A few thoughts on the Occupy movement

The Occupy movement has left a distinct mark on the political landscape. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which it has changed the political discourse, raised the sights of other social movements, and stimulated mass action.

Currently it is in a process of regrouping, hastened by the forced evictions from public spaces in recent months. What direction it will choose to go in is still unclear.

Many readers of this article have participated in Occupy events, some have helped organize them. Though I have attended some Occupy events I can’t claim to be an active participant. But I do have a few general thoughts about the Occupy movement in this country.

First of all, the Occupy movement has an important role going forward. That a section of the young generation has battled Wall Street and inspired others to do the same is to be greatly welcomed. But it is ill advised to try, as some have done, to turn the Occupy movement into a “vanguard” organizing center leading a diverse coalition of political/social forces to “a brave new world.”

In the late 1990s well-meaning people attached that role to young people in the anti-globalization movement, but it never materialized. Young people bring energy, boldness, and imagination to social struggles. He or she who has the youth, it is said, has the future. But it doesn’t follow that the young generation is the main, and certainly not the singular, social force in any assault on entrenched power.

That role lies with the multi-racial multi-ethnic working class and its organized sector, especially in an advanced capitalist society like ours. The working class has changed dramatically in its composition, size and life circumstances over the decades. Not everyone wears a blue collar or carries a lunch bucket to the workplace. But its social power and experience in class and social struggles remain, giving it the potential to be a leading agent for change, and a radical change at that.

Of course, it will fulfill this potential only in close alliance with its main allies – the racially oppressed, women and, not least, young people. Such an alliance is necessary for near-term as well longer-term victories. Go-it-alone strategies in this era by any social grouping are self-defeating.

It follows that an imperative task of Occupy is to deepen and extend its connections to labor, people of color, youth, and other social forces – connections that are crucial to its mission to construct a more egalitarian society.

Second, many of the occupiers worry about cooptation, that is, subordinating oneself to other social forces such as the Democratic Party, labor, MoveOn, Rebuild the Dream, etc. Concern about maintaining its organizational independence and unique style is legitimate. And yet if taken too far it can be counterproductive. After all, any movement that hopes to influence millions has to rub shoulders with diverse social forces who are not always of like mind, and has to participate in arenas of struggle not always of its own choosing.

Which brings me to this year’s elections. My impression is that some – maybe the majority – in the Occupy movement see the election process in its two-party form as an invitation to cooptation, and therefore they adopt an attitude of electoral abstentionism.

This is mistaken in my opinion. Such a posture isolates Occupy from the main social forces and organizations in the country whose energies and resources will be focused in the electoral arena of struggle this year.

Moreover, the outcome of the election will set the broad parameters of struggle in the coming period. The defeat of the Republican right will position the people’s movement to  address, among other things, the inequality and exploitation that is built into our (capitalist) 1 percent vs. 99 percent society. On the other hand, a victory by the right will set the stage for the right to complete and consolidate a counterrevolution that began with the Reagan presidency three decades ago.

Third, the fight against racism by the Occupy movement is of utmost importance. As the Republican primaries unmistakeably reveal, racism is alive and well. And if victories are to be won against the 1 percent, the 99 percent have to reject divisions along racial lines. Such divisions have always been the Achilles’ heel of the progressive movement.

Finally, the struggle for alternatives to the crisis of capitalism, say a sustainable green economy, by Occupy and other left movements for that matter has to combine with full immersion in the struggle for partial and immediate solutions to crisis conditions. To hang one’s hat only on one or the other is wrongheaded and self-defeating.

No doubt Occupy has a future. And like any movement, it will learn lessons from its experience and adjust accordingly. May we hope that it continues to be a thorn in the side of the 1 percent.

Photo: (PW/Gabe Falsetta)


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.