The Trouble with Occupy

by “Wufnik”, from Scholars and Rogues, republished by permission

The Occupy movement seems as if it has the potential to do great things. While it professes no leadership, it has galvanized the left—and a growing part of the middle, possibly—in ways that no other issue has over the past decade—since the invasion of Iraq, actually. And galvanize it has—it’s a worldwide phenomenon now, here in London at St Paul’s Cathedral, and elsewhere. It has provided a focus for the anger—outright rage, in many cases—at the lack of accountability of the financial and political elite for the crisis of a couple of years ago, and the state of the economy now, at a time when it is god-awful difficult for many families in America and many other industrial economies to make ends meet, or just to stay in place. People are going backwards, and they know it. One can only admire the determination and focus of the people involved. One can only feel outrage at the indifference, so far, their protest has engendered in the corporate media and the policy elites. The tragedy in Oakland is symptomatic of a deep sickness in American culture, one that the financial and political elite seem perfectly comfortable perpetuating at the expense of both people and planet.

And yet, and yet…. I’m bothered by something, and I haven’t really seen anyone focus on what is actually being demanded here. Well, not demanded, actually, since people’s motives here are broad and wide. But there’s a broad insistence on economic justice, as if that could be satisfied by lower CEO pay, or sending some of the obvious crooks on Wall Street to jail. I suppose the latter might happen, but not nearly enough to matter, frankly. But there’s clearly more at issue here—it’s the lack of work, the lack of mobility, the fact that the American Dream no longer seems attainable.

But it’s a shibboleth, an illusion. The only person I’ve seen articulate the concerns I have is Gwyneth Jones, who writes (in a longer and much better thought out piece than I could come up with):

The trouble is, in real life as opposed to outer space, there is another value… and it’s the worth of the living world, the only planet we have. This present crisis looks “bad” but the environment we live in can still be squeezed. Fossil fuels can still be extracted, at horrible cost but in mighty volumes of natural gas, even if the oil is running a little low. Forest and wilderness can still be cleared for agribusiness, in staggering enormous swathes. The oceans can be killed stone dead. And this is what will happen, and this is what must happen, if the middle classes and the masses are to be given enough of a “share of the wealth” to shut them up again.

I admire the Occupy movement very much, but I’m afraid their mass support is coming, has to come, not from those who want something new, but from the angry people who simply want the machine to work again. They want economic growth to go on, forever and ever, so that ideally (and this is what dresses the mass movement in idealism) everyone, every single one of the 7 billions and counting, can have the good life. But I don’t want that, even if it were possible. I don’t want to share the wealth, I want the wealthy to share my frugal sufficiency. I don’t want my rights restored (the right to a new car, two weeks in the Maldives and a new gadget, every six months). I want those “rights” withdrawn from circulation. I want to trade them for a future I can look forward to without dread and grief.

The whole thing in America the past three decades has been an illusion, a house of cards, a trick with mirrors. It all comes down to credit. People got more and more credit, and thought they were rich. So the bigger house, and the extra SUV, the endless supply of gadgets. And everyone got to move to the Sunbelt even as the industrial economy was being hollowed out, and homebuilding became the most important industry in America.

And it all depends on energy being cheap. This has been America’s natural advantage for decades, perhaps even longer. Energy in America has always been cheaper than in Europe or Japan. It’s what let the country expand the suburbs, so that everyone could have the four bedroom monster with central air conditioning and SUV or two in the driveway. And a lifestyle where you have to drive everywhere—it’s not optional. In most parts of the US, even in most cities, you can’t not drive. Which is why every time the cost of energy goes up, the country has a conniption fit.

Well, the current period of adjustment, if nothing else, would have at least offered the prospect of weaning America from its energy addictions. It looked for a while there as if the prospect of cheap energy, and the artificial economy based on artificial credit that enables it, would disappear. But that might not be the case now. There is, in much of Europe and some of the rest of the world, a recognition that adaptation to and mitigation of global warming will mean that energy, yes, will become more expensive. The American policy elite, both Republican and Democratic, remain in deep denial. This is what I find deeply scary about shale gas—not so much that America might have cheap energy again, but the price it’s willing to pay to have it. In any choice there days between jobs and the planet, the planet usually loses. It didn’t take long to BP to get a new permit for deep drilling in the Gulf again, didn’t it? In this regard the Obama administration’s decision regarding the Keystone Pipeline will be telling. I’m not optimistic.

