Occupy Wall Street, Flash Movements and American Politics

In fall and early winter of 2011, Occupy Wall Street was a big deal in New York and elsewhere. Debates about its meaning spilled across most media. That was a long time ago, it seems.

Now—in August 2012—debates about its future occur via left websites, meetings, and networks. Occupy has occasionally been able to produce crowds in 2012, but it is off the front pages. Occupy Wall Street members promised a strong return and even an escalation in the spring centered on a May Day “general strike,” but there was no general strike. Occupy activists sought to establish new occupations in Manhattan and elsewhere, but these efforts have not approached the scale and impact of the initial round of occupations nor found a new course. Perhaps there will be an Occupy presence at demonstrations at one of the national party conventions, but that is not likely to command much national attention.

While the political significance of OWS and the Occupy locals has greatly diminished, they still deserve attention. It’s worth thinking about the possible meanings of Occupy for 2011, 2012, and beyond.

I survey the main accounts of what Occupy did and what it might mean. Proponents of these views often claim both to provide analytical insight (this is what OWS was and is) and to express valid preferences (this is what OWS should be).

1. It was a flash movement.

Occupy assembled and expressed anger about economic and social injustice. Not many opinions changed, but the terms of national debate shifted, with durable aftershocks. OWS actions registered deep concern among significant parts of several (mainly left-of-center) publics. Yet OWS as we saw and knew it is gone.

If this is the trajectory—an explosion and then a fast decline toward a nominal but not significant Occupy—no one gets to own it except as a memory. It can’t be reconvened. On this account, with the election season underway, OWS seems like a reminder of the angry public mood of 2011. It is tempting to say that rather than the Tea Party of the left, it was the Herman Cain of the left, but that understates the force of the views OWS expressed and its likely persistence as a symbol.

More important, OWS represents a new kind of political and social effort—intense, broad, brief, and dramatic. Such efforts involve large numbers of people rather than narrow groups. There are leaders and organizers but they do not simply control the movement, which expands rapidly and surprisingly in size and forms.

2. Occupy is a significant current on the left of the Democratic coalition.

While it arrived too late to field its own primary candidates it will be a presence in the 2012 election cycle and perhaps beyond.

Although most OWS supporters hate the Tea Party analogy, here it’s apt. The Tea Party experience shows how political currents can now appear both inside and outside the party system. One hope (for those who want to re-elect Obama) is that OWS as a symbol can attract some independent voters. This may be wishful thinking, insofar as the 2011 Occupy story occurred to such a large extent among people who were already likely Democratic voters and in pro-Democratic settings.

More plausibly, Democratic strategists might hope that engaging with Occupy activists and participants will help mobilize 2008 Obama supporters who have been disappointed by the limits of what the Obama administration has achieved and by persistently bad economic conditions. When Occupy was much in the news and a subject for national polling, it briefly received general sympathy or support from roughly one-third of the population, most of whom described themselves as Democrats. In this phase, during its broadest appeal, Occupy was both part of the Democratic constellation and outside it.

This idea—OWS as a spark and a push for the broader Democratic Left and as a source of activists—is what unions in New York and Oakland were hoping for in engaging with Occupy activists. (They were often not so happy with what they got.)

Parts of the Obama campaign and Democratic activist groups would like to see relations with OWS supporters move in this way, as they need to find ways to mobilize in 2012. Some people who were active in Occupy efforts have since joined mainly Democratic state and regional campaigns, such as the effort to recall the governor of Wisconsin or the Keystone XL Pipeline debate. This doesn’t prove much in causal terms—the same people might have been similarly active anyway. But there is a road open from Occupy to 2012 Democratic campaigns.

Views #1 and #2 differ about what happened in fall 2011 and what ended. Proponents of view #2 are less inclined than proponents of view #1 to find a clear stopping point for OWS by the end of 2011. They want to be able to encourage Occupy activists to join their election-year projects without having to declare their 2011 movement dead.

