Friday, September 28, 2012

Occupy (V)

The post-encampment phase

This is the most difficult part of this series for me to write, because this phase was both the chronologically longest part of Occupy and, at least for me, pretty annoying. Encampments started mid-September 2011 and were essentially over by the end of December. If you arbitrarily choose the one year anniversary September 2012 demonstrations as the end of Occupy in its current form, then it's spent a good deal more of its existence without encampments than with them.

I'll use the Occupy group that I was involved with as an example once again, because I know more about it than any other. We did quite well for a small-town group. In our post-encampment phase we had weekly demonstrations in front of our local Bank of America branch in the town center. At the end of February, we had a visit by activists from OWS who did trainings, and we hired a movie theatre and showed short Occupy documentaries to 600 people, who then marched around the town to call attention to a number of places where big-money interests impinged on our communal life. In mid-March, we called a public meeting to discuss city finances with the mayor and town council which hundreds of non-Occupy people attended. We got local press for all of these activities and contributed to national press. Some of our more active people helped to oppose foreclosures at a nearby major city, and we opposed a proposed three-strikes law at the state level.

None of this made any discernible difference in actual political outcomes. Not that any experienced activist expects this kind of thing to make a difference in the short term. But that's who the majority of people were in Occupy at this point: experienced activists. And they'd done this kind of activism before Occupy and would individually continue doing it after Occupy, as part of existing groups that had lasted for much longer than it appeared that Occupy was going to. The major Occupy encampments served some hugely important functions besides those I've already mentioned: they provided the critical mass of people who made us into part of a global movement, and they supported the people who thought strategically about what was going on and could provide some sense of direction and response to events to the movement as a whole. Without them, it wasn't clear what we were gaining by doing this kind of thing as Occupy rather than as the kind of groups we'd had before.

And we were certainly losing something by being part of Occupy. I've been in a whole lot of movements, non-hierarchical co-ops, nonprofits etc., and when a Occupy General Assembly became dysfunctional, it became more dysfunctional than any other kind of arrangement I've seen. "Infighting" is a very common word that I've seen in any description of a late-stage Occupy GA. I'll write more about the organizational problems of this kind of structure in the next post.

Still, the Occupy General Assembly can inspire new people, even as the older ones leave. A sort of steady state might have been achieved. But here is where larger-scale considerations start to become important. How do middle-class protest movements end?

Occupy's debt to the Spanish Indignados and the Arab Spring protestors is well known. Perhaps less well known is that there have been middle class assembly movements in a wide range of industrialized countries. The Israeli #J14 protests, for instance. Or the Argentine Neighborhood Assembly Movement. Both of the articles that I've linked to are, I think, worth reading. I'll leave aside the question of ideology and the coexistence of moderate and radical politics for now, and sum up the two main long-term threats to these kinds of movements as co-optation and conciliation.

If repression fails, then existing power centers in a society naturally try to absorb the energy of the new one. In the Argentine case, their assemblies became sites of competition by various left-wing parties. America, of course, has no functioning left-wing parties, and the Democrats never made any serious effort to co-opt Occupiers into becoming electoral activists. The only organizations that made a serious effort to turn Occupy towards its purposes were the unions, who ran a sort of national campaign to have Occupy assist in union community outreach. We saw the effects of this in our small area -- our major protest somehow ended up stopping at areas that were of interest to unions but hadn't been of interest to anyone in our group before then, and well-prepared young people who were theoretically "Occupy" but who no one had ever seen at a GA showed up and helped to run a major event and spoke out on union issues. This was helpful, and since we had no real difference of opinion with the unions, people noticed it and then shrugged.

Conciliation was a much greater problem. "Conciliation" may be the wrong word, since very few people in power took deliberate action to conciliate Occupy -- repression had worked. Still, a basic characteristic of middle-class economic protest movements is that as the economy gets better, people go back to normal life, because normal life for them is after all pretty good. Duncan Black periodically posts what he calls the Scariest Chart Ever, a graphic which shows the percent job losses in post WW II recessions in the U.S. If you look at that chart, it is indeed scary in terms of the depth and length of the employment loss. It is less scary in that the employment has been steadily trending upwards for a long time now. If it took the depth of the recession to create Occupy, then that slowly trending upwards line meant that we weren't getting replacements for the people who left. The educated young people who'd been out of a job were getting jobs and leaving, and the experienced activists who were left weren't seeing a great benefit in doing what they did as Occupy.

That might have been what eventually did Occupy in even if the encampments had remained. That is the narrative that a lot of people both inside and outside of Occupy would prefer -- a sort of gradually-drifting-off end suitable for whatever interpretation the teller wants to hold. But it will forever remain a hypothetical, because by the time it arguably started to happen, Occupy's main strengths had already been taken away.

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