So where does this leave Occupy? Well, according to Michael Moore, Occupy is beyond party politics. Moore occasionally has useful things to say, but this is not helpful. If this isn’t political, what’s the point? I have no idea what Occupy should be about. Economic grievances are obvious, and curing them is a necessary part of whatever transition we’re about to undertake–if that’s what is going to occur. But it’s not sufficient, and may even be counter-productive if, as Jones intuits, it simply becomes a return some familiar old mantra of jobs jobs jobs, which can take on an aura of Drill Baby, Drill if we’re not careful. But the goals here seem so inchoate that, really, this could go anywhere. Maybe a working democracy not owned by the usual suspects would be enough. It would be fantastic, in fact. But that next step—towards a voluntary simplicity and greater localism in our economic expectations—that remains to be seen.

Image: A New Leaf by C. Rayz (CC-BY-NC)


  1. Occupy as a phenomenon is fundamentally social. It is a cultural movement, and one that has the potential - vanishingly unlikely at this point, but a very real potential nonetheless - to bring about the shift in consciousness that would be necessary to create the kind of society you talk about in this piece.

    We're not going to get "a future [we] can look forward to without dread and grief" by getting 50% + 1 vote in an election. That's not how social change works.

  2. > Well, according to Michael Moore, Occupy is beyond party politics. Moore occasionally has useful things to say, but this is not helpful. If this isn’t political, what’s the point?

    Politics goes beyond political parties.

    At least it should.

  3. MT, I think the point about overconsumption has been thrashed out before, and it's probably also been thrashed to the point of being hackneyed. I'll just add this: the strong opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline seems to suggest that the protesters, as a whole, aren't greedy pigs who simply want more cars.

    Paul Daniel Ash:

    I see eople are starting to think about how to channel the current momentum of the 99% movement into something impactful. Eban Goodstein has a crazy idea:

    The U.S. Constitution empowers citizens to become members of Congress at age 25. The founding fathers clearly believed in the wisdom of the young, a lesson we are ignoring at our peril. Today’s federal legislators are as gray as they have ever been, with senators averaging close to 60, and House members 55. Young people, if elected in numbers, could bring a game-changing dynamic to Washington. Yet few young people even imagine pursuing this opportunity.

    -- frank

  4. Frank, that's a fine thing, and I hope there will soon be more young people in Congress. However, one of the reasons "few young people even imagine pursuing this opportunity" is that there is a ginormous hurdle in the amount of money it takes to mounting a successful run for office. It's not that only people in their forties, fifties and sixties ever think "hey, maybe I should do this..." it's that, by and large, only they even can.

    But - just as willard noted with regard to the main post - this comment seems to be based in the (peculiarly American?) notion that the only kind of politics that matters is electoral politics. And, again: this is not the kind of change that can be achieved with a simple-majority electoral win. What we're talking about is a thoroughgoing change in our fundamental idea of our society and our economy, and we need to Occupy kitchen tables across the country for that. Then, candidates who reflect the will of the people will be elected, and we'll see policies enacted to implement those values.

    I'm afraid that doing it in the other order simply won't work.

  5. Paul Daniel Ash:

    I think Goodstein also takes a wider view of things, as when he says that young people should also strive to

    become change agents in the workplace, either launching their
    own green businesses or transforming conventional workplaces.

    I think it's important to try working both the top and bottom layers of the system, at the same time. It's harder to get bottom-up change going if the policies handed down from on high continue to benefit entrenched interests, and it's harder to get top-down change going if much of the common citizenry is still in thrall of the "consume consume consume" message.

    -- frank

  6. MT is right to be concerned by this. If and when this movement starts moving more to a phase of what policies should result, those advocating unsustainable growth as the solution will be making their case. There is no guarantee that this movement will have sustainability at it's core.

    But keep these aspects in mind:
    -- proscribing or limiting of lobbying is fairly likely
    -- the voice of huge corps (think of those TV ads about the jobs from tar sands) may have less credibility
    -- these kinds of movements create space for new voices

    So I think the key is to look at the Occupy movement as a new opportunity to make the sustainability case. This is not the "trouble with Occupy" - that it doesn't guarantee the result you want from the outset. We're going to have to make our case like everybody else. But the playing field is likely to be more even than it has been. At least it's hard to see it being worse than it is now.

