Sunday, November 20, 2011

I finally put my finger on what bothers me about the Occupy movement

Let me start this out by saying a few things: First, I unreservedly support the general aims of the Occupy movement, such as they are. Second, I do not want to make the mistake (and don't think I am) of impugning a movement or protest simply because its aims are not crystal clear; many a movement has been successful in enacting change without necessarily having specific demands at all times. Third, the police response in many places has been utterly appalling. Given the nature of the protest, it's almost unavoidable that there will be conflicts and arrests -- the entire point is to create an inconvenience, isn't it? -- but the lack of proportionality in places like Oakland, the bizarre unprovoked use of pepper spray in places like Berkeley, etc... it's just crazy!

All of that said, I've always intuitively felt like there was something not quite right about the Occupy movement. I knew it had something to do with their lack of specific goals, but as I said before, a movement doesn't necessarily need specific demands in order to be effective. Still, something about that just felt a little futile, a little misdirected somehow...

And yesterday, driving past the Occupy Rochester protest, it suddenly hit me: You can have a protest or movement that doesn't have specific demands, but you can't have a "we're going to stay here and we're not moving until either you arrest us all or..."-style protest without specific demands. How will you know when you're done? And if you can't know when you're done, how can you have a we-aren't-moving-until protest?

People like to draw parallels and contrasts between Occupy and the Tea Party movement. The validity of many of these comparisons is a bit questionable in my mind, but let me take the Tea Partiers as an example and show why they don't have this problem, despite having arguably even more nebulous goals than Occupy. The Tea Party movement is ongoing, but each rally or protest has a distinct start and end. Eventually the movement will peter out, but it won't seem like surrender when it does.

Occupy can't last forever, and since the point of the protest is "we-won't-leave-until", and since "until" is completely undefined, it will inevitably look like a surrender. The protesters will leave, despite the fact that "until" never happened.

Now, there are advantages to Occupy's approach. Certainly it was able to get the attention of the media despite an early unwillingness to give much coverage to OWS. (On a side note, I'm apparently so embedded in alternative media that I didn't even notice this lack of coverage until people started to complain about it) And the fact that it is a style of protest which is especially likely to generate conflict with law enforcement does create the opportunity for both more exposure and more sympathy for the movement.

But will we see "Occupy candidates" being swept into national government in Nov. 2012, the way we did with the Tea Partiers in 2010? I just don't see it. I don't know if has anything to do with this hokey Underpants Gnomes-esque format, or if it's more because of the general political lay of the land right now, or what. I just can't get excited about Occupy, because I don't think they have a path to the sea to actually accomplish anything. And it's not only because their demands are vague; it's because they are nevertheless operating in a way that is most effective at achieving specific demands. It just doesn't add all the way up for me.

I must reiterate, however, that I do support the Occupy movement nonetheless.


  1. I'm not surprised by the lack of endpoint. Many of the protesters matured in the last decade where the US has been in conflict with no endpoint. I also support the aims of OWS.

  2. I think it's tough to come up with a small number of specific solutions to the problems at hand, and I don't necessarily see that as a shortcoming.

    As a philosopher in training, I participated in a group discussion on Occupy a couple weeks back. I'd say it was a pretty even split (not by design) between pro-, anti-, and meh-. Two things happened during this discussion. First, and perhaps least surprising, we could not come up with an exhaustive, or even representative, list of what the protesters could possibly be protesting. You start at "a bunch of people are rather pissed off" and next thing you know you're off in the weeds debating how a particular voting system doesn't really work that well in Australia or whatnot.

    From this, I'd argue that Occupy is a malfunction indicator light, of some sort. It's not the MIL's job to tell you what the problem is,(*) but it should tell you there's a problem. Given that we all thought this particular light was burned out a decade ago, it must be a pretty big problem. (We ultimately decided that this was a job for higher-ranking philosophers to deal with, and called up Cornel West. He's on it.)

    The second, and most surprising, part of it was the discourse. We did not agree on everything, nor did we convince anyone else of anything, BUT we talked, to each other, directly. In the process of trying to figure out what was going on -- a job the media is starting to pick up on, unfortunately -- we had to confront our biases and misinformations and prejudices and assumptions.

    It turns out that we all view Occupy differently. To explicitly distill it down to a set of demands would remove this feature and turn it into "just another" protest, of the sort we've had thousands of over the past few years. I'm going to sound all hippie and shit by saying "the park is a metaphor for your mind" -- I heard it as "miiiiind" and my eyes got wide when I typed it -- but it is. Insofar as Tea Party is an occupation of the heart and a call to the methods of the past, Occupy is an occupation of the mind and a call to the methods of the future.

    I don't know what those methods will be, but we're going to find out.(**)

    (*) Malfunction Indicator Light, not Mother-in-Law. It is always her job to tell you what the problem is, and it's you.
    (**) Some would say we already are. was the result of a real-time group consensus among hundreds (thousands?) of protesters. That'd give Hitchcock goosebumps.

  3. Not surprised I got comments on this post, since this is one where the people I normally tend to agree with tend to disagree with me :) And maybe I'm dead wrong!

    @cass_m: It occurred to me right after posting this that this really is a good ol' fashioned 'Merican occupation, what with lack of exit strategy and everything...

    @Ryan: I need to reiterate that I'm not criticizing Occupy for not having specific demands, I'm criticizing Occupy for not having specific demands while simultaneously employing a "we're not moving until our demands are met" style of protest. I also need to clarify that I'm not trying to say, "Here's what they would change to fix this" -- as I admitted, the style of protest has been effective at attracting media attention in a way that other types of protest may not have been; and as you pointed out, the problems being addressed (more on that in a sec) are not the kind of things you fix with one or two simple demands.

    I'm not saying, "Occupy is so dumb, they should have done it this way;" I'm saying, "Despite all of its merits, Occupy has an internal contradiction, and it makes me a little queasy, and makes me worry about where the movement goes next." Like I say, I don't see any way for these protests to wind down that won't look like a failure. Prove me wrong, Occupiers!

    As to what is the unifying principle of the movement, I think that's fairly simply: Income equality and all of the issues which accompany it under our system. This includes lack of social services for those who can't afford it (and perhaps more crucially, since it affects far more people and has been directly linked to unhappiness, uncertainty about the continuity and comprehensiveness of social services even for those who can afford them at the moment); corporate/wealthy influence over the political process; crime, religious fundamentalism, teen pregnancy and drug use, all of which are more linked to income equality than they are to absolute income level; and unstable models for economic growth, just to name a few.

    Interesting metaphor about the Tea Party vs. Occupy. I tend to dismiss the comparisons out of hand, because while there is a comparison to be made between the original Tea Party movement and Occupy (the former was pissed off about government abuse, the latter about corporate abuse), the Tea Party movement as it stands to day has nothing to do with that.

  4. Comments tl;dr, sorry. Just wanted to ask if Occupy's demands aren't that the people behind the economic collapse be held responsible? And that the system changes to not favor corporations over people? THose are of course high demands (but good ones), so not likely that they can occupy until...