by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage
Written off like a disobedient child; a subversive flare-up of Millenial angst. Left for dead by many outside of the movement, the ones who failed to engage in it. Who failed to touch it. The dying light of the Occupy movement fading as quickly as the blue lights from police cruisers shut off after evicting the last Wall Street camps in the spring of 2012. Leaving just hours before, I had come close to seeing those fading lights first-hand.
Were the police batons, boots and cable ties the actual death knell of the movement? Was it so successfully repressed that it whimpered off into the footnotes of history? Is the movement, today, even worthy of mention in the same sentence as the labor and civil rights movements of the past? A bat-out-of-hell start, flaring up before the state, before capitalism, only to be extinguished, almost expectedly, by the dissention-crushing power of both before many realized what was truly happening?
There are many throughout the political spectrum who feel that this is accurate, but a mere mention of social upheavals and protests of the past year alone pose an immediate challenge to such a notion. Deeper inspection rebukes it. The camps are gone, but those who congregated at them, who gave life to them, who expressed tangible conviction through them are not.
It wouldn’t be surprising that the masses viewed, through the clouds of teargas in Oakland and lines of dark police uniforms against the light concrete of Wall Street, the movement as foolish attempt to forment anticapitalist revolution from MacBook Pros and Androids. Selfies at Zuccotti without a hint of revolutionary guile. The ironic adoption of corporate trademark masks becoming a symbol of resistance to corporations. The views surrounding the movement at times gave the impression that it was being dared to carry out its goals, though not because its detractors believed in it, but rather because many involved seemed to be there only for the novelty; not for any actual change. Thus there was this sublte air of toleration for it all due to notions that the entitled youth would never put their money where their mouths were.
Like the movements of the 60s, these kids would eventually see the error in their ways and abandon dreams of nonhierarchal community for the segregation of suburbia and conservatives on the ballot. Like Baby Boomer father, like Millenial son.
The Plot Thickens
Occupy’s anarchist roots and influence led to an almost immediate divide on whether or not it should involve itself in politics or prefigurative methods like establishing nonhierarchal models of cooperation. The political process or direct action. Ballots versus the streets. The endless ambiguity of leftist ideologies dividing exponentially into pithy subdivisions of subdivisions is one of the biggest differences between the left and right. It doesn’t take much more than a flag ban to see the Republican grandson of a Normandy vet rub shoulders with a neo-Nazi, both making a great racket over the glory of the homeland. One is clearly more extreme than the other, but they find solidarity with each other in their nativist warnings of “the others”. Their calls to action to protect their heritage, blood, borders — whatever helps them consolidate a mass based off of even the weakest links between them.
It is precisely this characteristic of the right which made the Tea Party a viable political force. Less in ideology than influence, but a force nontheless. It is precisely the antithesis of that characteristic on the left which prevented Occupy from convincing the media, and the masses, of its goals and saw it pigeonholed out of the mainstream political process. Or did it?
There’s no doubt that the Tea Party had enormous influence on the 2010 midterm elections for Congress. The same cannot be said for any Occupy influence in the 2012 presidential election or the 2014 midterms. If any influence could be seen at all, it was in residual concerns of income inequality; the wealth gap being one of the primary grievances of the Occupy movement. Issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, net neutrality, health care and student loans were blips in the mainstream, but it’s just outside of that limelight where a kind of Occupy vanguard had been doing its work all along.
Riding the Wave
Far from any suggestion that Bernie Sanders’ is some sort of “Occupy candidacy”, his is impossible without it. Bernie Sanders running in 2008 on the same platform as today doesn’t make headlines. He doesn’t draw the big crowds. Bernie Sanders speaking on wealth disparity and offering as equally clumsy references to police brutality as today doesn’t resonate. Bernie running in 2012, a year after the Occupy movement kicked off, still fails to connect. Any such candidacy would have been hard-pressed for relevancy because 2012 was another race for corporate Democrats. Democrats mostly bankrolled by Wall Street itself.
So what’s the difference now, approaching four full years since Occupy first attempted to implant itself, almost literally, in the political landscape? The short of it is that history is helping make the man.
From the Fight for $15 campaign to Black Lives Matter, the influence of Occupy, after revealing itself to the world and sinking back into perceived obsoletion, is apparent if you know where to look. When Occupy pulled back it simply divided into community action groups which grew from organizers and activists who had cut their teeth with Occupy. In this way, Occupy was a bit of a live-fire exercise; the media was real, and so was the pepper spray. It was when and where people learned how to network and spread ideas quickly. How to organize and craft a message for media. How to manipulate social media in ways that did not exist during America’s wars of the preceding decade. It was these continuing efforts, which promoted things like drug legalization, marriage equality, prison and campaign finance reform. These factors chipped away at America’s social, economic and political order and produced an election environment wherein candidates now have to contend with states that have legalized marijuana and federal protection of same-sex marriage, the ruling of which noted the democratic tide of support among the people.
