Occupy's predicament: the moment and the prospects for the movement


(Corresponding author email: tg2058@columbia.edu)


Occupy Wall Street has stalled in its attempt to make a transition from a moment to a movement. It had a sizable impact upon the presidential election, driving America's political centre of gravity toward the left, but has been unable or unwilling to evolve beyond its original core into a ‘full-service movement’ that welcomes contributions from a wide range of activists at varying levels of commitment and skill and plausibly campaigns for substantial reforms. In contrast to earlier American social movements of the twentieth century, the Occupy movement began with a large popular base of support. Propped up by that support, its ‘inner movement’ of core activists with strong anarchist and ‘horizontalist’ beliefs transformed the political environment even as they disdained formal reform demands and conducted decisions in a demanding, fully participatory manner. But the core was deeply suspicious of the ‘cooptive’ and ‘hierarchical’ tendencies of the unions and membership organizations – the ‘outer movement’ – whose supporters made up the bulk of the participants who turned out for Occupy's large demonstrations. The ‘inner movement's’ awkward fit with that ‘outer movement’ blocked transformation into an enduring structure capable of winning substantial reforms over time. When the encampments were dispersed by governmental authorities, the core lost its ability to convert electronic communications into the energy and community that derive from face-to-face contact. The outlook for the effectiveness of the movement is decidedly limited unless an alliance of disparate groups develops to press for reforms within the political system.

The following is the text of the 2012 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 18 October 2012, and was based upon Todd Gitlin's book Occupy Nation (see image I)

Image I.

© HarperCollins Publishers

I. Rudiments: the inner movement and its structure of feeling

One Occupy organizer in New York, Shen Tong, began his political life in Beijing in 1989, as a leader of the students who occupied Tiananmen Square until they were dispersed by troops, tanks, rifles, and a bloodbath. He was one of the leaders able to flee to the USA, where he earned advanced degrees, and in the storybook way of immigrant successes started a software company with an office near Wall Street, where (in a departure from the storybook) he observed a new social fact right down the street and felt the stirrings of a new ‘structure of feeling’ (as Raymond Williams would have put it) and proceeded to devote himself for the better part of a year to Occupy Wall Street. ‘There are two crises for a movement’, he told me. ‘One is to be massacred. The other is to succeed.’ The ‘massacre’ part is easy to understand. What did he mean by ‘succeed'? Why does it make sense to speak of the Occupy movement as a qualified success?

Last September, Occupy Wall Street was one of those upheavals that burst out of nowhere, like the volcano that famously erupted from a farmer's cornfield in Mexico in 1943 and suddenly transformed the landscape. Except that in this case, the volcano triggered hundreds more around the country. After it arrived, the eruption seemed inevitable, for the ground had been rumbling for weeks. There were, as some of us say, structural preconditions – those grand social features so conspicuous in retrospect, so indecipherable in prospect. (The molten undermass was there for years, but where was the eruption?) Before the ground trembled, no one – not the participants who camped out in Zuccotti Park, not the pundits or politicians or the rest of the political class – saw the eruption coming. When it arrived, a host of journalists and pundits, whether or not they approved of the politics of plutocracy, pronounced it peculiar, incomprehensible, dangerous, evanescent, and ineffectual, if not revolting.

What erupted in Zuccotti Park and spilled across the USA in 2011, was, in truth, a movement's beginning, or ‘the beginning of the beginning’, as one placard put it, acknowledging, or wishing, that a campaign to reverse the accretion of plutocratic power in recent decades must endure a matter of years. It was spontaneous, but there were rumblings during the preceding months. (See image II) It was organized, but not in any obvious way, and the organizers had tried to ignite previous incarnations, and failed.

Image II.

New York City Assembly

Source: Produced by Isham Christie.

This time, to change metaphors, the flame caught.

Many if not most of the prime movers in Occupy – the inner movement – were anarchists and democratic radicals, desirous of reorganizing social decisions around directly democratic, ‘horizontal’ assemblies. But the flame caught, and burned, not only because of the spunk and audacity of the young insurgents but because there was ample tinder: indignation over the consequential but obscured fact that America's leading institutions had, for more than three decades – since the end of cheap oil in the early 1970s, growing competition from abroad and the beginning of wholesale deregulation in the late 1970s – for more than three decades the concentrated energies of American capital had safeguarded themselves while heightening a ‘Great Divergence’ of wealth and leaving the living conditions of the great majority of the population to stagnate or worse, thus breaking the implied contract that had been wrestled out of the convulsions and reforms of the previous four decades, namely, that a collective bargain among capital, labour, and the state would not only produce growth but keep inequality in check. (In fact, it was generally assumed that growth was tethered to incrementally growing equality.) It was easily established that the proverbial ‘99%’, most of whom consider themselves ‘middle class’, did not benefit from the economic growth of these decades. (See image III: Income share 1920–2010).

