Beyond Occupy and Towards Greater Equality

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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.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on April 13, 2012.

Comments

I am glad to read this passage, Lev. The links provided are useful, as is a reminder (Arendt) that this is ground we have tread before, though sometimes only intellectually.

Occupy represents something very important and often overlooked - undirected anger. While some locations have been relatively tame, generating few arrests and almost no serious news coverage, other cities' Occupations have generated nothing less than urban battlefields, oftentimes putting the brutality and inhumanity of militarized American police at center-stage for the world to see. The calls for a 'list of demands' are the natural response of a greater community that is used to a certain process of action, and in many ways represent exactly the failures Occupy is calling out - that 'due process' only exists for some.

Further, undirected anger is, itself, a demand. The privileged few that make up the "1%" already know what the end-results of their policies have been, and are well aware of their exploitative practices' effects on everything from race-politics to rural poverty to declining education standards. It isn't that they are unaware, or that they need Occupy to tell them; rather it's that the 1% have built a world in which they are insulated from the consequences of their social engineering. Their children don't have to attend crumbling inner-city schools, or face a world in which the only financially sound decision is to join the military and fight cruelly mismanaged and politically unjustified wars. The 1% do not face consequences at all, whether judicial or social.

A disappointingly small number of Americans have begun to awaken to these facts. They are angry about it and have, for the most part, chosen some form of nonviolent direct action to express their displeasure. Compared to the austerity riots of 2009-2011 in Europe and elsewhere, the American Occupy movement has been tame. But that undirected anger is still present and still, for the most part, unanswered. Indeed, a portion of the Wall Street contingent even argues that Occupy and movements like it are wrong to begin with.
(http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/why-wall-street-shou...)

This kind of resentment and undirected anger doesn't tend to play nice with the procedures of power. As the 1% insulate themselves further and further from the consequences of their decisions, profiting right off the backs of the underclasses while ignoring the fomenting rage and resentment, they make a rod for their own back. The Occupations have been admirably nonviolent thus far, with young adults who have never seen a riot shield bravely facing down rows of heavily armed police with signs of love and hope and compassion. But brutality, and a failure by most progressive leaders to call out that brutality, are rapidly draining away the goodwill and (perhaps naive) hope of a nonviolent solution, at least in the minds of those who have been on the receiving end of the injustice.

I hadn't really meant to write an essay here in response. Thank you for reading, and for writing.

You are absolutely correct to say that a great deal of the participants involved in the Occupy movement were motivated by undirected anger.

They were angry, of course, for concrete reasons. Many people were hurting as a result of economic mismanagement (the nascent weeks of the Tea Party movement was also an example of this phenomenon) and their sense of the social compact had been damaged.

The target of "the one percent" was not, of course, a literal one-percent, but rather a suggestion that a section of society, the very wealthy, the very powerful were abusing their positions. They were acting not for the common good, not with a sense of responsibility, but like an entire class of Gordon Gekkos - and as you say, they are isolated from criticism, isolated from society, but quite well aware of the effects of their actions.

They too - like many of the contemporaries who oppose them - are also 'anonymous'.

As you mention the Occupy movement was almost entirely non-violent. I think this is an important element. In countries which claim to be liberal democracies, violence will receive a very negative response from the public, even if it does captures a little bit of attention on the television. Rather than fundamental social change being achieved through an armed struggle (such as is necessary in dictatorial regimes as the Middle-East shows), in a liberal society it is the loss of legitimacy that generates the change - of which the most recent examples are the collapse of most of the regimes in the former Eastern bloc.

By way of closing, and to a participant of the US occupy movement, I will quote from the 1970 book by Jean-Francois Revel, "Without Marx or Jesus". I hope has some inspirational quality.

The revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States. It is only there it can happen. And it has already begun. Whether or not that revolution spreads to the rest of the world depends on whether or not it success first in America.

Just to play Devil's Advocate a moment, why is it that things are framed such that Occupy has to be the one explaining itself to the Government/Powers-That-Be? How is it that we're the ones being asked what our demands are, we're the ones treated as though we've done wrong? Where I live, local law enforcement have seen their pensions and benefits cut nearly in half due to the fund managers' investing in mortgage-bond-backed securities. The investors were sold fraudulent investments, and when the rug was pulled out from underneath them (and everyone else), suddenly the protesters demanding justice are the ones the police attack.

