Breaking Up With Occupy
There is an eerie sort of prophecy in the plodding, mechanistic Movement Action Plan developed by the late civil rights and antinuclear activist Bill Moyer. Moyer laid out eight stages that social movements go through, from normalcy to victory. At the center of the scheme is the weirdest and most difficult to grasp: Stage Five, the Perception of Failure.
“After a year or two,” predicted Moyer, “the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing.” Politicians and the media treat the movement as gone and dead. “The problem, however, is not that the movement has failed to achieve its goals, but that activists had unrealistic expectations that the long-term goals could be achieved in such a short time.”
Moyer reported having witnessed this phenomenon again and again in campaigns now judged as great successes. “Most activists in past social movements believed at the time that their movement was failing,” he wrote. “How do you know that you are not having a similar experience?” Is the supposed failure of Occupy a mere perception, or the real thing?
These questions hung over the dozen or so people gathered in a Manhattan union office on July 1 to plan the movement’s second anniversary. They were mainly middle-aged; the usual din of Occupy’s 20-something standard-bearers was notably absent. Before the meeting, there was a round of banter about the condition of the Occupy “brand” and the necessity of preserving it. “Are you familiar with the saving remnant from the Old Testament?” asked Jackie DiSalvo, a college professor and labor activist. “That’s what we have to be.”
The meeting got started with a rehearsal of old debates on what issues they should be focusing on. A Robin Hood tax? Opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement? A “move your money” campaign? Speakers interrupted one another. The facilitator promised to refrain from using her role as a means to editorialize but did nothing of the sort.
At one end of the table sat Sumumba Sobukwe in a white Panama hat, a long necklace of wooden beads and small hoop earrings. He was raised in a family immersed in the Black Power movement and considers himself an African internationalist. When Occupy began, he was living in a homeless shelter; now he gets by thanks to the support of fellow activists. He’s the self-described “anchor” of a group called Occu-Evolve, devoted to “the evolution of the Occupy Wall Street movement” away from radical purism and toward a genuine mass uprising. At the meeting, he spoke insistently and optimistically, explaining with a politician’s cadence that he was “working closely” with this group and that group across the movement. Organizing for the anniversary has been mainly Occu-Evolve’s affair. Despite the longing for a mass movement, however, the circle of those taking part is smaller than ever.
Moyer posits that an “anarchistic loose structure” such as Occupy Wall Street’s general assembly can last in a movement for only about the first three months, while adrenaline is high. “Thereafter,” he writes, such a structure “tends to cause excessive inefficiency, participant burnout, and group domination by the most domineering and oppressive participants.” Starting in the first weeks of the occupation in New York, there was an effort to create a more functional structure called the Spokes Council, but an onslaught of opposition succeeded in thwarting it. Future attempts to try again met a similarly ugly fate.
The old-guard organizations of the left, meanwhile, were unable to pick up where the bulldozed occupations left off. In some cases, it was because Occupiers actively chased them away, fearing co-optation. In others, the organizations had neglected to raise a new generation of leaders, so the disconnect between them and the young Occupiers was too wide to bridge.
Micah White, the Adbusters editor largely responsible for the #occupywallstreet meme, has left that job and now offers “boutique activist consulting.” He issued a press release on July 25, declaring that “Occupy Wall Street was a constructive failure” and proposing the formation of a new “bottom-up” political party.
For Bill Dobbs, a member of the Occupy Wall Street press team, the past two years have been spent putting a friendly spin on the movement’s unfolding story, but he seems to be done with that now. “The 1 percent is winning, and the population is increasingly frozen,” he says. Having seen several waves of movements come and go, Dobbs knows that even in the worst of times there’s some background level of activism. “We’re back to the background level,” he says.
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