The original idea was to dramatise the economic inequality in the United States, and the political injustice which goes with it, through a demonstration as near to Wall Street as possible, and this became the “Occupy Wall Street” encampment in Zuccotti Park. That was a good idea as far as it went, which was not very far. Although the American media have propagandised for the plutocracy incessantly since quite early in the nineteenth century, the American general public have not been fooled by this, although much of the middle class have been (and they were very largely the ones towards whom the media propaganda was directed). In any case, since the financial crisis, the banks have been in bad odour again — not only rightly, but also quite compatibly with a great deal of American political and intellectual tradition.
Any such dramatisation also needs some discursive framework to attract attention. The discursive framework for “Occupy Wall Street” was the notion that the rulers of America work in the interests of about 1% of the population and against the interests of about 99% of the population. This is an ambiguous truth, because some of those 99% benefit from the system (though they would benefit more from other systems), and a much larger proportion, including virtually the whole middle class and the majority of the employed working class, wrongly believe that they benefit from the system. So “We are the 99%”, while a clever-sounding slogan, was self-deceptively false; like so many such slogans, it enabled the Occupiers to ignore the political difficulties involved in their project.
Squatting in Zuccotti Park turned out not to accomplish very much, although it clearly irritated the ruling class, which was split between those who wanted to crush the movement and those who wanted to co-opt it. Therefore, the call went out for an “#OCCUPY” movement, organised via social media as the Twitter tag indicates, under which the “Occupy Wall Street” movement would become national, and if possible, international. The internationalisation of the movement was mildly interesting because the movement itself had been partly inspired by the “Indignados” of Spain protesting against the right-wing policies of the Socialist government there, and by the Syntagma Square protests in Athens, protesting against the right-wing policies of the Socialist government in Greece. In other words, the Americans, in their customary way, were imitating foreigners and then pretending to be original. But, in fairness, the fact that resistance was materialising at the heart of the Empire helped to dynamise resistance in places like Britain, France and Italy where it had been lukewarm or temporarily dormant.
Of course, occupying Buffalo or Oakland or Boston had little or no automatic significance in the way that occupying Wall Street had. (Although it was mildly amusing that the mayor of Boston sent in the riot squad on the basis that civil disobedience had no place in Boston — either the U.S. education system no longer discusses the Boston Tea Party, or he had decided that the “Tea Party” movement had persuaded Americans that the Tea Party was simply a corporate-funded tax-cutting jamboree.) Also, going wider raised the question of doctrine and policies in a way that a simple short-term protest did not; it also asked the question of what the movement was really about and how it was to become sustainable and politically significant.
This is an enormous problem which the Occupiers have never seriously tried to solve, probably because they cannot within the confines of their structure. Paradoxically, they are profoundly handicapped by the fact that their structure is as loose and leaderless as possible. This means that they cannot take decisions on a national level, and they cannot develop unified policy, and they also have a great deal of difficulty taking decisions which would entail either compromise or danger. (Political danger, that is — nobody doubts their courage, at least that of many of them who have been willing to confront the repressive state apparatus.)
While this has enabled the Occupiers to avoid being co-opted by the Democratic regime (though the Democrats naturally pretend that they have accomplished this, and the Democratic media the “blogosphere” plays along with the lie) it makes it hard to reach out beyond a narrow audience. It is possible to respect people like the Occupiers, and even endorse their opinions to some extent, but many are quite challenged by these opinions, and many of those who support the Occupiers almost certainly do so largely in ignorance of what they really stand for, or else in the confidence that the movement is not going to go anywhere and therefore one can support the Occupiers as a piece of political performance art without in any way actually endorsing their beliefs.