3. It’s a distinct, original, and radical movement, focused on economic unfairness and social unraveling.

After an initially skeptical media reception, this view (and hope) took hold among many intellectuals and academics in fall 2012. Many commentators argued this case by analogy with movements or phases of movements that they respect and admire from prior decades—from parts of Students for a Democratic Society to Polish Solidarity to the anti/alter-globalization efforts of the 1990s.

The refusal of last fall’s Occupy to make clear and focused claims or present leaders limited its prospects along these lines, even if people in or near the effort generally had a sense of what it was about. The evidence on this is in, no matter what claims were made about the virtues of a leaderless movement or of “horizontal” discussion and action. Public interest in a movement that offers process rather than program is likely to wane where time is scarce and political commitment is expensive, i.e., everywhere. If everything should change, what should it change into? If there’s a way to fix the housing market before then, what is it?

The main radical movements of the last half century in the United States and Europe have differed in their internal norms and practices, but those that were durable have generally had clear public aims—end segregation, stop the war in Vietnam, make abortion legal, prevent nuclear war, end the Polish communist regime. In some cases (for example, feminism in the United States) demands and programs have changed over time via innovation and new contexts. These movements have asserted a general right to make claims while making clear and accessible statements about what objectives matter most right now.

Although people strongly disapprove of the behavior of their elected leaders in Congress, few are apt to turn to Occupy or other program-free movements in a sustained way. There were strong expressions of sympathy for a while. Yet as we have seen, the market for a process-driven radicalism whose strongest voices reject programs and even limited demands is apt to shrink fast.

Despite the lack of plausible proposals and responsible leaders, proponents of view #3 argue that OWS and its successors will be around for a while, perhaps in new and expanded forms. The rapid decline of OWS as a mass force makes this view hard to sustain.

Some respond to this decline with the idea that movements ebb and flow. Over the last half century this has often been true, across the political spectrum, but it may not be so with flash movements. Such movements are not trivial, as was clear last fall, and it makes no sense to disparage them in the name of preferred radical movements that do not exist. But there is not much to suggest that sustained movements (left or right) can avoid the challenges of defining constituencies, forming organizations of some kind, and framing programs.

As analyses and recommendations, views #2 and #3 might be compatible, but two features of the national political scene make it hard to combine them. One, there is a Democratic administration, so a general attack on “power” is bound to be highly divisive. The great majority of those who were generally supportive of OWS in November 2011 very much want Obama to win in 2012. Proponents of view #2—both activists and broader publics—are unlikely to sympathize with the idea that there is no consequential difference between Obama and Romney.

Two, there is no time to work this out. The Tea Party began soon after Obama was elected, and aimed most of its fire at him and his administration, even if it had an intra-Republican factional agenda from the start.

Some versions of view #3 might threaten to reprise Nader’s role in Bush’s 2000 victory in the 2012 election, through abstention this time (stay autonomous from both rotten parties!). If this prospect appears serious it will cause strong negative reactions from center to left. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as the Republican candidate for vice president should strengthen this dynamic and make it hard not to see big differences between the parties. Most likely the fear of undermining Obama diminished the involvement of black and Latino political forces with OWS in fall 2011. Leaders of these forces have been focused on electing Obama and not much interested in strategies that do not clearly share that aim.

Proponents of view #3—OWS as an autonomous radical movement—are also disadvantaged by changes in the two main parties over the last four decades. Mainly via the expansion of the primary system, dissident individuals and political currents well to the left or right (from Jesse Jackson to Ron Paul) have gained a foothold in the parties. They can wage national campaigns in presidential politics and win state and local offices.

In contemporary American politics it is not credible to claim that a movement of the left or right can’t get anything done in one of the main parties, and should instead focus on guarding its autonomy. When movement activists are deeply engaged with trying to influence politics, autonomy does not disappear, but it means something very different from what veterans of the New Left in the United States or retrospective adherents of the far Lefts of Western Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s seem to have in mind. The Tea Party, along with a range of other conservative groups, recently nominated their preferred Republican candidate for Senate in Texas, defeating his conservative opponent. There is nothing marginal or purely symbolic about this sort of success.

