Sunday, September 16, 2012
Is Occupy a Fizzle?
Occupy is one year old this weekend. As quickly as it appeared, it seems to have just as quickly dropped off the radar. What happened?
Certainly heavy handed police tactics played a role, and they seem to have been effective, culling participation down to the hardcore few by scaring off sympathizers who might not want to go up against teargas, pepper spray, and clubs. The NYPD might not have been the worst, but they were the most effectively brutal with their eviction of Occupiers from Liberty Park in the wee hours of the morning, and their raids on the homes of Occupy activists in Brooklyn on the morning of May Day. And now, some Occupy activists are facing trial here in New York and elsewhere.
I also think disappointment played a role. Occupy was born out of disappointment; disappointment with the cautious watered down progressivism of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party. From what I've been able to observe, the Left is too easily prone to discouragement (and I include myself here). We expect the Masses to rise up and rally round the Torch of Liberty at the opening shot, and that Social Democracy will arise like the morning sun. And when that doesn't happen, we all go home and sulk. Our anarchist sympathies prevent us from setting up structures and building institutions for sustained struggle.
I remember when shortly after Occupy began, all these fired up formerly middle class white kids descended upon neighborhoods like East New York in Brooklyn to fight home foreclosures. They arrived to find neighborhood activists who were neither white nor middle class who had been fighting this struggle for a long time. At first, the residents resented the enthusiastic intruders, but eventually became their mentors, teaching them skills and resilience necessary to fight foreclosures back in their own formerly middle class neighborhoods. Indeed if the movement survives and continues, it's in thousands of smaller local efforts to tackle the excesses and criminality of a too powerful financial industry that go unnoticed by the media or the cops.
Will we see Occupy or its like again? Who knows. We still have our system of legalized corruption. Our country still steadily transitions from democracy to oligarchy. The grievances that caused Occupy are still there unabated.
The media frequently compare Occupy and the Teabaggers, part of the conventional media truism that both left and right are equivalent, a truism that says more about the media than it does about reality.
Media experts frequently point out how Teabaggers got involved in electoral politics and Occupy didn't. What's missing from this analysis is a crucial distinction. Teabagistan got lots of corporate funding (I once joked that a Teabagger occupation in the winter would take place in heated pre-fab huts donated by one of Karl Rove's pacs). Occupy operated on shoestring budgets and relied heavily on contributions, not just of money, but of supplies and services. The teabaggers got appropriated by the GOP, but they wanted to get coopted. I've always argued that the Tea Party is nothing more than the same old right wing of the GOP that's been around for 60 years. Its fury is not driven by the Lesser Depression, but by the fear of demographic and cultural change.
Occupy really did come out of the economic collapse of 2008. Media experts noted how late after the collapse Occupy appeared. It took all those young white middle class kids raised on rugged individualism awhile to figure out that they were not alone in facing huge amounts of debt with little or no employment prospects, or while working long hours for tiny wages. It took awhile for people to realize that they were not alone in seeing the equity on their homes collapse while their mortgages continued to rise, or in losing their homes to foreclosure, sometimes arbitrary and mistaken foreclosures by banks in actions that in other parts of society would be called crime. My friend Weiben Wang always pointed out the very white and middle class nature of Occupy, even while attending Occupy events. Indeed, a lot of people who always counted on being enfranchised, respected, and secure found themselves disenfranchised, dissed, and in peril after 2008. Professionals found themselves reduced to salaried employees. Students found themselves shut out of the professional class, even if they had exceptional skills and graduate degrees. Home owners who counted on the security of their property found themselves with broken nest eggs.
People who for 3 or 4 generations took for granted that they would be the beneficiaries of The System, now found themselves rejected and outside of it. They awoke and found themselves the losers in what turned out to be the largest redistribution of the nation's wealth in history. Since 1981, Uncle Sam has been robbing from the poor (and the middle) to give to the rich. We now have effectively a tax-payer subsidized plutocratic oligarchy. Those who long thought they were the System's beneficiaries discovered that they were only its chumps.
Occupy emerged out of those very bourgeois virtues of independence and initiative, and in reaction against those very bourgeois vices of greed and hypocrisy.
White middle class people suddenly found that they had common cause with those not-so-white, not-so-middle class people that they feared and resented for so long. Fortunately, people on all sides of the color and class divide found the grace to come together and to work toward common ends. But these efforts are small and vulnerable to demagogues always willing to stir up ancient bigotries and fears for their own ambitions.
I hope Occupy returns and becomes something more durable and effective. They accomplished in one year what the Progressive Caucus in Congress tried to do for 30 years, reshape the terms of the national debate over economics. Occupy more than anyone else took issues of social justice, fairness, and equality out of the realm of private conversation and into the public forum where they belong. I hope they can come back and influence real policy change that would make our country once again a just, humane, and truly democratic republic of free men and women.
If nothing else, Occupy produced some great posters.
Posted by Counterlight at Sunday, September 16, 2012