    A key part could be who in the end considers themselves a part of the movement. If it can succeed in bridging the urban-rural divide, that will help a lot.

  7. PS - "Beyond party politics" doesn't mean that it isn't political. It means that it isn't a tool of a political party - there is a big difference. Of course some supporters will focus on defeating Republicans or reelecting Obama, just as others want to replace capitalism. True movements have contending factions and no real way of choosing among them, except that each individual does so with their feet. That tension strengthens a movement and keeps the politicians guessing because it doesn't get into a rut.

    I hope that neither group ends up owning the movement and that all supporters do what they personally think is best. Supporters of this movement should evaluate all candidates based on what this movement means to them - if they vote, and I expect that most will.

  8. But "beyond party politics" can also be taken to imply that party politics itself is part of the problem. In the US this is clearly so: elections allow you to chose between two parties, both of whom are equally corrupted by corporate money, both of whom serve to protect the interests of the 1%.

    One of the reasons for low voter turnout in elections in western democracies is because a growing number of people realize that the form of democracy that we've been given is broken, and, mostly, voting is a waste of time. So exhorting supporters of OWS to go and evaluate candidates and vote for the best is a waste of breath - most of them are already politically active, and probably do vote, but they also know that the kind of change we need cannot be achieved at the ballot box under the current system.

  9. The trouble with "the Trouble with Occupy" is that the heading implies the problem is with the occupy movement itself. It's not. The trouble is with the much larger swath of middle class America who are still asleep.

    I've visited occupy camps, and hung out with the people who run them. My students are part of this group too, and I have many long stimulating discussions with them. They think differently to previous generations. They tend to reject materialism, and they measure prosperity in a very different way from the measures bandied about in the mainstream media. The occupy camps themselves are a fascinating experiment in a new kind of community building.

    This is the kind of thinking and doing that the world needs. The *problem* isn't with OWS. It's with people not involved with OWS who don't get it. You can't boil this movement down to a few simple demands that, once met, mean everyone can go home.

  10. It's great to have a movement to worry about!

    Two thoughts: first, notwithstanding the limits of electoral politics, the kinds of changes to financial institutions that are plainly central short-term demands are necessarily legal changes. Laws are made by the legislatures. We won't make even incremental gains without a process that takes this seriously.

    Second: much of what is driving people is not merely a fear of the loss of consumer power, but a real insecurity about the basics - housing, health care, education, and I suppose transportation (and by extension travel and recreation) as well. I know there has been thinking/writing on this topic as well recently, though I'm not recalling where I've seen it. But less stuff and more security might have much more immediate appeal than one would suspect.

    [ +1 -mt ]

  11. I do think that a lot of the people who got this movement started probably understand sustainability issues. But if the movement continues to grow, they will not be controlling it. This is when MT's fears come to the fore.

    Think about this aspect of sustainability, particularly wrt the technological optimism of those who don't think sustainability is important: There are now hundreds of millions of people worldwide who (1) can afford a cell phone that allows them to call and talk to anybody else in the world, and (2) do not have access to health care, a decent roof over their heads, or even access to clean water. This is now technological innovation works. It happens, but on it's own schedule and not necessarily what you really need. (sorry if off-topic, just a random thought I had).

    PS - I agree 100% with Steve's response to my comments on party politics.

  12. I'd say that the "problem" is occupy is too much about blaming, wailing to "daddy" to fix it! And also blaming older people, I've known plenty of thoughtful older people, and plenty of younger people who are not, despite what a classroom teacher may say. I think the people on the ground and their support mostly represents a general willingness and time for change, brought on by globalization and technology. I believe the opportunity of the occupy movement is to occupy democracy, past the coarse grained voting system, but it has to get past the kitchen table. It has to get online and infect all the political and economic and social systems that are nearly ready for this. The only way to do that is to roll out decision making that is actively related directly to "official" information, anything that affects everyone, without being accusatory; rather interesting, fun, useful, involving, supporting all perspectives. A virtual commons, at least. The audience is very cynical, but if this movement can result in a world where an interest around involvement and change became a sustained new normal and people could truly take place and help organize information and make decisions, then there'd be a really useful result. So I hope this shifts to "occupy democracy" with the combined efforts of real-world and online participants (each of which may only work for some people), but with many connection points).

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