The differences between proponents of view #2 and view #3 are relatively clear. Proponents of view #3 regard Occupy as a substantial and autonomous radical movement and recommend cautious engagement with the Democratic world. Proponents of view #2 are skeptical about both the reality and merit of such autonomy and worry more, of course, about winning the next election. As all signs indicate a close contest between Obama and Romney, there’s good reason to expect a sharpening of these differences unless proponents of view #3 put their long-term views on hold for the sake of an Obama campaign that needs all the help it can get.

4. OWS is (and should be) an increasingly radical (“anti-capitalist”) movement.

On this account, OWS did and will disrupt political and social life with the aim of opening a window onto an alternative political and economic configuration. Here the value of OWS lies both in its disruptiveness and in its capacity to prefigure elements of a new world. People define and weigh these aims differently. The alternative—to be prefigured and eventually attained—combines neo-anarchist, neo-Leninist, and radical democratic elements.

Proponents of this view hope and believe that OWS will grow in importance over the next period (probably in bursts rather than as a steady growth). This flourishing is what matters, not the distractions of the 2012 elections.

Neo-anarchists and other far leftists provided part of the core leadership of Occupy in a number of cities. They deserve credit for helping spur the movement—even if flash movements don’t require extensive organization or recognized leaders to make a bright and dramatic entrance and to have real effects.

There were leaders—yet OWS tended to deny they existed. Without any formal means of selection, they were there. They talked more, stayed around longer, filled the most important committees, and shaped decisions. To sustain and expand the flash movement these leaders believed that it was important to assert the primacy of its “mass” forms and to make a virtue of an alleged lack of leaders.

Many of these leaders, as well as a number of those who helped to get Occupy off the ground, were evasive about their views. What made the movement dynamic (and interesting!) was its link to the dismay and anger of many Americans about unfair inequality, bad economic conditions, and political inability to fix either. Yet anger at economic trouble, unfair inequality, and weak political leadership doesn’t lead toward approving the full agenda of the neo-anarchists and neo-communists. This agenda calls for undermining present forms of political authority, replacing market society (capitalism) with anarchist and/or communist economic schemes, and unmasking liberal institutions as coercive frauds. Asserting this agenda loudly and clearly would have distanced its advocates from the strong currents in public opinion that sympathized with OWS. It would have meant separating neo-anarchist leaders from the flash movement in many if not most places. Within the left 5 to 10 percent of the American electorate, parts of the neo-anarchist agenda can get a serious hearing, without producing much support. More broadly these views have no real standing. People who believe them can help organize movements and be active in them, but this requires modulating or concealing their own commitments. Recall that in the United States as a whole more people blame “government” than “Wall Street” for the economic mess.

Parts of the far-left currents that initiated Occupy objected to “demands” not mainly out a commitment to process, but because they believed no demands or programs with a chance of getting somewhere now in the United States were worth the trouble. Plausible and partly winnable demands were most likely integrative and demobilizing. At the same time, many of the neo-anarchist leaders were aware of the lack of public interest in neo-anarchism and neo-communism.

Affirming the virtues of a leaderless and unprogrammatic movement afforded room for maneuver for actual leaders, without requiring them to articulate and defend their political and ideological positions. In this rapid and surprising sequence, neo-anarchists became Popular Front Leninists of a sort. Instead of having a Popular Front program in the old forms, the “mass line” was to invoke a buoyant and process-driven movement and to reject even the idea of demands in its name. There were two linked “party lines.” Some core OWS activists proposed occupations and other tactics as a way to prefigure a new world, rather than a conventional protest strategy. For others the “party line” was about using occupations to educate the masses and especially to build cadres for new and sharper confrontations in the future.

