What erupted in lower Manhattan a year ago was something between a moment and a movement, as organizer Marshall Ganz said. The Occupy flame caught not only because of the ingenuity and audacity of a few thousand young insurgents, but because the Occupiers found a way to give voice to the widespread feeling that plutocracy was an offensively wrong system. Their spunk and inventiveness crystallized a deep-seated sense that the power of the plutocracy poses a deep moral crisis.
The encampment near Wall Street, and its hundreds of spin-offs, became the core of a movement that attracted tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, making 1 percent and 99 percent household terms and drastic inequality and middle-class stagnation national concerns. Using online networks to build up face-to-face communities, Occupy wrested the initiative from the Tea Party and garnered popular sympathy. It won points by confronting corrupt adversaries in whimsical and inventive ways. It brought hard-core activists together with a myriad of allies. At the core were people who wanted community, a new start, a society somehow of their own. When the police went for overkill fences, pepper spray, and mass arrests, pictures of official abuse flew around the world. Support for the movement mushroomed.
The movement was famously unwilling to make specific demands, but the thrust was clear. “We are the 99 percent” meant that a country needed a major revamp to redress gross inequality. But the Occupy camps were also revolutionary, in the American sense. They reignited the small-r republican impulse that enshrines public assembly, which is why the U.S. Constitution has a First Amendment that doesn’t just address freedom of religion, speech, and press, but specifies the right of the people to assemble peaceably, to petition the government for redress of grievances. In other words, government of, by, and for the people requires that the people gather alongside one another.
Many of Occupy’s prime movers were anarchists and democratic radicals who wanted self-government by horizontal assemblies. The much larger number of people who marched with Occupy on its days of maximum pageantry were middle-class people, union members, progressives of various stripes, not so photogenic and far more numerous. It was the combination of the inner movement’s verve and the outer movement’s numbers that remade the political landscape.
So, despite uneasiness with its tactics, Occupy began with majority support for its main thrust. Yet after the early months, the movement’s public appeal crashed. Last month, more Americans said they didn’t identify with Occupy at all than said they did identify even a little.
One Occupy organizer, Shen Tong, began his political life in 1989 as a leader of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square movement, then fled to the U.S. There are two crises for a movement, he told me. One is to be massacred. The other is to succeed. The massacre part is easy to understand. But why does it make sense to speak of the Occupy movement as a qualified success?
First, political culture changed. Over the months, the Occupy movement’s terminology (1 percent, 99 percent) entered the household lexicon because it summed up the sense that the wielders of power are arrogant, incompetent, and irresponsible.
Second, the movement swayed conventional politics. Occupy Wall Street impressed even Republicans. The arch-conservative Newt Gingrich cast Mitt Romney as a predatory capitalist, a theme that proved unhelpful to Gingrich but helpful to the Obama campaign. Barack Obama sounded progressive chords.
Third, some big banks felt the heat. Some fees got rolled back. Pressure mounted to roll back exorbitant compensation for bank chiefs. At Citigroup’s stockholder meeting, 55 percent of shareholders voted, albeit nonbindingly, against paying their CEO, Columbia trustee Vikram Pandit, $14.9 million.
Fourth, local movements resisted home foreclosures and there were tangible victories. This is in solidarity with the 99 percent who do not want to invest their lives in assemblies but could contribute to a full-spectrum movement with room for many kinds of people with many different levels of belief and commitment.
Fifth, some public officials endorsed full and mandatory public financing of elections. Such reform coalitions are growing.
But can the larger 99 percent movement endure and hold elected officials’ feet to the fire? When city governments swept the encampments away, Occupy fissures deepened. Some activists got into a go-for-broke mood. Police force fueled disruptive tactics. No matter who threw the first stone or smashed the first window, in the popular mind, collisions tended to play as the fault of the protest. The encampments did not always show that (to use their slogan) another world is possible, except perhaps a more unsettling, even threatening world.
Now what? Occupy might still evolve into a long-lasting, full-spectrum movement if it welcomes a broad range of participants, not just the small minority who hunger for the politics of the streets. There aren’t nearly enough anarchists and revolutionaries to transform the country. The next phase, if there is to be one, would build on the platform built by last year’s Occupy. Occupy 2.0 needs to be powered by networks and organizations of many sorts. It can’t be run horizontally: This exhausts too much energy. One promising network could arise from the Robin Hood Tax campaign aiming for a surcharge on the biggest, fastest investor-speculators. There could be state initiatives for full public financing of elections. In any case, there should be focus, concrete demands, and a multi-year strategy. There needs to be space for full-time activists conducting nonviolent civil disobedience, but also for larger and wider circles of people who sign petitions, work for candidates, demonstrate, lobby, and help elect politicians who can be moved and who can help by securing the movement more space to grow. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you make politics in the country you have, not the country you wish you had. A moral upheaval cannot be exclusive. There aren’t enough saints.
The author is a professor of journalism and sociology, chair of the Ph. D. program in communications, and author of “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.”
To respond to this professor column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org