measures of aggregate mobility, which is not the same thing. On the one hand, for example, America has a higher Gini coefficient than Britain; on the other hand, America's head of state is Barack Obama, and Britain's is David Cameron.
The protests support this line of thinking. Again, look at the list of demands from Occupy Austin. They may not be representative of the movement overall, but they were, at least, ratified by the protesters as a group. (You can get another unscientific snapshot of the movement by browsing the submission on the We Are The 99% Tumblr.) The recurring complaints aren't about free trade, or unauthorised migration, or climate change, or Bible-thumping. Many people dislike those things, but they're not unfair, exactly. Instead, the protesters keep coming back to a set of issues where they feel the government has unfairly advantaged the interests of corporations over those of working Americans. That's why they keep carping on the bank bailout, on deregulation, on the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, and on the idea of "corporate personhood" more generally. "Bank of America is not a person," thundered one of the protesters on Friday. "If he was, I would punch him in his face." This is also, I think, why we're seeing recurring complaints from people staggering under student loans and medical bills. They're not saying, exactly, that the cost of higher education is too high--which is interesting, because many people would argue that it is. They're saying that if people took on a lot of debt for their education and now they can't find jobs, why don't they get a bailout, if the banks are getting one?
If this is, in fact, the nature of the complaint, then the protesters should be taken seriously. This isn't to say that they're right about everything, and if any policy does come out of this it may be for different reasons than the protesters are suggesting. The best argument for forgiving student loans, for example, is not that everyone should get a bailout if anyone does, but rather that doing so would free up spending and perhaps encourage labour mobility. On some issues, however, they are dead on; I understand the legal argumentation behind Citizens United, but that was a silly decision. And as a broader point, we have thousands of people, across the country, peacefully protesting for days about fairness. It's hard to imagine the circumstances under which politicians shouldn't be curious, at least.