Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Occupy (I)

I've been meaning to write about the Occupy movement in the U.S. for some time, and I've realized that there's too much that I'd like to write about to fit it all into one post. If I'm going to write about it, I'll have to do it a bit at a time, within a loose series divided into sections.

My experience of Occupy has been at a college town in New England, so it's been from the margins, not at one of the major urban centers where most of the action has been.


The Occupy movement in the U.S. was a short-term success in that it increased the media exposure and political salience of left economic issues generally. It did better than any other form of left activism around economics attempted at the time. The movement did not have long-term staying power, however. It was destroyed by police repression -- once the Occupy encampments were forcibly dispersed, the movement itself lost what it needed to exist. The encampments were necessary both because they gave Occupy its influence and because its form of organization contained tensions that made it unstable outside that environment. In a larger sense, Occupy was a middle-class movement, and middle-class economic protest movements are generally hard to sustain.

I expect to write a good deal explaining what I mean by that.

I. What did Occupy want?

I'll skip over the early history of Occupy, which I've written about on this blog as it happened and which should be generally familiar to anyone interested enough to read this. But there is still a general sense in which some people will say "I never understood what they wanted. Why didn't they issue a list of demands?" This is a form of misunderstanding that's common enough so that I think it's worth following an example through in order to try to clear it up.

In fact, some elements of Occupy did issue demands and write economic position papers, but overall, Occupy steadfastly resisted doing so. Let's imagine that Occupy had. In particular, let's imagine that when asked "what are your demands?" as everyone was doing at one point, people in Occupy had decided that a top demand was "Reinstate Glass-Steagall". That is not a radical demand by any means, given that Glass-Steagall was originally passed in 1933 and is a straightforward form of governmental regulation of an industry. The general idea has wide support among economic experts, as evidenced by even Sandy Weill, former CEO of Citigroup, calling for it in July 2012.

All right, so imaginary Occupy has issued this demand. What happens next? Nothing. It has to be remembered, above all, that Occupy happened during Obama's term, not Bush's. And Obama and the Democratic Party generally oppose reinstating Glass-Steagall because the financial industry has captured both of the parties in the U.S. two-party setup.

There are typical ways in which people work within the system towards a desired end. They were tried. The people who say things like "Well, Occupy could have got something done if they'd just buckled down and done X" apparently don't know that X was being attempted at the time. Lobbying? Sure, there were many left groups who were lobbying around this issue and still are, to no effect against the concentrated power of political bribery. Running primary challengers in order to drag the party to the left? The netroots have been trying that, and Obama has successfully cut off any space there. A third party? Pretty much mathematically impossible for one to have lasting effect given how U.S. elections are set up. People power, demonstrations in the streets? The media and response to media have evolved so that standard protests, petitions, and so on are meaningless and ignored. Protests against the Iraq War, for instance, were large and widespread, and did nothing.

People in Occupy were systemically cut off from the usual ways in which democratic opinion is supposed to affect power. If they'd demanded anything, nothing would have happened. Everyone knew this. That is why people opposed to Occupy were generally loudest in their demand for a list of demands -- there is nothing so dispiriting as a demand that is an immediate loss because there is no apparent way of even approaching getting it.

I'm tempted to say that what Occupy really wanted was that one of our two political parties would actually work towards left economic interests. If the Democrats had done that, there would have been no real reason for Occupy to exist at all. Certainly the Democrats would have lost sometimes, but the energy of people working towards those issues would have gone through the party, not outside it.

But this wasn't an explicit demand of Occupy, and from what I saw, there were always a large number of people in Occupy who didn't agree with it even implicitly. Instead, Occupy settled on an existential challenge. They would break out of normal life and settle in the public square until the system was forced to recognize them. This was rational, given the lack of alternatives, and it worked. At that point it was up to the system to decide what had to be done to appease the people who weren't following the script, and who weren't helpfully disappearing at the end of the day as normal protestors did. If the system had decided on appeasement, elements like the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall would have followed naturally. By "the system" here I'm not talking about the capitalist system or something as large and abstract as that; this was up to a relatively finite set of political decision makers.

This challenge was taken seriously, and got a serious response -- much more response than anything else the left in America tried at the time. In the end, political decision makers chose repression, not appeasement, and repression was successful because Occupy didn't have a broad enough base of political support. I'll write more about that later. But Occupy can not be understood without understanding the political choices available at the time, and "what it wanted" is quite explicable in terms of those constraints.


  1. I think your "The movement did not have long-term staying power, however. It was destroyed by police repression" is generous; well certainly to what we saw in the UK; perhaps the US was different. Over here, it was more just a matter of slowly petering out, when it became apparent that nothing really was going to happen.

    That links to "settle in the public square until the system was forced to recognize them... In the end, political decision makers chose repression... and repression was successful because Occupy didn't have a broad enough base of political support."

    The base of people prepared to sit in the square wasn't large; you're automatically excluding all the people who need to go to work. And there was no other meaningful way to support Occupy. Whereas if there had been some coherent demands or desires, there would have been something to support.

  2. Hi William -- I think that future posts in this series will answer some of these questions. I'm going to address the "need to go to work" thing and what support for Occupy really would have meant. (In short, no one expects someone holding a job to camp out in the square, but you don't have to agree with Occupy to any great degree to object to protestors being driven out of parks by massive police raids.) I'm not going to write anything about Occupy in Britain, I don't think, but in the U.S. it think it's important to emphasize that petering out really was not factually or historically what happened until the major encampments were destroyed.

  3. OK, I see you're already on III, I'll read that.