The trouble, in my opinion, is that Occupy is slamming right up against the number one problem in the politics of today's liberal democracies, which is the apathy of the average citizen/voter. I can't claim to know how it is in other places, but the average American (if there is such a thing) has actively, even sometimes consciously voted against his own interests for the last forty years. The machine of mass-media/news-cycle/entertainment has served not only to reinforce the 1%'s view of things, but has in fact aided and abetted their criminality by not conducting serious investigations into the fraud and corruption that permeates Wall Street and the regulatory bodies of government.

Occupy is simply deemed 'unreasonable' since they 'don't want to go through proper channels.' What is left out of that accusation is that there simply aren't any proper channels for even the more savvy Occupiers to go through. Shall we appeal to the Securities/Exchange Commission, a body whose powers are neither judicial nor executive, whose very strongest censure is to merely recommend a particular trade or individual for investigation by the Department of Justice? Nevermind that the SEC is populated by alumni and associates of the very people being regulated.

I'm going to restate a little more clearly what I poorly hinted at the first time, and a phrase I've repeated in many places, both to protesters and authorities: It is very important that Occupy succeed visibly and completely as a nonviolent entity. If the undirected anger in place at Occupy is not given closure through visible and deeply effective reforms and prosecutions, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that whatever comes after Occupy will be nonviolent. American politics has a history of overreaction, of theatrics and impatience and overshooting the target. Occupy will be no different, and it will be backed by a generation of people who are tasting the barest edge of repression for the first time, and aren't going to stand for it twice.

Don't forget that Time magazine counted "The Protester" as the person of the year for 2011.

http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_21021...

They did, and I was happy to see that America got the same front cover as the rest of the world on that count. That hasn't always happened.

http://themoderatevoice.com/wordpress-engine/files//2011/11/TIME-5Dec201...

I know you're in Australia, but remember, it's winter in the US. ;) Protesting is going to start up again in the spring, especially at the NATO/G8 summit here in Chicago. I seriously hope no one dies. Anyway, Occupy Chicago has an office now (Cermak). Whoa, two offices now, a new one apparently in Pilsen.

Being winter, and not in a place with palm trees, either, what it makes the most sense to do is improve and occupy foreclosed homes. For example. A former landlord explains. Mind you, this takes a lot more balls than holding a sign in public. Some people are biding their time because of that, but a lot of people are just going inside - to the offices, to foreclosed homes, to court, and to various meetings (you know, the "which vital community resource will we destroy today?" kind of city meetings). Also, we do still go outside sometimes. And a guy in Portland is running for mayor. Whatever, Chicago never really had a camp anyway.

Excellent update on what is happening in the US, and tactically quite appropriate to look at the foreclosure issue in the colder months.

I am also very optimistic that the movement is still sufficiently large and effective to operate with multiple coordinating offices and is sensible enough to get the message out there in the formal political arena.

Oh, I have to say, brilliant opening sentence by Occupy Chicago in defining who they are:

Occupy Chicago is a nonviolent nonpartisan people’s movement. We welcome all, who, in good faith, act to reclaim our economy and democracy from corruption and corporate influence in government.

Short, exact, inclusive and inspiring. Well done!

99% OF THE 99% STILL BELIEVE THEIR FUTURE IS DEPENDENT ON THE SURVIVAL
OF THE 1%

The Occupy Movement in the Western world is dying as quickly as it blossomed. Its failure to influence the 99% of the 99% who still believe their future is dependent on the survival of the 1% starved the Occupy Movement of the mass of humanity it required to create the tipping point needed to put pressure on the government of the day, the bureaucracy, the state and the corporate sector to radically transform themselves to meet the demands of the Occupy Movement.

Putting process before ideas and demands has sidetracked the Occupy Movement into a political cul de sac. Principles of association, not processes, is the fuel required to ignite the revolutionary potential of a movement that has demonstrated ultimate political authority rests in the hands of the people not the state, the government of the day or the bureaucracy. Direct democracy is a mechanism by which the greatest number of people can be involved in the decision making processes. It is a way of harvesting both the collective wisdom and the collective ignorance of the people. Power and wealth is at the heart of every political movement. The greater the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a minority (the 1%), the greater the inequalities that exist in society. The Occupy Movement doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It needs to adopt principles of association that decentralise power and redistribute wealth while using processes that give people the opportunity to become involved in those decisions. Unless the remnants of the Occupy Movement are willing to adopt principles of association that directly challenge the concentration of power and wealth, 99% of the 99% will continue to believe their future is dependent on the survival of the 1%.