The Occupy Movement: Success and Limitations

No one on the progressive side of the ledger can deny the positive impact of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). After two years of angry verbiage from anti-government tea partiers, the occupiers of Zuccotti Park finally provided a blast of fresh air. By refocusing on the financiers and manipulators who brought the financial system to its knees, they were able to introduce a dose of realism to the discussion of what went wrong with our economy and to rebut the vocal supporters of America’s hard-pressed billionaires.

E.J. Dionne is quite correct in calling the Occupy Movement an authentic expression of progressive populism. It went beyond the wonky focus on administration and expertise so favored by liberal intellectuals. Rather than techno-talk, OWS adopted a rhetoric that spoke to people in straight language, highlighting the central issue of inequality with that simple fraction 99/1. In doing so, it united a large number of Americans around an issue that resonated.

The impact of OWS on national discourse has been palpable. Like the Tea Party, the Occupy movement provided a way of framing current problems in the vernacular of politics. But this time the frame was a progressive one, voicing the discontents of those who have seen their opportunities restricted. For the first time in a long time, President Obama and fellow Democrats were holding their heads high and showing spine in their interactions with Republican obstructionists.

Still, we wait to see if OWS has the staying power of the Tea Party movement. In its favor, one can cite its idealism and authentic voice. Unlike the tea partiers, who quickly cashed in their populist cred for aid from the Koch brothers, Fox News, and a cast of right-wing pols, the occupiers maintained a staunch independence. Their credibility with the general populace seems to have gained as a result.

But genuineness and spontaneity can be ambiguous assets, often leading to organizational weakness. This was always the case with OWS.  Since its members represented a diversity of causes each with distinct goals, the challenge of singing in unison proved thorny. For a long while the movement seemed stuck on deciding what its role was to be. Unable to agree on a list of demands or whom to address them to, it eventually settled for a “kitchen sink” approach that outlined a broad manifesto for the public at large. Emphasizing internal democracy and barring dialogue with the establishment, the movement ultimately opted for general principle over politics.

This may have been a mistake. One needs to ask if the Occupy Movement could have done more by taking a more active political role. Could it have made better use of its moment in the spotlight by being more focused and specific? Should it have demanded that politicians, many of whom in the end brushed it off as utopian, clarify their positions? Surely one can sympathize with the left’s disgust for today’s dysfunctional politics and unwillingness to contribute to it. Nonetheless, Hendrik Hertzberg‘s comment on the need for realism is worth quoting: “Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics–the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.” Politics has a way of muddying the waters, but it is also the main means by which power is distributed and translated into policy.

The real danger is that those who play down politics are playing into the hands of the Koch brothers and their like, who seek to control the process for themselves and exclude the rest of us. Opposition to government in all its forms, let’s face it, is a right-wing frame. Republicans ever since Reagan, but now more than ever, have been trying to prove that government is untrustworthy and to make it so through a process of ugly attrition. A left that is cynical towards things political is essentially allowing a right-wing view of the world to prevail.

One can hope that the message of the 99% will turn some minds before the November elections and that it is more than a distant echo of a valiant movement that tried but didn’t go far enough.

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3 Responses to The Occupy Movement: Success and Limitations

  1. carolburbank says:

    You wrote:
    Still, we wait to see if OWS has the staying power of the Tea Party movement. In its favor, one can cite its idealism and authentic voice. Unlike the tea partiers, who quickly cashed in their populist cred for aid from the Koch brothers, Fox News, and a cast of right-wing pols, the occupiers maintained a staunch independence. Their credibility with the general populace seems to have gained as a result.
    Well said. The occupy movement struggles with living the way they lead — being true populists with collective leadership in a culture that expects the few (rich & privileged) to lead the many (poorer or poor and isolated from power). It has been said they are a leaderless movement, or a movement of leaders, but either way, they’ve changed the discourse of the presidential debate, and created the kind of momentum we haven’t seen since the ’60s and ’70s with other “leaderless” movements.
    It’s an important moment, an important movement. A nice essay, thanks for your eloquence.

    • I agree with you that leaderless movements like OWS have been hugely successful in generating enthusiasm and participation. They also create problems for the establishment and right-wing opponents, who don’t know how to react to them. Let’s by all means keep the momentum going!

  2. carolburbank says:

    Absolutely! The tea party is a good example of the way the idea of the leaderless movement is being co-opted as a smokescreen for wealthy backers. It’s hard for me to see, sometimes, how to draw a distinction, how to test progressive leadership movements, and how to get more mainstream understanding of the difference!

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