Image III.

Income share 1920–2010

Source: Piketty and Saez, World Top Incomes Database http://topincomes.g-mond.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/ or T. Piketty and E. Saez, ‘Income Inequality in the US, 1913–1998’ (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2003), updated series (World Top Incomes Database, 2012).

The share of total wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 1 per cent grew to two-fifths. However famously optimistic they used to be, Americans were, in the main, persuaded that the world was not going their way, and some were ready to understand the situation as more than a regrettable economic condition but as a moral crisis:

In 2010 … the Walton family wealth is as large as the bottom 48.8 million families in the wealth distribution (constituting 41.5 percent of all American families) combined.

Josh Bivens, Inequality, exhibit A: Walmart and the wealth of American families, Working Economics Blog, epi.org (2012)

Another way to represent this can be seen in image IV: Total wealth

Image IV.

Total wealth

Source: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2011/12/05/the-few-the-proud-the-very-rich/

A moral crisis with a conspicuous nemesis – a savage capitalism that brought the global economy to its knees by building castles in the air with counterfeit paper. This movement could not have erupted and grown were there not passionate indignation everywhere at the moral default of society's chief institutions. The inner and outer movement alike could agree that the political class was largely in hock to the wealthy (partly in the case of the Democrats, almost wholly in the case of the Republicans), with Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan elevated into the power couple of bipartisan, deregulatory Washington. (Culture did not lag behind, if you recall Reagan-era ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’, and ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’.) As bankers lavished conspicuously inscribed gift buildings and sanctuaries upon the universities, hospitals, museums, and worshipful palaces of their choice, and were primped, flattered, solicited for benison and lionized, there was an ideological and moral vacuum to be filled. The universities and colleges held their palms up, contributing their own measure to the exaltation of wealth, for the main note struck in business schools and economics departments was that markets were self-regulating. (Even now, unfazed by the long, catastrophic global experiment in financial bloat and deregulation, much of the economics profession continues to emphasize the self-regulating magic of markets – as certified by the Ayn Rand disciple who became the Republican party's nominee for vice-president.) The churches were inert, speaking of Jesus but quietly; the line about the rich man and the eye of the needle was written in invisible ink. So there arrived an Occupy movement that in its soul wished to amount to a new Awakening to join the line of religious and moral Awakenings that have shaped American history since the seventeenth century.

The rise of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) duly impressed the opposition. Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and Fox News expressed their loathing daily. House Republican leader Eric Cantor denounced what he called the ‘mobs’ of Zuccotti Park, but then (and here was the remarkable part) clammed up – refusal to condemn a popular cause being the better part of politics. During the Republican primaries, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, in desperate need, was the beneficiary of $10 million from Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Adelson – buying him a TV commercial casting Mitt Romney as a predatory capitalist, a theme that proved unhelpful to Gingrich but helpful to the Obama campaign, since it succeeded in labeling Romney as the poster boy of the ‘1%’ before he'd had a chance to define himself. Meanwhile, by and large Democrats handled the movement gingerly, for fear that any more intense expressions of friendliness might tar them with unruly brushes, but unions and the multimillion membership organization MoveOn, only too aware that they had been treading water, were suddenly infused with life and lent their material support, especially for the larger Occupy demonstrations; still, the larger movement's hostility to electoral politics and big hierarchical organizations did not accord with the weakened unions' idea of how to invest their energies during a presidential campaign year. The inner core of the movement was phobic about the risk of being coopted. It didn't want different policies; it wanted a different way of life; or better, it wanted to be, in its daily functioning, its direct democracy and provision of services, that way of life.

