Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Is Occupy Dead?


For some time, I have been reading essays declaring Occupy dead. They all point to the failure of the movement, since the repression of the encampments, to mount sustained, visible protest. One of Alexander Cockburn’s last columns was devoted to this theme. More recently, Tom Frank has weighed in with a similar argument. Often times these writers believe Occupy failed because of some flaw that may constitute a pet peeve in general–for Cockburn, it was too wedded to anarchist practices. For Frank, it was weighed down by academic jargon. For others, it failed to take the electoral arena seriously. And on and on.

At the same time, there are writers who affirm that Occupy lives. They point to Occupy Sandy, or struggles against evictions, or the rebellious spirit newly apparent in parts of the working class, as epitomized by the CTU and Walmart strikes of 2012 and the support remnants of Occupy lent to these struggles. Is it possible to reconcile these two competing perspectives? Can a movement die, and continue to live?

It reminds me of a cultural moment in my youth. Around 1985, you would see, in various bohemian haunts of the US, young people with buttons or painted jackets declaring “punk’s not dead.” I always thought that slogan was an example of “the affirmation is the negation.” In other words, nobody would say it if punk was actually alive and well. Born in Detroit and New York City, punk became genuinely explosive in the hands of the Sex Pistols in London. They wrecked the queen’s jubilee, denounced their own record label, and raged against the dead-end of late cold war culture. Rock had provided the soundtrack to youth rebellion in the sixties, but this was rock as rebellion, a practically unprecedented dadaist gesture in pop culture territory. When The Clash wedded punk sounds to more conventional left politics, the force of the punk gesture was already dissipating. There was another wave, “hardcore punk,” based in Los Angeles, which sonically made the Sex Pistols sound quaint, but its cultural impact was greatly reduced. By 1983, punk was dead.

Or was it? Throughout the eighties, many of the best bands of the American underground, something of a refuge from the wretchedness of Reaganism, were punks (the Minutemen, Husker Du).  Around 1991, it finally blew up commercially in the US, as Nirvana’s Nevermind sold millions. Punk didn’t overthrow pop music in its entirety, as the Sex Pistols seemed to hope. But it did several valuable things. It legitimized a do-it-yourself culture that has resonated for decades. And, crucially, it overthrew, or at least provided an enduring counterpoint to, the “love is all you need” hippie idiocy, simultaneously anti-human in its antagonism to real human attitudes and emotions like anger and hatred and creepy in its legitimization of “free hugs” molesters and worse. Whenever people have to get out the anger burning inside them, they turn to the time-tested format of punk. Well into the 90s, riot grrls made excellent use of punk.  In fact, just last year, Pussy Riot proved the time-tested gestures still carry a punch.

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. Energy could be better spent trying to figure out how to better institutionalize these practices the next time, rather than dreaming of a return to approaches that, when presented with the kindling of a devastating economic crisis and a president who raised hopes and delivered little, utterly failed to light the spark.

Steven Sherman is a sociologist who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017