Occupy's First Anniversary

By Mike Dorf

On the first anniversary of the launch of Occupy Wall Street, pundits as well as past and present Occupiers have been weighing in on whether the movement succeeded or failed, and where, if anywhere, it goes from here.  Although I never manned the barricades, I'll admit that I have been intrigued by Occupy, and broadly sympathetic to its methods as well as most of its goals.  In this post, I want to say a word about the nature and future of Occupy.

From very early on, Occupy was criticized for lacking a concrete agenda.  Some of this criticism came from the right, and seemed deliberately obtuse about the clear concern with economic justice voiced by nearly all of the Occupiers.  But even many commentators who were broadly sympathetic with Occupy's orientation relative to conventional political categories were concerned about the movement's failure to come forward with a concrete program or to enter conventional politics.

How fair is that criticism?  To the extent that OWS is a haven for anarchists--as some of the "official" program indicates--it pretty clearly misses the point.  The anarchist wing of OWS thinks that the extant political system and any economic system that makes a place for substantial corporate activity is necessarily rotten.  Of course such people will not put forward a legislative program to be ignored by the people who hold power in that system.

But the truth is that, as with the American left more generally, anarchists are very much over-represented among the visible self-appointed leadership of OWS.  Rank-and-file Occupiers are not, fundamentally, radicals.  They seem much more in the tradition of pre-Marxist 19th-century American transcendental utopianism.  These are earnest, decent people--often more than a bit naive but certainly not bomb-throwers.  If that sounds like a condescending description, I don't mean it to be.  My point is simply that other than skewing young, the membership of Occupy is not all that different from American society more broadly.

So I don't think it quite right to defend the agenda-less-ness of Occupy on the ground that anarchists don't need an agenda, since Occupy is not mostly made up of anarchists. But neither is it agenda-less. Yes, as with any mass movement, there was some muddled thinking--with Ron Paul-style "end the Fed" signs and Tea-Party-style opposition to the bank bailouts of the late Bush Administration. But for the most part, Occupy has stood for a fairly clear progressive agenda that includes, at its core, the following:

--more progressive taxation;
--campaign finance reform;
--re-regulation of financial institutions, along the lines of Glass-Steagall
--debt relief for homeowners and students.

That list is remarkable not for being ill-formed or radical but for how moderate and mainstream it is. Each of these items has been proposed by multiple elected officials at some point over the last four years. Some portion of it was enacted before Occupy got going (in the form of Dodd-Frank) but to the extent that the rest of it has stalled politically, that does not appear to be because of any lack of specificity or disconnection from the world of political reality. With more Democrats in Congress, something like the foregoing agenda might well have been--or still be--enacted.

If there has been a substantial flaw in the Occupy vision and strategy, I think it is the movement's tendency to view American politics through a pox-on-both-your-houses lens. It's true, as Occupiers say, that in many respects the mainstream of the Democratic Party is almost as beholden to monied interests as the Republicans are. But there remains enough of a difference between the parties to render arguments about equivalence somewhere between silly and dangerous (should they be used to justify sitting out elections or supporting spoiler candidates).

Indeed, given how comfortably Occupy fits into the progressive wing of the Democratic party, the real question for the movement going forward may be figuring out its raison d'etre. Other groups that formed spontaneously have tended to simply become part of the furniture of American left/liberalism. MoveOn went this way over a decade ago. If the Occupiers do not wish to simply be absorbed by the American left, is there any constructive yet distinctive role that it might play?

Perhaps. Occupy's distinctiveness thus far has been its flat, consensus-based organizational structure. If that was a bit of a headache for outdoor protests, it poses a serious challenge as Occupy goes indoors and online. But it is also quite an opportunity. The 2008 Obama campaign began to harness the power of social networks for a conventional political campaign. In 2012, both parties routinely integrate Facebook and Twitter into their fundraising, politicking and organizing. But those are examples of basically top-down organizations trying to take advantage of the horizontal structure of social networks. A true horizontal movement (like Occupy) ought to be able to find opportunities in the new technologies that have thus far eluded more traditional organizations.

What are those opportunities? I certainly don't know, but then, I'm not a twenty-something Occupier. Occupy could disappear, but it also could invent some interesting new forms of political engagement. We'll have to check back in on it at a later anniversary.