At the core of Occupy was an identity, however absurd it appeared to the outside. It prided itself on a famously horizontal style, a will toward a cooperative commonwealth, a repertory of rituals and repertories of playful, sometimes confrontational, action. What floated this style was that Occupy was, believe it or not, the first American social movement to begin with the benefit of majority support for its main thrust. The industrial union surge of the 1930s did not; neither did the civil rights movement (see image V) – nor the movement against the Vietnam War, nor the women's nor gay movements. But recently, and consistently, American supermajorities consistently agree that the power of money in politics needs to be curbed, that taxes should be more progressive, that the too-big-to-fail banks were a pyramid of negligence and self-dealing if not criminality, acting irresponsibly and with impunity to plunge the world into financial crisis, and that the government has, by and large, been their handmaiden. The public did not like all Occupy's tactics or its ragamuffin image; and indeed, levels of support for the movement have plunged after the fall of 2011, as they did earlier for the Tea Party. But the Occupy movement's terminology (‘1%, ‘99%’) entered into popular lore so readily because it summed up, albeit crudely, the sense that the wielders of power are at once arrogant, self-dealing, incompetent, and incapable of remedying the damage they have wrought; and that their dominance constitutes a moral crisis that can only be addressed by a moral awakening. As one Occupy slogan had it: THE SYSTEM'S NOT BROKEN, IT'S FIXED.

Image V.

Question from Roper Commercial Survey

Source: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html, Roper Commercial Survey, Sep, 1960. Retrieved 4 December 2012 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut.

Occupy Wall Street was jump-started by a radical core, roughly anarchist, veterans of left-wing campaigns running back to the anti-globalization movement of 1999, or even earlier, whose master stroke was to devise a form of action, occupation, that parlayed electronic networks into the forming of face-to-face community in public places, as (earlier in the year) in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Madrid's Puerta del Sol. The core created an inner movement which had a definable thrust – stop plutocracy – within an intense existential affirmation of its communal self, an insistence that what it ‘stood for’ was the virtue of encampment itself, assembly as a way of life, a form of being. The political edge, while not articulated in the form of specific demands, was plain in slogans like ‘We are the 99%’ and ‘Banks got bailed out, we got sold out’. These resonated with a larger public that was severely disillusioned with political–economic establishments widely seen as having superintended the economic breakdown of 2008 and then having thrived with impunity. Restive young people rebelling against political stagnation had in fact made an appearance three years earlier in the Obama campaign of 2008, but with Obama in the White House, they had gone into early retirement, what with Obama's own lack of interest in sustaining it coupled with their general disinclination to remain publicly clamorous and engaged. Now, with the country awash in debt and unemployment, Wall Street had become an enemy both symbolic and concrete – a system and a moral abomination. The emotional tenor of OWS, a structure of feeling with roots in the antiglobalization movement a decade earlier, combining hope, earnestness, spunk and playful nonviolence, struck chords in a much larger public. (See figs VI–VII and also the article in the Guardian, 2 October 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/02/occupy-wall-street-protesters-brooklyn-bridge)

Image VI.

© Todd Gitlin 2012

Image VII.

© Todd Gitlin 2012

Rapidly, and with the at least implicit support of institutions including unions and elements of the Democratic Party, OWS and its spin-offs moved political culture at the popular level.

They did so by infusing eighteenth century constitutional principle enshrining the value of public assembly with twenty-first century methods (social media, text messages and the like) for summoning such assembly. Around kitchen tables and on late-night comedy shows, the Occupy movement gained currency. This was something apparently new under the sun. Whatever it was, it was a story, and it floated to the top of the detritus of newsworthy sensations borne along on the torrential gush of media. It outlasted the media's misrecognitions, the framing of its diffuseness and deviance front and centre, as a failed organization, a failed platform, or a poor excuse for a political party, anything but that unruly social fact, a social movement. It had to thank its own theatrical vigor along with no small assistance from brutal and clumsy police response straight out of Central Casting's villain rolls, playing Bull Connor to Martin Luther King, who knew exactly what he was doing when he chose the thuggish police chief of Birmingham, Alabama, as conspicuous antagonist. Some of Occupy's antagonists were cast in that role, like the police who arrested 700 protesters who were half-courting arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge Oct. 1, 2012 (See image VIII plus the link to the YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yULSI-31Pto).

Image VIII.

Source: Uploaded by wearechange on 1 Oct 2011 http://wearechange.org

But Occupy also had the benefit of volunteers from the ranks of the authorities. There was the pepper-spraying Lt. Tony Bologna in New York: see image IX plus link to You Tube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ05rWx1pig&feature=player_embedded,

Image IX.

Source: Uploaded by USLAWdotcom on 24 Sep 2011. The Law of Occupation http://occupy.uslaw.com

and even more notoriously, Lt. John Pike of the University of California, Davis, coolly and methodically spraying a whole line of students protesting tuition increases. (See image X plus link to YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys1gPp2Gkow)

Image X.

