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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.