The Occupy movement was off to a good start. Arab Spring activists, intellectuals, and most of the New York public supported the protesters. Yet much of that goodwill has now dissipated, and although Occupy has made us aware of the ties between state and corporate avarice, it is unclear how successful it has been. In sum, Occupy is an example of how not to run a movement.
When he addressed Occupy Boston last October, Noam Chomsky encouraged pragmatism amidst radical outrage. The movement has failed to heed his call. This is not individual protesters’ fault, but rather the fault of key organisers. Those claiming Occupy is leaderless have little knowledge of its structure; the movement has numerous charismatic activists, but while they claim to speak on the movement’s behalf, these same leaders have contaminated it with their clout.
The very idea of a leaderless movement is laughable. We live in a world dominated by leaders, and asking people to quickly adopt the leaderless banner is like asking a stone to swim a hundred miles. Unless everyone possesses “class consciousness”, a leaderless organisation is a power vacuum, bound to be sucked into its own implosion. This is precisely what happened to Occupy: protesters gravitated towards organisers, and organisers themselves began to assume lofty roles.
This may not have been such a bad thing, had the organisers a clear vision of the movement’s future. A movement must articulate its aims; it is acceptable that Occupy could not initially do so, but the time has come and passed for demands to be presented.
An Alternative Occupy
So what should Occupy have done differently? Two things: first, not pretend to be leaderless. Occupy has morphed into the obsequious representative democracy it seeks to demolish. The motivation behind leaderless causes is clear – leaders can be corrupted. Yet by eschewing leaders, Occupy has allowed the media to focus selectively and unfairly on incoherent occupiers who are not representative of the movement, and has moreover failed to organise efficiently.
Secondly, Occupy should have galvanised its already significant public support by linking arms with the community-at-large. This involves relationships with religious organisations, labour unions, and other institutions working in localities, with the express goal of maintaining mass endorsement. Furthermore, this keeps the movement grounded, and prevents loquacious utopians from adulterating Occupy. A problem with Occupy Wall Street, specifically, is that its concerns were overwhelmingly student-oriented, to the exclusion of many other viewpoints.
When I visited the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral last November, I was moved by the power of the spectacle: the building was overshadowed by the protesters camping outside, taking up space and attempting to create a new society within the confines of the old one. Eight months later, I returned to St. Paul’s. Tourists with digital cameras blithely passed by, as Occupy London held a small general assembly. There was none of the same fervour. The occupiers were cynical and exhausted from the tides of past actions.
Occupy is the first left-wing movement in many years to attract public support. It has laid the foundation for us to reclaim our democratic and economic rights from governments and corporations. Yet there is reason to be sceptical: the movement survives in small patches of activity, but will never be the same as it once was. The fuel of outrage has simmered into dark clouds of cynicism. Banks continue to commit financial crimes while receiving government welfare. “Austerity” continues to hurt the poor and working-class – money which is instead spent on war and weaponry.
Still we must not resist hope. The population-at-large is angry – it is furious! Occupy may not have succeeded, but we cannot yield to the corrupt institutions that meld state and corporate avarice into anarchic flames of despair. We can learn from Occupy what not to do, and how to leap into the future of opposition. When our institutions of power and responsibility fail us, civil society is our only recourse to redress imbalances of power.