For the Occupiers, insofar as they actually have beliefs, hold extremely radical opinions. They want to end “economic injustice” as symbolised by Wall Street and the power of the “1%” and the “banksters”. If this means anything, it means, at the very least, drastic redistribution of wealth through taxation and regulation on a scale not seen in the United States for sixty years or more, something utterly inconceivable to the American ruling class and its agents. However, it seems probable that the ostentatious anti-establishment “hippie” image of the Occupiers is not inherent in their nature, but is rather an indication that, like the hippies forty-five years ago, they are hostile to the American economic (and therefore political) system itself. In other words, what they want is a revolution, whether they fully understand this or not. Which, of course, is why radicals everywhere tend to support the Occupiers. (It is true that many on the Left oppose the Occupiers on very dubious grounds, usually really because they do not want newcomers stepping on their turf, behaviour which in this case is almost certainly discrediting and weakening those of the established Left who are adopting this stance. Not necessarily good, because even bad leftists are better than none.)
There is, again, a problem with taking a radical stance which directly undermines the interests of the ruling class — it means that you will face repression. The United States is a highly repressive, militarized society, effectively a police state without acknowledging the fact, whose President is entitled to detain or kill without trial and without explanation. Given that the citizenry stand for this, it is hardly surprising that police violence is unleashed against the state’s political enemies; intimidation, beatings, gassings, pepper-sprayings, tasers and the use of sonic weapons; laser weapons have not yet been used but are presumably in the pipeline if necessary. This is targeted violence, intended to separate those members of the elite who are opposed to the system from those who support it — and it will probably succeed.
The reason why this is likely is simple: the Occupiers are a tiny minority. The whole movement numbers a few tens of thousands of activists at most; they are the 0.01%, mostly students and disaffected social outsiders. In theory, possibly a third or less of the population supports their stance. However, this support has no means of making itself concrete, and there is no indication that it wants to. Contemporary culture is that of the passive consumer rather than the active participant, and in order to transform the former into the latter it is necessary to have powerful ideological and symbolic weapons. Proclaiming the nastiness of the system and the wickedness of the system’s guardians is not enough — especially since everybody who has given the matter any thought has come to the same conclusion to an increasing extent over the past fifty years. The Occupiers are coming very late to a party which has long-since run out of steam. How can they revitalise a moribund broad resistance? More to the point, how can they encourage people to overcome their understandable fear of getting hurt, injured or killed? That was what killed off the Seattle movement, which had far more coherence and organisational potential than the Occupy movement has yet displayed, and it seems likely to smother #OCCUPY in its cradle.
How could the movement become more effective? The contradiction is that it needs to have a doctrinal system, a set of demands through which the system can be implemented, and a coherent leadership to present those demands. But this is almost precisely what makes the movement attractive to its adherents — it cannot be controlled or subverted because it has no commanders and no doctrine. So developing such things would make it much like any other political party — apart from the obvious fact that, unlike any other political party, it would then be pursuing an agenda which sought the transformation of the United States into something else — actually, although hardly anybody within the movement is saying so, into something like a socialist state. But political parties are so thoroughly discredited in the United States that this is probably not something that any young thoughtful person wants.
Does this mean that the Occupy movement is going nowhere? It certainly seems so. It rather resembles the 1968 New Left, which so assiduously avoided behaving like the tedious Old Left. It generated an unstructured movement which, though it sometimes managed brief coups, most conspicuously seizing the streets of Paris (though it couldn’t have done that without the help of the trade unions and the French Communist Party), never managed to hold any of the ground it took. Occupy seems rather like that — except feebler, and lacking any external support. The Spanish and Greek street protests have all turned to nothing now that the full might of the global financial establishment has been imposed on the governments of those countries.
So: nice try, but no cigar, nor any prospect of one. But unfortunately, much of the surviving Left has thrown its weight behind the Occupy movement in the hope of gathering some shreds of surviving credit. The Western Left, punch-drunk after all these decades of working consciously or unconsciously towards its own demise and destruction, is desperate to align itself with something which looks vaguely successful, even if it isn’t. Perhaps when Occupy goes down, it will take some of what remains of the Western Left down with it, in the same way that the uprising against Gaddaffi turned so many leftists into willing agents of imperialism. Perhaps the decline of the Western Left is not a huge loss, given the actual nature of that Left these days.
But sad, nevertheless, that the Left is so enfeebled, so incapable, so desperate and at the same time so lacking in the energy which the Left’s desperation once generated.