The amazingly resilient Occupy phenomenon is running up against the same ugly reality that so many social movements have encountered over the past 20 years: There is a world of difference between influence and power.
Governments and the corporations they serve have power — that is, the power of money (and the law) to make decisions that can immediately and dramatically affect people’s lives. Laying off thousands of people with no notice, cancelling or slashing social programs, building mines and oil pipelines, providing subsidies and tax breaks to private companies or refusing to build social housing or provide child care are all things governments and corporations do almost exclusively.
And, most important for the Occupy movement, the power to facilitate the creation of a super-rich class of feudal lords by re-writing rules, making laws, deregulating finance and establishing (and for the state, allowing) corporate practices that pay billions to the one per cent based on nothing more than their elite status.
Those decisions involve power and as the occupiers are discovering anew, that power is entrenched, protected and ruthless, and it will not be denied easily what it has accumulated over the decades.
While there is always reference to people power when new social movements flex their muscles, unless the people in the streets number in the hundreds of thousands or millions (as in Tahrir Square), what we are actually talking about is influence: The capacity to change people’s minds, to inspire resistance, to engage a broader public on an issue in a different way, to change the political landscape so that inconvenient truths are put on the table or to legitimize deeply held values otherwise suppressed or denied by the dominant institutions.
What the occupiers have achieved
The occupiers have already made history. They have broken the media and elite-imposed taboo on talking about the destructive impact of inequality on the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world in developing and developed countries. The new feudalism that has been emerging for over twenty years is now exposed. Everyone can see the elephant in the room.
Compared to the Tea Party movement in the U.S., which is an embarrassment and an affront to rationality (poor and middle class people attacking governments and letting Wall Street continue its rapacious greed), the occupiers have identified the actual source of why Americans (and Canadians) are suffering. It is the first genuine expression of progressive populism literally in decades. And as such it actually targets those at the very top who have benefited from this remaking of Western nations.
But now that the elephant can be seen ,what is the next step in confronting the corporate and state powers that it symbolizes?
The difference between what Occupy is facing and what its predecessors were up against is profound. The last generation of movements which confronted capitalism in the 1960s was facing a state that was relatively benign and was essentially on-side with the postwar social contract. Corporations were still, for the most part, nationally based and subject to national imperatives; in other words, they paid attention to the politics and culture of the countries they operated in and adapted to them.
The fight took place within relatively civilized parameters. The values and broad objectives were agreed upon and the debate was about matters of degree: How much state intervention, what level of equality, what degree of social program universality and entitlement. It is interesting to note that these social and labour movements did not develop in times of extreme poverty or growing inequality. It was just the opposite: They developed at a time when the economy was growing by leaps and bounds, creating rising expectations of what was possible — of what government could deliver.
Of course that all ended by the late ’70s and ’80s with the advent of free trade, the rapid growth of transnational corporations and neo-liberal policies. But the movements, institutionalized in part through government grants that kept them going (perhaps past their natural life spans), did not change with the shift in the structure of capitalism and the power of finance capital. The underlying assumption was still that the state would respond to “legitimate demands” and corporations would behave according to established norms.
But increasingly both the state and its client corporations moved on. Nations were passé — they weren’t even called nations anymore, but “economies.” Corporations moved from adapting to local culture and social norms to imposing their homogenized products and services on every place on the planet with enough people to buy their stuff. It could be argued that the 1990s was the time for a whole new paradigm of social movements — an explicitly anti-capitalist movement which recognized the terrible destructiveness of the unfettered “marketplace.”
But it didn’t happen. With some significant exceptions here and there, the old movements were too bureaucratized and too complacent to see what was coming. They kept doing what they had always done even though, within a few years into the new century, it was obvious that it wasn’t working. The notion of speaking truth to power sounds courageous and bold. The problem is that power doesn’t care and isn’t listening.
The failure of the movements modeled in, and for, the 1960s to come to grips with the mounting crisis for working people is at the root of the Occupy Wall Street rebellion. Tired of waiting for a kind of movement organization that could inspire and mobilize them — or even speak to their experiences — the most conscious and passionate of those left behind took up the call.
This isn’t a ’60s thing
What is the call? Implicitly, that the system is broken beyond repair. Indeed that might just explain why there were no conventional demands: The rebels know that the system is no longer capable of meeting such demands and its utter corruption has taken it far beyond the place where it could be expected to respond in any genuine way to the needs of ordinary people. Young people have been leading Occupy and it is young people who have lived their entire lives with a growing corporatism — that dangerous amalgam of reactionary state and ruthless corporation that Mussolini himself said was the definition of fascism.
My generation of activists keeps insisting that government — the state — is the only possible counterpoint to global corporate power and we just have to take it back. But young people have had such a viscerally negative experience of the hegemony of corporate rule and state complicity — constantly legitimized by a corrupt and monolithic media – that they aren’t buying it. The notion that we can somehow go back to the golden age is delusional and they know it. This is perhaps the most important lesson they are teaching us.
It’s not that they lack a vision consisting of all sorts of elements (call them demands if you like — Occupy Vancouver has pages of them), but they know in their gut that there has to be a whole new economic system and a genuine, radical democracy to go with it, if that vision has any chance of being realized.
But now the question for them and us is how we imagine this transitional explosion of protest and joy, of anger and caring moving to the next stage. No one has any answers because this is something completely different. It’s as if the occupiers are saying we are going to sit there and keep saying the same thing until it begins to sink in to the dominant culture and stay there. Maybe it’s not their job to define the next phase — that’s too much to ask. They have alerted the world, put crushing inequality — the social essence of capitalism — on the map and they are demanding, if anything, that we join with them.
Occupiers are not necessarily asking that we join them in their camps but in their spirit of resistance and cultural rebellion, and in the task of imagining a better world — realizing that we have been sleep-walking towards the edge of the cliff. They are telling us all to wake up before it’s too late.
Murray Dobbin is a journalist, writer, and activist. This column originally appeared in his blog.