By the end of 2011, if not before, the brief convergence of widespread public anger (mainly in pro-Democratic milieus) and neo-anarchist activism was mostly over. As both the mass line and the masses disappeared, the various far Lefts were on their own, as they have been in 2012. Now actions called by OWS mainly assemble old and new far-left groupings and currents, usually in small numbers and occasionally more (anti-NATO actions in Chicago in May). In this OWS, familiar debates about violence, autonomy, and the shape of a post-capitalist and post-liberal future predominate, placing large barriers to entry for people not already committed to the third or fourth view of Occupy.

The lines between view #3 and view #4 have so far been softened by mutual efforts to get along. Proponents of #3 know there is no prospect of a renewed OWS without the neo-anarchist leaders and activists of #4 know that cutting ties with proponents of #3 means more political isolation sooner. But the campaign logic of 2012 is likely to make relations more difficult, as many proponents of #3 find their way to supporting Obama—a move that most proponents of #4 can’t accept.

Earlier in 2012 neither current could stop talking about violence. Some proponents of view #4 have in effect offered a compromise—they will reject all but purely defensive violence against persons if violence against property can be regarded as a viable option. This approach has big problems that make it unattractive as an informal common platform. It fails to recognize how rapidly and uncontrollably violence escalates when people start employing it. This approach—violence against property but not persons—imagines a world where a bright line separates people and property, and everyone (activists, owners of endangered shops and cars, citizens who disagree with the activists, police) readily recognizes it.

Beyond arguments about elections and violence, most proponents of #4 are right now on the other side of a line that opposes them sharply to proponents of #2. Public support for OWS was notably strong during the flash movement. Since then the extent of polling about OWS has declined, but it seems clear that support fell by half from November 2011 to April 2012. Now such support is below 15 percent and heading down. (Support for the Tea Party, on comparable questions, is about 30 percent.)

Do these numbers matter? For proponents of view #2, they signal the need for caution and selectivity in engaging with what remains of OWS. In practice this means a preference for engaging ex-OWS activists and strong supporters as individuals and small groups.

For proponents of #4, this steep decline presents at least a public challenge. Since OWS made much of its broad public support in fall 2011 (and rightly so) it won’t work to claim that public opinion numbers don’t mean anything if they are bad. Better to avoid the subject. For some proponents of view #4 the decline is not very interesting, as the point all along was to create bright prefigurative moments and/or build cadres for a future escalation.

Summer & Fall 2012

In late summer 2012, after OWS as a flash movement left the scene, its core activists and supporters are still choosing among options #2, #3, and #4.

Advocates of approach #2, which gives relatively clear direction and tangible local options, are trying to link Occupy supporters and activists to the issue and advocacy networks of the left Democratic world. For the rest of 2012 this means engaging local and state campaigns and aiding the Obama campaign. An incumbent Democrat means that one obvious route for left Democratic reform efforts, an insurgent primary campaign, has not been available. Occupy’s inability to sustain large-scale forms does not much concern proponents of view #2

Proponents of the third and fourth views have not effectively addressed the “what now?” question or its companion, “by whom?” In principle they are working on a new approach. But they have often seemed preoccupied with explaining why the general strike of May 1 was not a failure, or with figuring out what to do when ultra-left militants show up at far-left demonstrations ready to fight.

Those who opt for views #3 and #4 have tended to focus on settings where the Left, broadly defined, is relatively strong—cities with left-liberal administrations, ports with strong leftish unions, left-liberal churches, and universities. Legal and personal risks are reduced in such locations, while the chances of being taken seriously are greater. We’re not likely to see large efforts by an Occupy Dallas or Occupy South Carolina. For some proponents of the fourth view, the tropism toward left-liberal institutions meant staging conflicts to unmask the true nature of Oakland’s mayor, or the ILWU, or the New School in late 2011 and early 2012. What it means now is uncertain.

