As “Occupy” protesters engage in their “general strike” on Tuesday, it’s worth considering whether the movement that began last fall has retained its character, or whether it has transformed into something wholly different from the group of rag-tag protesters that spawned it.
In an effort to address these and other questions, Heritage held an event, “The Occupy Movement: A Post-Mortem?” It explored the roots of the movement, its character, its philosophy, and the attitudes of its participants.
We have adapted the event into a four-part series, with each participant’s presentation offered in text format. Today, we present the first part of that series, which wonders whether Occupy will retain its leaderless, decentralized character, or will be co-opted by more mainstream political groups in an effort to advance traditional left-wing political goals.
Part 1: A Post-Mortem?
Before I start I think there are a couple of things that need to be kept in mind throughout this whole event. First and foremost is that the Occupy movement really is not a monolith. There are a lot of different political goals, different political views, in the movement itself and there have been attempts – and I myself have been guilty of this at times – to extrapolate a political platform from the movement when, just due to its decentralized, leaderless nature, there really isn’t an established platform they’re pushing for.
And because of that I think it’s important for today’s event not to be focused on the merits of any issue or political position that the movement takes, because it can be so amorphous and there really isn’t an established political platform.
The movement is really an outgrowth, I think, of the protests at the WTO and similar summits throughout the last ten years, starting really in the late 90s. And you saw—there was a prevalence of activists who were involved with groups like the Ruckus Society and similar organizations that really are professional agitators, who go to these events with the express purpose of disrupting them.
But during the Bush years there was a synergy between this sort of anti-globalization movement and the anti-war movement and a lot of unity among protestors on the left that started to fizzle once President Bush left office. When President Obama came in, the anti-war movement became less of a – it turned out to be a bit more partisan than perhaps many thought.
During the early years of the Obama presidency, when the Tea Party really started rising, it kind of turned conventional wisdom on its head: whereas the left is usually the side doing the protesting, all of a sudden the right had this grassroots energy that ended up being channeled into these massive electoral victories in 2010.
So we saw during those years there were numerous attempts by establishment left wing groups to create an answer to the Tea Party and you saw maybe more centrist organizations like the Coffee Party and No Labels that, whether they admitted it or not, were a reaction to the Tea Party. You saw things like the One Nation Rally on the Mall in 2010, Rebuild the Dream, which is a movement former White House official Van Jones has tried to create.
But none of them really captured the grassroots energy that we’ve seen in the Occupy movement—they were much more top down. Occupy doesn’t really fit with the that agenda, the mainstream left’s agenda, because it rejects the two party system out of hand. These protestors aren’t here to put Democrats in office. They don’t want conventional political goals. This is where the overlap with the Tea Party comes into play, the fight against cronyism and similar things like that are things that are anti-establishment. They’re very much opposed to the political status quo. So as much as there have been attempts to co-opt Occupy into a more mainstream political organization, its general political outlook is hostile to being a part of any political establishment.
You saw a lot—at least I saw at a lot of Occupy camps, a lot of these younger people were Barack Obama supporters, but were really disillusioned with what they’ve seen from him. Many of them wanted to see different things but there was a general sense of disillusionment. I saw a quote earlier this morning on Twitter from a member ofOccupyDCthat I thought summed it up well. He said, “I got an email from the Barack Obama campaign asking me to volunteer. Sorry Barry this is ‘12 not ‘08 and I’m four years the wiser.” And I thought that really summed up their attitude towards the President. And of course corporate money in politics is a bi-partisan phenomenon. The bank bailouts were supported by both parties. So the anger is generally directed as much at the Democratic party as much as the Republican party. They’re all seen as part of the same corrupt system.
But that hasn’t stopped more mainstream groups from trying to use the Occupy moniker as their own. Rob alluded to the 99% spring, which is a new effort underway, backed by MoveOn.org and other similar groups. Al Jeezera had an interesting piece on it yesterday. They quoted someone saying they were concerned it was a Democratic Party attempt to galvanize support for President Barack Obama’s political campaign.
Again this is not what the Occupy movement is about. For the most part they are not trying to engage in traditional two-party politics. The 99% Spring, Van Jones and his Saving the American Dream Movement—its an attempt to use this grassroots energy to achieve conventional left-wing political objectives and you’ve seen a lot of resistance to that from people within the Occupy movement.
Now we’re eight months into these protests. When it started there was a lot of broad appeal to people concerned with income inequality, with cronyism, with the political system generally, and the sort of dysfunction here in Washington. But as we went through the winter, we’re months in, and you find that a lot of the more casual protestors aren’t as committed to sleeping in a park for months at a time throughout the cold weather.
So what remains of the Occupy movement is more of these professional agitators, sort the hard core demonstrators that were involved in these WTO protests starting in the 1990s. These are the sort of people that are opposed to this two party system. They’re going to try to continue to sustain the Occupy movement.
The title of this event, whether it’s a post-mortem, was really meant to be provocative in the sense that going forward, we’re going to continue seeing groups holding events and protesting under the banner of the Occupy movement. The question is whether those groups will be Occupy as it was originally conceived—this decentralized, leaderless movement – or whether it will co-opted by mainstream political groups that are looking to use this “sound byte populism,” as Rob called it, for their own political ends.
My colleagues are going to talk about the structure of Occupy, and some of the lessons that can be learned, but I think it’s important to note where its coming from, the inner workings of it, the attempts by some groups to use this for their own ends, and the resistance going on within the movement. I think it speaks a lot to the central character of Occupy as it was originally started. Whether it will continue as a grassroots movement really speaks to the question here today. Will it be a political force going forward? Can we legitimately call it Occupy Wall Street? Or has it become something completely different – something more mainstream, and more willing to engage in the political process?