Business & Economy

Assessing Occupy: From quixotic success and horizontal style to 2.0

Occupy protest
In fall 2011 hundreds of protesters gathered for a General Assembly in City Hall Park. File photo by Greg Guma

Author and ’60s activist Todd Gitlin considers the Occupy movement that swept across the world in 2011 a “qualified but real success.”

It was quixotic, he told a SRO crowd in the Sugar Maple Ballroom in the Davis Center at UVM on Thursday. “And it worked.” But success also pointed to problems, he added, and “you could also say it failed.”

Drawing from material he has assembled in a new book, “Occupy Nation,” Gitlin traced the uprising’s evolution thus far and assessed the prospects for what he labeled Occupy 2.0.

Gitlin currently teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University, but his credentials as a radical thinker date back to the early 1960s. As president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a leading activist group, he helped to organize the first national demonstration against the war in Vietnam and the first sit-in against apartheid in 1965 at the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Since then he has written 15 books, with titles like “The Whole World Is Watching” and “The Sixties.” As an academic authority on contemporary social movements he balances tough criticism of the Right with equally serious questions about the tactics and tone of Left activism.

Todd Gitlin. Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

During a one-hour lecture and follow-up question period, he called what happened in September 2011 an “eruption,” a “movement’s beginning,” and an attempt to reverse the long-term accumulation of power and wealth by the wealthiest 1 percent.

“No one saw it coming,” he said. But there were rumblings in advance and structural pre-conditions. One was a “divergence of wealth” so great that the 400 richest Americans now have as much as 50 percent of the wealth.

There were attempts to mobilize public discontent for years. However, “on Sept. 17, the flame caught,” Gitlin said, referring to day an open call was issued to Occupy Wall Street, soon to be known as OWS or just Occupy. Anarchists and democratic activists with groups like Anonymous, A99 and US Day of Rage were among the first to join. According to David DeGraw, editor of the organizing site, the unifying principle was, “Anything you can do to rebel against the system of economic tyranny in a non-violent manner is welcome.”

It was a radical upheaval that mirrored the outrage and defiance of the conservative, anti-government Tea Party movement that preceded it. “Occupy filled a moral and political space,” argued Gitlin. But it did not focus on government. Instead, its primary targets were “banksters” and corporate forces that had corrupted politics, crashed the economy, and increased the gap between rich and poor while enriching themselves.

Gitlin noted that the emergence of the terms 99% and 1% as part of the popular lexicon assisted President Obama in labeling Mitt Romney as a plutocrat early in the presidential race. On the other hand, most Democrats handled the nascent movement “gingerly,” while core members expressed skepticism, if not hostility to the current electoral system.

He defined Occupy as the first U.S. social movement in modern history “to begin with the benefit of majority support for its main thrust.” Early unions did not experience “unadulterated” support, he noted. Neither the civil rights nor women’s movements were especially popular at the start, and the Vietnam War had 60 percent public support in the mid-1960s.

At the core, however, the movement’s identity was closely tied to its famously “horizontal,” cooperative style, most visible at General Assemblies. It expressed an “intense existential affirmation of itself,” Gitlin said, a desire to evolve a new way of life that emerged primarily in the form of encampments across the country.

Gitlin followed the movement closely and conducted numerous interviews for his book. He reports that many activists were inspired by uprisings from Egypt and Tunisia to Wisconsin.

In Vermont, a series of rallies and marches began about two weeks after the initial call. On Oct. 15, rallies were staged in several communities, drawing support from labor and politicians. At the end of the month, adopting a central strategy, about 50 people began an encampment in Burlington’s City Hall Park.

Over the next weeks, the movement’s broad scope and “leaderless” approach made it difficult to sustain momentum. There were organizational problems and internal disagreements about process and tactics. However, Gitlin says that most encampments, fundamentally expressions of the constitutional right of assembly to redress grievances, were broken up – often violently – during a coordinated response by local officials across the country.

“The right of assembly means more than speech,” Gitlin asserted. It is “the collective right to reason together.”

On the other hand, many Occupy supporters displayed a tendency to be “phobic” about cooptation and thought unions and were political “Trojan horses.”

In Burlington, the flashpoint came in November with the suicide of Joshua Pfenning, a 35-year-old homeless man, in a tent at the Burlington encampment. In response, Mayor Bob Kiss shut it down.