Source: Uploaded by 12160info on 19 Nov 2011 http://12160.info/. Uploaded by Russia Today

When the police went for overkill – pepper spray, mass arrests – pictures of official abuse flew around the world through the movement's own media and then via the mainstream. Support for the movement mushroomed.

So Occupy poured forth as a social amalgam, a sort of polyform, polychromatic organism that floated on a wave of public opinion, having captured – for the moment – that indispensable commodity of contemporary culture: attention. As a focus of the collective imagination it quickly caught up with the Tea Party, which had erupted in 2009, in local uprisings fueled by right-wing media and money and Washington-based organization, converging on the conviction that ‘the government’ was the root of all evil. Occupy, on the contrary, defined the financial sector of plutocratic power, symbolized by Wall Street, as the adversary, with government as a too-willing accomplice. In its first two months, producing clever theatrical events, it garnered popular sympathy. Camping out cheek-by-jowl with Wall Street, using online networks to build up face-to-face communities – spaces to meet, argue, eat, take shelter, care for each other, argue some more, shout, rant, drum, sleep, read, consult, drift by, dig deeper, learn, refuse to learn – it won points by confronting corrupt adversaries in whimsical and inventive ways. It brought hard-core activists – anarchists, revolutionaries, drifters, homeless people, foreclosed and indebted people, desperate people, reformers of many stripes – together with a myriad allies. These were people who wanted community, a new start, a society in secession or a society somehow of their own. Caught off-guard, city administrations dithered for a time, then responded with toleration, brutality, and eventually, dispersal.

There is much to say about what the Occupy core did and didn't achieve. I'm coming to that. But first I want to show you a sampling of photos that the photographer Victoria Schultz 2 took in and around Zuccotti Park during the early months. Let them speak for themselves about who they were. (See figs XI-XVII.)

Image XI.

© Victoria Shultz 2012

Image XII.

© Victoria Shultz 2012

Image XIII.

© Victoria Shultz2012

Image XIV.

© Victoria Shultz 2012

Image XV.

© Victoria Shultz 2012

Image XVI.

© Victoria Shultz 2012

Image XVII.

© Victoria Shultz 2012

II. The outer movement and its structure of feeling

The movement's activist core numbered – still numbers – a few tens of thousands of activists nationwide. By inspection, they are largely young and largely – by circumstance or choice – disconnected from social institutions. This number is very likely commensurate with the civil rights activist community that devoted itself to civil disobedience, mobilized larger networks and circles, and suffered murders and beatings during the peak civil rights years of 1955–65. After Occupy's sites were disbanded in November–December 2011, the core struggled with mixed results to contain their divergences. They quarreled, on the one hand, over whether to be more explicit than before about their non-violence or whether, on the other hand, to affirm that a ‘diversity of tactics’ is legitimate. They fought over their majority whiteness, and over the place of women and transgendered people. Although all factions paid, and pay, lip service, at least, to the idea of ‘organizing in the community’, there are not so many enduring networks of such organizers, and they are largely untrained – though the OWS core did perform yeoman relief work in flood-battered districts of New York after Hurricane Sandy. The activists know they need a wider base, but do not know how to find or activate one. In many working groups, entropy prevails. As some new recruits pile in, older ones burn out. The core movement devotes proportionately more energy tending to its own – bailing them out, defending them in court, sustaining their morale, feeding them. The care and feeding of infrastructure outweighs the building of exostructure – a sustaining network of organizers.

The Occupy movement loomed much larger in numbers and influence because on special occasions it was able to gather hundreds of thousands of people, possibly low millions, nationally, in grand mobilizations. Another way of putting it, adopted by some activists, was that Occupy was the core of a larger (or perhaps a different) movement, a ‘99% movement’ (an overstatement, of course, with symbolic pizzazz), whose political expectations were more concrete and more contained than revolution in behalf of an anarcho-syndicalist vision of a society governed by directly democratic assemblies.

The movement was famously unwilling to make specific demands, to agree on a simple charter, to speak of the British precedent of a previous century. But its thrust, if its whole amalgam of longings and fears could be translated – was overall clear. I mentioned ‘Banks got bailed out, we got sold out’. The other main chant was, ‘We are the 99%’. Beneath surface appearances, you didn't have to be a cryptographer to discern what the movement was ‘about’. It wanted all sorts of things, but there was an intersection, a crosshatch area: a redress of the gross imbalance of wealth. As I said, to the movement, flagrant inequality – which might be characterized as the collapse of the middle class, and of upward mobility – expressed not just an economic fact and a cause of financial misery and inefficiency but a palpable indecency – a grotesque squandering of wealth and a warping of values.

