Why Occupy Didn’t Succeed
What Went Wrong and What We Can Learn from It
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. While the movement failed to create change, it challenged the prevailing narrative that everything is awesome and called into question the status quo, the amalgamation of political and economic power commonly referred to as “the 1%” within the movement. The antagonism between the 1% and the 99% provided us with a simple narrative to communicate a complex problem, which we were all facing together and still are to this day. While the movement fizzled out in 2011, and it is clear that little has changed since September 2011, the movement provides us with some clues that can help us create a new overarching movement that can successfully challenge the rule of the 1%.
Two key elements were missing from the movement: a bridge and a destination.
First, we need to start with a destination in mind. We can’t create significant change unless we can agree on what change we want to create. It is clear that we want to remove the 1% from power. But what does that look like? We know what we don’t want, but we don’t have a clear picture of the world we want to create. What kind of society do we want to build? We need to think about the results we want to see. We need to feel what is it like to live in this new society of the future. We need to figure out how it looks like. What are we doing in it? How is it different? Then, and only then, we can determine how to change it.
Having said that, the movement had a certain intuitive idea of what kind of world it wanted to create. To start, we can look at the very nature of the movement. People left their isolated houses to camp together in public spaces. The movement was, at its heart, about rebuilding community, bringing all kinds of people together and working together as equals for our common goals. The movement had no leaders, it was purely emergent, anti-hierarchical, and anti-authoritarian. These qualities were at the essence of the society that the Occupy movement sought to create. They were its greatest strengths but also its greatest weakness. Since there were no leaders to make decisions on behalf of everyone else, meetings had to take into account the points of view of everyone involved. As a result, the movement never had a clear list of demands. In fact, the very nature of the movement itself was contrary to the conception of the political system as separate from the people and only representative of the people. The politics of Occupy equated the people with the political system, rejecting the idea of representative democracy as flawed and highlighting the fact that representative democracy (and hierarchies in general) is part of the reason why corporations have complete control over the political system. Thus, even if there was agreement between everyone over exactly how society should look like and what changes were necessary to transform society into this ideal society that was mutually agreed upon by all its members, the very idea of demanding change from “representatives” separate from the movement was alien to the movement itself.
All of this brings us to the bridge. How do we get there? We need to start from where we are and engage with the system we have today. We want to use the arguments and tools of the 1% against them. We want to build an organization that can compete against their system by providing the greatest benefits without the drawbacks of the prevailing mainstream system. In order to do that we need to gain a deeper understanding of why the status quo doesn't work. We need to bring an alternative to the status quo to the table and build it ourselves. We already have an idea of what we are looking for. We want a society without rulers, where everyone is involved in co-creating society together and building society together. Furthermore, even though Occupy had a “left” leaning vibe to it, many people who consider themselves as “right” leaning would be sympathetic to the goal of liberating society from authoritarianism, including both the authoritarianism inherent in the political system as well as in the economic system dominated by large corporations. We, thus, need to put our differences aside and create the means to achieve that goal.
The challenge that we face is one of organization. We need a leaderless system where each individual has a say and is liberated from external rule. At the same time, we need the means to organize large numbers of people such that we can find solutions to our problems together and then build those solutions. We already have the raw resources to achieve that. We have the internet, all our individual skills and the labour-power to construct a new system to challenge the status quo of the 1%. All that we need to do now is build this alternative, in the spirit of the Occupy movement. By doing so, we will not only be building the bridge to the destination, but the bridge itself will be the destination. The transformation of society will be achieved not in the future but in the very process of building the alternative. We need to abandon the distractions that keep us divided and apathetic, focus on reconnecting with our neighbours, and reclaim our power by working together to build the alternative.