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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Autopsy of the Occupy Movement

The Occupy movement, as an agent of change, is likely over. Active members in the movement have to date failed to follow a few basic tenets of social organizing.

For one, the movement never translated their abstract concerns (inequality in wealth, for example) into specific objectives. A concrete goal motivates members of the movement, allows for the formulation and assignment of tasks, and provides the movement with momentum and legitimacy for the next battle when they generate 'wins.' Even the Tea Party movement, which was and is pretty nebulous, had the goal of kicking certain people out of office or electing certain candidates. What do the Occupiers actually want to see happen? No one really knows.

Identifying a specific set of desired changes also allows activists to identify the decision makers that would effect the change. The Occupiers are attempting to scare politicians and capitalists, but there isn't one specific person or institution that they are pressuring. Who is supposed to do what? Again, no one really knows.

The other major problem is that the Occupier philosophy of how a political movement should work-- extreme non-hierarchical democratic deliberation-- is just not an effective way to get things done. Generally, social movements need leaders and some hierarchical decision making, whether formal or informal (some charismatic leader or leaders who command respect and deference). Sometimes the hierarchy is borrowed from existing institutions. The American civil rights movement relied heavily on churches and church leaders, for example.

The movement, in this re-occupy phase, is in danger of being relegated to a comfortable and harmless cultural space. For the last few weeks, sympathetic spectators basked in the warm glow of outrage. Those spectators, however, were not challenged and mobilized to actually do anything about inequality of wealth and influence in America. The movement was like a good movie-- a vehicle for emotional release without consequence.

The actual Occupiers, meanwhile, are energized by having to fight for their survival. Instead of being forced to figure out how to effect real change, they will likely focus their attention on battles over camping rights and police brutality. This is tempting, because there is a concrete goal to accomplish (retaking public spaces) and the outrage itself is specific and felt daily.

Focusing on re-occupation, however, would be a false cure: It would transform the Occupy movement from a means by which the American system was to be reformed to an end in itself. Like a faded movie star on reality television, the movement would exist only to continue existing. It might hang on a while longer, but the rest of us will have already changed the channel.

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