Just as 2011 will be remembered as the year of ongoing Arab spring in that part of the world, for the advanced economies the equivalent will be the Occupy movement. Inspired by the Spanish Indignados, and initiated by the Adbusters group in the Anglophone world, the movement spread to some almost one hundred cities around the world.
Whilst a multi-faceted movement it was most certainly an outgrowth of the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. More specifically however it was a condemnation of the extensive use of corporate welfare (for example in the U.S.) as a means to stablise the economy during that period with the recipients simply using this public money to improve their own financial situation, especially when matched with austerity measures to make up for the shortfall in public finance.
An understandable slogan that has resulted from this has been the comparison of the "99 percent" versus the "1 percent", along with the recognition "We are the 99 percent". There was anger at the rise of the income share of the wealthiest 1 percent of households and their political control ("Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%). Whilst it is theoretically possible to increase to increase the income of a small group without upsetting the overall distribution (the Gini coefficient), this has not occurred. Overal inequality of wealth in the U.S. and China in particular has increased significantly in the past thirty years, with the UK and India also having notable recent increases.
Thus the Occupy movement was, quite sensibly, founded primarily on moral messages. Not only was there an argument of responsibility ("those who cause the problem should pay for it"), there was also a utilitarian ethic ("people should contribute according to ability"). For as much as one provides a detailed analysis of the economy with carefully grounded reasons backed by strong data, the emotional and objective reality was that people were hurting and there was a breach of a sense of fairness. It is that which inspires public action.
As participants would know the forces of the State came down hard on the Occupy movement when they could, despite a commitment of non-violence by the movement. Whilst brilliantly organised through new social media, a strength of Occupy in the public space was the use of decentralised and participatory democracy in managing local events.
In the wake of the occupations there have been, as expected, numerous articles on what the next step should be. Some have argued the need for concrete demands", others the need for the occupiers to become entrenched into the mainstream progressive organisations (and vice-versa). Whilst both these propositions are completely correct, there is also a need to look at why the Occupy movement eventually tapered. For as much as it to did generate interest and alter the political discourse for a while, the movement is essentially over for the time being. The question remains "why"?
The occupation of public space could only be maintained in the longer term if there was a genuine mass public participation orientated towards the reorganisation of society (the last chapter of Arendt's classic "On Revolution" is particularly illustrative of this need). Simply put, the political situation had not yet reached that level. Under these circumstances it was inevitable that the conservative argument of "You've had your protest, now move on" was going to gain traction. A related response was the attempt of some to turn the tactic of occupation into a principle, the "Occupy Everything" approach (there is an ironically entitled online journal of this name. In the long run, this aided critics of the movement as it increasingly detracted from the strongest message; the movement wasn't about the occupation of public spaces, it was about inequality, the mismanagement of the economy, and the robbery of public wealth.
To go beyond occupy means to return to these core issues through the rather tedious but necessarily involvement in practical political institutions. Dry economics tells us that, at a certain point (well passed for most economies) that increased inequality is bad for the economy and through epidemological research, bad for people. Increasing equality can be achieved only through tax and welfare reform, expenditure on public infrastructure, removal of corporate welfare; all this necessitates direct involved political action. Whilst protests brings the public eye to these issues, and must always be encouraged (for the politicians in a nominal democracy follow public opinion more than lead it), unless protests are specifically tied to locational direct action (e.g., pickets) then tactically they must be for the short term.
The Occupy movement illustrated, once again, the capacity of new social media to generate mass protest on an international scale. It also illustrated that public protest is primarily based on a moral response to an injustice. However it also indicated the danger of the core message being lost if a protest concentrates on its newsworthy tactics. Unless a direct action is involved at the site of the protest, once newsworthiness has been achieved priority should turn to the implementation of the cause of the protest as public policy.
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