Flash Politics

Now it is not so hard to gauge the strength of these four views of OWS. They are cogent in roughly the order I have listed them, with OWS as a flash movement the winner.

If view #1—Occupy as a flash movement—now seems most accurate, the gap between that account and view #2—Occupy as a left Democratic current—may diminish to some degree through the election cycle. With Romney as the Republican candidate and the economy barely improving, the ingredients exist for a tough and close presidential contest. Many people who were involved with Occupy will find their way into supporting the Obama campaign. This will mean a tricky discussion about how to give and gain that support without branding Obama’s re-election campaign as an Occupy project.

Further from the main debates in national politics, there is a contest underway among Occupy activists and supporters between two directions. Some people favor a hybrid relying mainly on option #3 with elements of option #2. Others incline toward versions of #4. Since it is so difficult to generate an active version of #3, internal debates about the future tend to occur on the terms of proponents of view #4. If OWS in 2011 was mainly an important flash movement, then these recent fights in 2012 are really about dividing up the remains, even if participants understand it differently. Political actors who get title to the names and tactics that arose in the fall of 2011 may be able to muster occasional crowds in the late summer and fall—especially on OWS’s anniversary on September 17. Yet these crowds will mainly involve the already existing far Left.

These judgments don’t derogate the importance of OWS, even though recent and ongoing understandings of proponents of views #3 and #4 are mostly wrong. The appearance of a flash movement like Occupy is interesting and significant. It shows that brief, intense, and lightly organized movements can attract broad attention and sympathy. They can raise large issues in a dramatic and effective way.

The relatively large scale of the flash movement came from the severity of the economic situation and the public’s negative judgments of major institutions. In its emergence and dynamism, OWS expressed historic themes of American populism, which so often poses a virtuous people against selfish, dangerous, and small minorities. We should expect more, in the future, of such movements, or initiatives, or protests, sometimes with broad agendas and sometimes with narrow claims.

OWS is important for contemporary politics in the United States because it showed how a flash movement can emerge in relation to a very limited conventional infrastructure. A large part of the American public (briefly) came to have a favorable view of a movement initiated by neo-anarchists and developed via far-left networks. In “normal” movement and interest group terms, this dramatic growth is hard to understand. There are books and articles to be written, less about the glory days of OWS (those books are already out) than about new forms of collective action that seem less dependent on organization, resources, thick personal networks, and selective incentives than on a rapid upsurge from an informed and animated public. These flash movements may be significant and interesting per se, not as precursors to more durable movements (much less as premonitions of the real insurrection!).

These inquiries are important partly because of OWS as a case, but the stakes are higher. If there are flash movements, there can also be flash insurgencies like the Tea Party, which went from nowhere to reshaping Congress in a few years. And there can be a flash campaign like Obama’s in 2008, when public anger with business as usual combined with a desire for serious and intelligent novelty. The resulting upsurge changed the terms of the 2008 campaign, spilling across institutions and reshaping strategies. There’s no reason that these new flash elements should be the exclusive property of any single political or ideological force.

With the Tea Party and the Obama campaign of 2008 we can see an emergent reality more complex than that of OWS, which eleven months after September 2011 looks like the almost pure type of a flash movement. The Tea Party’s success and Obama’s victory entailed a dense interweaving of longstanding and newer organizational forms and strategies with dynamic flash elements that no one really predicted. These elements helped turn a right-wing sectarian current into a national political force and a long-shot candidate into a president. The Tea Party and of course Obama’s 2008 campaign overshadow OWS in political significance, but for the moment they stand together as three instances of a volatile and exciting politics that we are deep into without understanding very well.

If Occupy was mainly a vivid and significant flash movement that had a real effect on public debate, that’s important now and later. This experience signals new forms of political and social expression. Initiatives from outside the centers of political power can rapidly shift the terms of political debate and act. In what it reveals as well as what it accomplished, Occupy matters more for contemporary politics than most thought it would in September 2011.

Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.