Another Post-Mortem: Why Occupy Should Be Held to a Higher Standard

Steven Wishnia Nov 1, 2013

WEB EXCLUSIVE: In response to "Occupy's Legacy: A Massive Burbling of Possibilities," in the September Indypendent.

The Occupy movement achieved a lot. It raised people’s consciousness and put the issue of economic injustice into the national discourse. As its message catalyzed discontent and outrage, it sprouted all over the nation, from Boston to Oakland, Atlanta to Youngstown. “We Are the 99 Percent” is the most effective concept or slogan to come out of the left in the last generation, both as a point of unity and in identifying the enemy (although it might be more accurate to call them the 0.1 percent).

That was great. But it was only a first step. The essential next step was to turn that mass discontent into effective political action, and that’s where the energy catalyzed by Occupy largely dissipated.

Many of the after-the-fact analyses of Occupy ignore this. They have been short-sightedly self-congratulatory. They act is if catalyzing discontent was enough, or that Occupy’s greatest achievement was prefiguring a utopian community with horizontal, non-hierarchical governance, or, as Ethan Earle wrote in the last Indypendent, that Occupy should not be judged as a movement, but as a series of “transformative happenings” that stimulated radical political energy.

That’s not enough. These attitudes reflect a vexatious tendency within the activist subculture to value symbolic displays of personal commitment more than long-term organizing.

Imagine if after the great civil-rights march of August 1963, the movement had sat on its laurels and said, “Wasn’t that a beautiful dream Dr. King had? And we got people to start talking about ending segregation, and all those people sitting around the Reflecting Pool, black and white together, they prefigured an America with no more racism.”

They didn’t. In 1964, they went to Mississippi, and some of them got killed organizing to break the sweltering heat of segregation. They tried to get the Civil Rights Act passed.

In 1965, they went to Alabama to agitate for the right to vote, and some of them got killed there too.

In 1966, they went to Chicago to try to break the unwritten segregation of the North, and in the lower-middle-class neighborhoods of the Southwest Side, they encountered racism as vile as anything in the Deep South. And they might not have accomplished anything besides getting themselves hit in the head with rocks.

By 1967, Dr. King had realized that to win racial justice for black people in this country, you had to win economic justice for everyone, and the power elite wasn’t going to give that up to just a moral appeal. When he was killed, he was in Memphis campaigning with striking garbage workers, for the strike is the most effective form of direct action, as it is disruptive and not merely symbolic.

We’ve still got a long way to go, and a lot of things have been getting much worse. It’s extraordinarily difficult to build a movement that’s broader than a leftist faction of seven people, and more committed to serious change than voting for whatever Democrat mouths a few platitudes about economic inequality. But the daunting enormity of the struggle only makes it that much more urgent that we be effective. It means we need to think seriously and objectively about what has worked and what hasn’t, about what might work and how to do it.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper published 13 times a year. To subscribe, click here. To make a one-time or sustaining contribution, click here.

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