The left still has its divisions, but it has changed the game in considerable ways without overtly relying on sympathetic members of Congress. One of the biggest divisions on the left is the view on voting and goes back to the previously mentioned divide between pursuing direct means versus political means to enact change. Can the left’s ideals resonate and succeed if it stops itself short of being anything but a protest voice? Does a move toward consolidating political power make more sense? Not lost on the farthest of the left, and among anarchists alike, is the historical failure of getting too close to entities like the Democratic Party; the rank and file hegemon which has succeeded all too often in convincing liberals, and others closer to the center, that it is better to take one step forward and three steps backward than no steps forward at all.
One of the better examples of this is the Democratic Party’s proclivity for war, and collusion with corporate banks, which is on par with Republicans. The people who once derided these things under the last Republican administration and helped whip up anti-war fervor have been consistently and conveniently quiet during the Obama administration’s expansion of the war on terror, domestic spying and prosecution of whistleblowers. Likewise, today’s supporters of a new Clinton administration never engage in discussions about Hillary’s own very hawkish past. A hawkish past that Bernie Sanders has pledged to support should he lose the Democratic nomination.
That brings up the point again that Sanders is not making history, he’s riding the wave. Going back to things like Fight for $15, this was very strongly tied to Occupy and is one of the most immediate and visible offshoots of the prefigurative approach to realizing ends by being them as opposed to lobbying for them. Through this, workers are asserting their dignity instead of waiting to be recognized. Without the growth of this movement, Bernie Sanders loses a critical piece of his “99%” platform.
Black Lives Matter activists have attributed much of their initial tactical approach to the Occupy movement. The lessons learned from Occupy, from hashtags and live-streaming, to using the growing influence of alternative media to spread their message have mobilized a critical mass that has shown itself to be an effective vehicle for direct action and demonstration and the tactics seem to be working independent of the political process having to take charge. Though Sanders’ campaign has undoubtedly stumbled over Black Lives Matter, he routinely carries the voice of concerns that surround increasing police militarization and brutality.
LGBTQ rights were included in the Occupy credo from the beginning. While LGBTQ issues go back for generations, it is still another instance where the organizing and mobilization learned a great deal in the past few years. So much so, that this democratic tide, as referenced earlier, was noted in the Supreme Court’s opinion of the ruling to legalize same-sex marriage in June as it reads: “The respondents warn that there has been insufficient democratic discourse before deciding…” It then goes on to clarify: “[T]here has been far more deliberation than this argument acknoweldges. There have been referenda, legislative debates, and grassroots campaigns, as well as countless studies, papers, books and other popular and scholarly writings.”
Prefigurative vs Political
One of the closest ways in which candidates are paying attention to the protest voice is campaign finance, which Sanders has already made a stark impact. One of the results of the Tea Party takeover in 2010 was the Citizen’s United ruling which opened a door for unprecedented and unfettered levels corporate influence on politics and has played no small part in the US’s oligarchic shift. This exact issue was also one of the main rallying points of the earliest days of Occupy, if not the main political goal. If Sanders is true to anything, it has been campaign finance issues for which he has carried the torch in Congress since 2010.
The Clinton campaign has taken notice of the source of contribution to Sanders, but, in a very telling fashion, Clinton’s campaign team are not overly concerned. They are aware of the golden rule in that the most gold wins. And while it has no doubt been an inspiring contrast to see a major campaign make headway on $15 million worth of donations, the average amount per donation being $35 dollars, it is all the more reason to be concerned that these efforts will be absorbed by the Democratic Party and buried. For the vibrant and powerful labor movements of the past, closely aligning with the Democrats has been counterproductive given the party’s bias in support of state capitalism and corporate entities. To this end, it is unlikely that Bernie Sanders is enough to make a worker’s party out of an owner’s party with a proven history of reducing the power of workers.
The appetite of the Democratic Party has also gutted the previous decade’s antiwar movement in the United States which had been, until the invasion of Iraq in 2003, dormant since the 1970s. Hopes that an Obama administration would mean an end to the war on terrorism never seemed to forment any indignant potency when military operations were expanded. As a result, Hillary Clinon’s extremely pro-war record is a non-issue among supporters that were likely calling for George W. Bush’s impeachment over Iraq. The record on Bernie Sanders is less clear cut, but he has never had difficulty reconciling his influence on votes to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, offer support for Israeli offensives or approve military contracts for jobs in Vermont, despite public outcry, while serving as its Senator.
The debate among the various shades of leftist elements in the US about working with major parties to establish political power as opposed to remaining a protest voice will continue. Much criticism has been fielded toward Sanders from elements across the left spectrum. In response, his supporters on that side have been as equally critical of those who refuse to give the rank and file a chance. Still, history offers validation to the sentiment that meaningful change is not contingent on political power, as it has often been mass action that has been the vehicle for justice and inclusion.
Occupy has indeed had a major influence on how quickly that mass action has manifested itself into something so visible, so energetic, that it we’re seeing issues vault into major political platforms. As great as the effort has been, though, greater still would be the shame of having it absorbed and discharged throughout a party apparatus known to consume popular will. In the rush favoring consolidation, it should not be overlooked that the protest voice, most recently embodied by Occupy, has a part to play in the state of things, in what has come to pass and in what will be.