The Occupy camps were also revolutionary – in an American sense. They restated primordial revolutionary impulses. When I say primordial I mean that they descended from the eighteenth century Enlightenment impulse which elevated public assembly to a high place, which is why in the USA we have a First Amendment doesn't just address freedom of religion, and speech, and the press, but explicitly specifies ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to petition the government for redress of grievances’. This is why an even more explicit terminology justifying assembly appears in so many state constitutions, beginning with Pennsylvania's from 1776, which will remind you of the third segment of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment to the United States Constitution

which is the part commonly neglected both in jurisprudence and in scholarship. ‘Assembly’, in the language of the time, conveyed something substantially more than a lot of speech. It spoke to a collective right, an affirmation of republican procedure. The same point is made in many state constitutions:

The citizens have a right in a peaceable manner to assemble together for their common good, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances or other proper purposes by petition, address or remonstrance.

Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1776)

But in the minds of the political class that ordered the clearing of the Occupy camps, the idea of ‘consulting upon the common good’, has become radical – as in a way, it is, going to the heart of the democratic idea that government of, by, and for the people requires that the people speak to each other – in their fashion, which might be utopian (indulging in fantasies of a moneyless society, for example), might be dithering, meandering, highly disruptable, and by any efficiency measure, grossly inefficient and off-putting, suitable strictly for the hard-core 24/7 activists.

As you will have noticed, not so many Americans are anarchists, radicals, professional drummers or street puppeteers. There are not so many here-and-now revolutionaries. Let me underscore that the much greater numbers of people who marched with Occupy on its days of maximum pageantry (up to 30,000 or more in New York City) were middle-class people, union members, progressives of various stripes – not so photogenic, not outré, though far more numerous. (See image XVIII)

Image XVIII.

©Todd Gitlin 2012

It was the combination of the verve of the inner movement and the outer movement numbers showing up on special occasions that remade the political landscape – even as the core of the movement heatedly and anomalously objected to electoral politics during an election year. But most progressive turned, however grumpily, toward election campaign work.

As long as the encampments lasted and their epiphany moments could multiply, the outer movement was willing to live with the inner movement's participatory disorder and radicalism of style. It would turn out when invited and play its part. But when the central rallying places were dispersed, the respectable citizens peeled away from the Occupy core. Then centrifugal motion prevailed. All the fissures of politics and style deepened. Wounds festered. Some activists got into a go-for-broke mood, with no small assistance from intransigent authorities. It became routine for demonstrators to be penned up in remote ‘free speech areas’ as the police became specialists in intimidation, deployed noxious chemicals and rolled out tanks. Such shows of force fueled disruptive tactics. Some riots started. In the popular mind, it didn't matter who threw the first stone or smashed the first window. Collisions tended to play as the fault of the protest. A police attack would be framed as ‘a violent demonstration’. The encampments did not always demonstrate that (to use their slogan) ‘another world is possible’, except a more unsettling world, a world less congenial and more dangerous.

The outer movement was repelled by the drugs, the boisterousness, the ‘black bloc’ provocations, the unruly rejections of any authority, even the movement's own. After the American Autumn, there would be two more large mobilizations – on May 1 and the anniversary date of September 17. But in public estimate, the movement crashed. In an August 2012 survey, for example, 18 per cent said they identified with the Occupy or ‘We Are the 99%’ movement, half of them strongly, and another 27 per cent said ‘a little’, for a total leaning pro of 45 per cent – as against 48 per cent who did not identify ‘at all’. Comparisons with the Tea Party now came up mixed. In one August poll, the Tea Party claimed 24 per cent support (24 as against 18 for OWS, that is); in another, about one-third of those who expressed an opinion said they looked favourably on the Tea Party, as opposed to two-thirds unfavourably.

Still, for Occupy there were small victories. The financial system did not buckle but it did, here and there, budge. Under pressure, some giant banks rolled back some fees and, under pressure from local protest groups, renegotiated mortgages and reversed some foreclosures. Citigroup shareholders voted (albeit nonbindingly) to recommend against a $14.9 million payout to their then CEO, Vikram Pandit – a trustee, I must add, of my home institution. Some public officials declared their commitment to public financing of election campaigns, or a special ‘millionaires' tax’, though whether the movement will have the resilience and focus to sustain a political campaign to bind them is unclear. Meanwhile, capital, for its part, rolled on unfazed – perhaps to the benefit of the banks' PR and advertising departments, which would be pressed to work overtime in the months to come churning out the ads plastered everywhere telling us of the wonders of job-creation from companies that actually hoard cash wherever they can. But absent an extended strategy, experienced networks, and a stabilizing organizational structure, Occupy cannot parlay small victories into action for long-term potential.

