What can this little excursion into punk history tell us about Occupy? Sometimes things blow up very quickly, unleashing utopian dreams. The Sex Pistols raised hopes the faux rebellion served up by the music and other cultural industries can be laid to rest once and for all, for example. But the world is more intractable than that. Nevertheless, even if they are not able to change everything, such blow ups may deliver enduring forms and practices which can be powerfully reused.
Occupy Wall Street was precisely such a blow up. I have been around activist milieus since the late eighties, and this was the first time I witnessed a movement that actually seemed intent on profoundly changing the US. The new left of the sixties had such intentions, but it was exhausted by the mid seventies. If you want, you might claim it had an afterlife in Jesse Jackson’s primary runs in 1984 and ‘88, but those ultimately failed to halt the Democrats’ drift to the right. And there was no real follow-up to that. Occupy quickly spread to over a thousand cities, and for a time held the nation rapt. And in a shocking departure for American social movement practice, it pointed the finger squarely at the ruling class, even if its term, “the 1%,” was not literally an accurate description. By contrast, both the global justice movement and the Nader campaign of 2000 seemed overhyped, limited in their impact, and timid in their denunciations of “corporations”.
Occupy encampments were already starting to suffer exhaustion when they were swept off the streets by the police after about two months, without having changed much of anything about the US. It wasn’t obvious at the time that this would be a devastating blow to the movement. Movements have been known to meet in union halls, community centers and many other places. You don’t actually need a camp out to have a movement. And yet Occupy did go into a tailspin. Everywhere, it seemed, the general assemblies could not hold themselves together without the camps. Some of them managed to keep going or restart themselves, but with none of the elan and unpredictability that dominated the first couple of months. The sense that the movement was growing and growing, that a call for a radically different sort of politics had truly touched a nerve, that “we are unstoppable” has utterly receded.
And yet, much like punk, I think it has left a legacy that will long be with us, to be reinterpreted, reworked, and revitalized as activists see fit. Some of the aspects of that legacy include a willingness to take chances when others are not, pressing the boundaries of permissible protest, creating space for people to bring their whatever skills they can offer, using general assemblies to open up control of a movement to all, and connecting problems by identifying enemies rather than treating each issue as disconnected and posing its own solution. Ask yourself how many unions, community groups, or left parties are doing any, let alone all of the above. Even if all the remaining Occupy groups disappeared tomorrow–and they won’t–some mix of these approaches is likely to resurface.