Occupy transformed the political culture by combining 18th century democratic principles with 21st century methods, Gitlin concludes. As a result, the focus on debt and deficits that had been dominating political debate gave way to a discussion of wealth inequality.

But the core of the movement wanted more. “They wanted to produce a society of their own, and half believed they were producing it.”

A year later, Gitlin estimates that Occupy still has a core membership in the tens of thousands, “largely young and dis-embedded.” He compared it to the wing of the civil rights movement that was prepared to engage in civil disobedience.

He also pointed to promising spinoffs like a Jubilee movement to cancel debt and an anti-foreclosure campaign, but he wasn’t certain whether Occupy itself will have staying power.

For some form of Occupy 2.0 to emerge as a “full spectrum movement,” he advised that it will have to expand the appeal beyond “those who want direct democracy.” He called its focus on encampments “inspiring but self-limiting,” and argued that it “can’t be run horizontally.”

One strategy he recommended was to seek broad agreement on a popular “charter,” a list of basic, achievable goals. The formal presentation concluded with his own seven point list, including progressive taxation, separating commercial from investment banks, a living wage, and reduced military spending.

A next phase for Occupy, whether it’s 2.0 or takes another name, certainly remains possible, Gitling says. But up to this point the upheaval has been “more notional than actual.”

The basic problem is that “there aren’t enough saints.” It’s a predicament, he adds, but there is little potential in trying to convince people committed to the prophetic vision of a radically democratic society to simply give it up.

On the other hand, he said, “it’s going to be a weird movement if it’s restricted to people who can show up for general assemblies.”

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Greg Guma

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  • Renée Carpenter

    Thank you, Greg, for this article. I wish I’d been there and/or that someone had recorded for mp3 listening. Dod he mention the current organized relief efforts of “Occupy Sandy?” (Of course, this happened after he wrote his book)

    You wrote, “He defined Occupy as the first U.S. social movement in modern history ‘to begin with the benefit of majority support for its main thrust,’ and then “One strategy he recommended was to seek broad agreement on a popular ‘charter,’ a list of basic, achievable goals.” Occupy assemblies discussed their strategy multiple times and decided that this strategy would diminish the initial popular benefit he cites.

    Perhaps this was all discussed in the Q & A after the event… Thank you for your coverage.

  • Ian Williams

    I appreciated coming reading this article. I was involved in Occupy Burlington, lived in the brief City Hall Park encampment, and helped to facilitate many general assemblies. Though I no longer live in Vermont, it’s nice to touch upon some very fond and profound memories of a moment in time that stands out from most others. One that had a serious impact on the course of my life, and clearly, numerous others.

    While I appreciate Gitlin’s analysis, I feel that he sweepingly dismissed a very important component of the movement: participatory decision-making. I am one of the individuals that Gitlin refers to as having been invested in creating a different kind of society, and while I don’t believe we created it, I feel that we touched upon a different way of relating to one another. I see moments of it emerge now and then, particularly so as Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy recovery efforts move towards community organizing. Strike Debt, offshoot of OWS, is releasing a report tomorrow called “Shouldering the Costs: Who Pays for the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy” at a community meeting on Staten Island.

    It’s easy to sweepingly dismiss direct democracy and horizontal organizing structures as inefficient, ineffective, too limiting, or not something that people actually want to participate in from a podium – but also, from outside such a system. Participatory democratic processes mostly sense the most sense from within – less as product or a model to be consumed and dissected than a process to partake in. Academic and public intellectual forums are by their very structure authoritarian and undemocratic, and so it is unlikely that such a process can be fully evaluated from within.

    I agree with Renée’s comment above – many of us in the movement opted to maintain an open process of participatory decision-making over hastily pressing together a list of solutions and demands, despite the frequent pressure to. And though some of the concerns about the terms and outcomes of friendly relations with more mainstream – or rather, civil society oriented – institutions like and the AFL-CIO seemed unnecessary, there were and still are serious questions to be asked about the underlying motives and assumptions of such organizations. I am now working on a campaign that is run by an organization with its own vision of participatory decision-making – one in which decisions are (mostly) made by those most affected by issues, what are often called “frontline communities.” It is part of the wider arc of civic engagement organizations, helping low-income and disenfranchised individuals in New York, particularly those on public assistance, become civically engaged, register to vote, and build a base of political power to mobilize and put flexible, sustained pressure on institutions and individuals in power. But its targets are largely state entities – it seeks to move people to act. And in doing so, has to dance with legitimizing their existence and authority.