Predictions are cheap. But it might be worthwhile to try sketching prospects. Because plutocracy is tethered to stagnation and inequality, and because so much economic damage continues, and because Occupy's outlook meets with public approval insofar as it can be reduced to reform propositions, there might evolve into a long-lasting full-service movement, a ‘99%’ movement that makes room for a broad range of participants, not just those who hunger for the Year Zero of participatory democracy or think that voting in one election concludes their political work. Both radicals and reformers would have to concentrate on winning over reinforcements. Beginnings, however joyous, don't sustain the momentum that movements need if they are to leave big imprints.

In other words, OWS changed the political landscape, but it can't build a home there. Thus its predicament. What it built, in a burst of social entrepreneurship, was camps – useful for a time, inspired, inspiring, and self-limited. The camps animated just about all the anarchists and full-time radicals in America, and inserted the movement into the public topography. This was a substantial achievement, but not nearly enough to transform the country and address the moral crisis. If there is to be a next phase, it will not come by clamoring for Occupy 1.0 to become something it isn't and doesn't want to be. A next phase would have to build on the platform created by Occupy, not try to restore it. It requires a hardheaded appraisal of what's been accomplished and what hasn't.

Occupy 2.0, if there is to be one, requires reconfiguration. It would have to be powered by people of many sorts and networks and organizations of many sorts. It can't be run horizontally – there's too much frictional energy spent in self-maintenance. It would expedite disparate spinoff projects, some of which could plausibly culminate in victories within a few years. A network could include the robinhoodtax.org campaign, led by the National Nurses United, one of the more committed unions at work for serious financial reform. (See image XIX)

Image XIX.

Source: National Nurses United. The poster was produced as part of the US Robin Hood Tax Campaign which grew out of the Nurses' Campaign to Heal America.

This would load a trading surcharge onto the biggest, fastest investor-speculators, a proposal with much support in Europe. There might be a push for an updated law to separate commercial from investment banking, and break up the banks that, being ‘too big to fail’, are too big to exist. There could be state initiatives for full public financing of elections. (There are groups working on variations of public financing in many states.) There might be statewide coalitions pushing for reform programmes. In the not very populous state of Maine, adult population 1 million, there's a 32,000 member organization, the Maine People's Alliance (https://www.mainepeoplesalliance.org/) with a paid staff of 39, running a campaign for free higher education, government job creation, and shored-up health care for the poor. There might conceivably be agreement across state lines on a common programme – the precedent might be your own nineteenth-century Chartist movement. (My proposed version can be found at http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/a-charter-for-the-99-percent). What is plain is that Occupy's predicament endures. This is the classic predicament of prophetic radicals in a society whose institutions pay off enough people, well enough, to keep them reasonably satisfied with their everyday dissatisfactions and disaffiliated form a movement that might continue to shift the social dynamic over a long haul.

In any case, networks of organizers at work over time will not spring into existence spontaneously. Neither will a Charter. Neither will alliances committed to overcoming internal weaknesses and jurisdictional disputes, finding and training leaders. There are not (not yet, anyway) clear signs of a full-service or full-spectrum movement, affording space for full-time activists committed to nonviolent civil disobedience or broad-gauged debt refusal, but also for wider circles of people who roll up their sleeves and perform the requisite chores: sign a petition, work for a candidate, lobby for a bill – and turn out to elect politicians who can be moved, who can help by securing the movement more space to grow and a structure of feeling that is serious about tangible successes. The moral upheaval that Occupy invoked is still more notional than actual. It cannot be the exclusive property of a tiny movement – a subculture – that hungers for the politics of the streets. There are not enough saints. None of the great movements of the last half-century – not civil rights, not anti-Vietnam war, not feminist, not LGTB – were movements of saints alone. Once again, a sustained majority-backed movement is possible, one that feels, thinks, plans, judges, tries things, assesses results, sizes up who might join and what adversaries are up to – a community that in manifold ways ‘consults upon the common good’ and ‘keeps its eyes on the prize’, in the words of a civil rights anthem, but has the acumen, stamina, and luck not to fall on its face.


  1. 1

    The contents of this lecture are based upon my book: Todd Gitlin 2012 Occupy Nation, The Roots, The Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, Harper Collins Publishers.

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