    I recall a particularly striking moment in Occupy Burlington, when shortly after Josh Phenning’s untimely death and the eviction of the encampment, we marched upon the Democratic Party’s Mayoral Primary. Many of the members of our encampment who were without permanent or stable housing, and had started to call the park “home,” were angry about their displacement, and wanted to make sure that voters and politicians within were thinking about Burlington’s homeless residents while they made crucial decisions about who might be the next formal leader of the city’s government.

    Steve Howard came out to speak with us. He asked that we not disrupt their own process of direct democracy. Miro Weinberg came out a little while later and gave us a rather vague and non-committal statement about his lifelong commitment to affordable housing. Some folks went in and voted, some didn’t, and we eventually returned to the park for an assembly.

    That evening, I had a conversation with a journalist friend who remarked that, having been through Occupy Burlington General Assemblies and then sat through the primary, he felt that the processes were strikingly similar. That, of course, included long and sometimes painstaking processes of coming to a decision, but it was actually open to people’s participation – and that participation came with actual power, the capacity to do, act, affect, or even disrupt.

    Gitlin’s a well-established figure, used to speaking as an expert, who gains a certain degree of material success writing on and teaching about the work of the many members of the movement. He worked feverishly for this book and in interviews and previous talks has been clear about his excitement – like many members of the New Left, he’s felt revitalized and inspired but the movement. The enthusiasm and intellectual rigor is appreciated, but I am hesitant to uncritical praise him as a sort of de facto spokesperson for the movement’s future.

    Does he speak on behalf of those who have been involved in making this structure happen – not just those like I who were deeply invested and active, but people who participated casually? Can one person have an authoritative voice on such things? In uncritically parroting a distinguished guest lecturer’s speaking on behalf of an issue are we not reproducing the very systems of oppressive authority many of us were trying to overcome and transform last year?

    The recently published anthology “We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberation” gives a much more complex and interesting overview from a much wider variety of voices, perspectives, and degrees of involvement regarding the Occupy movement. Ron Jacobs wrote a pretty good review on Counter Punch: It’s a good start for widening the arc of discussion beyond a singular source, a fundamental beginning for a more participatory and democratic dialogue.

  • Ron Pulcer

    As mentioned in the article, the Occupy Movement did not come up with a list of specific demands or were not willing to partner with other organizations, for fear of being co-opted. While that may have been frustrating to many in the public and media, it turns out that maybe in hindsight the Occupy folks did show some integrity.

    On the other hand, the Tea Party either infiltrated the Republican Party or allowed itself to be co-opted by the Republican Party, depending on how you look at it. In the short run (2010 Election), they gained some House seats and took the majority position. In the longer run (2012 Election), the marriage of the Tea Party and the Republican Party did not work out so well for them.

    Looking back, there was a “brief” moment when the American people came together, across both sides of the political spectrum. That was in the Fall of 2008, right after former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (also a former Goldman Sachs CEO) proposed his initial version of the TARP bailout plan.

    Many people contacted their Congressional Reps and Senators and said “NO!”. Congress for the most part listened to the people, at least the first time. But then Wall Street showed it’s displeasure and began to tank the stock market. This caused some Congress members (Leahy and Welch included) and some citizens to get more jittery and decided that we had no other choice but some form of TARP.

    Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street had one thing in common, their distaste for TARP and bailouts.

    But the difference is that the Tea Party blamed the Government while Occupy blamed Wall Street and Corporate Personhood. I happen to think that both Government and Wall Street share blame, as do both the Republican and Democratic parties.

    Eventually, if the Occupy Movement were to make further progress, it probably has to eventually come up with some specific plans, with active citizen input, of course. But for the 2012 Election cycle, the fact that the Occupy movement did not align itself with the other major party, the Democrats, was probably a wise thing and it showed that the Occupy folks do not want to be beholden to a political party. The Occupy folks maybe didn’t have a plan, but they showed integrity in not siding with a political party.