Opinion: Will Occupy Lead to Policy Change?
Due to the onset of winter and police crackdowns on encampments, Occupy movements in many cities have retreated from their initial tactics of long term public occupations. In this time of recalculating and rebuilding for the movement, a recent Occupier reflects back on the protest’s strategies and makes the case for carrying on.
Recent polls show public opinion slightly souring towards the Occupy movement despite widespread sympathy with its aim – battling economic inequality and corporate influence on politics. While some are uncomfortable with the protesters’ image and take-over tactics, many others, such as Sociologist Claude Fischer, question their efficacy. Fischer argues that historically, few American street protests have won significant victories, and those that have possess “strong organization, discipline, defined goals, and a clear strategy to attain those goals—all features seemingly lacking in Occupy.”
Initially, I shared this skepticism—how could tents, interminable consensus meetings, and disparate demands add up to policy change? Eventually, however, I became active at the encampment on my campus (UC Berkeley) and other Bay Area sites, and was even arrested at a peaceful protest. I’ve discussed my question with several Occupy participants and found two main responses.
Response 1. Occupation, not policy, is the first demand
Lamenting that Occupy is not more like the Tea Party is like looking for oranges at a hardware store. Critics who myopically focus on Occupy’s lack of centralized demands and strategy miss out on lot of what the movement is accomplishing.
Occupiers build micro-communities reflective of the world that they would like to live in—spaces for self and community actualization. Many compare Occupy to other social movements, but they should also compare it to the Burning Man festival—sans the high cost of admission, sand, electronic music, and (for the most part) drugs. So how is that like Burning Man? Both are social experiments—intentional communities built around principles such as direct democracy, radical self-expression, reduced consumption, openness and inclusion, and a (for the most part) share economy. Both frequently fail to live up to these ideals (a point hilariously made by the Daily Show), and self-reflective participants learn as much from failure as success.
Recently, a friend of mine admonished Occupiers for their self-righteousness—how dare they feel so good about themselves despite the fact that, in his eyes, they were unlikely to achieve their goals? My friend overlooked the possibility that feeling good might be one of the goals. We live in an era of unparalleled and accelerating economic inequality and environmental devastation that even progressive policy makers seem incapable of reigning in. Just as some Occupiers come to the encampments to meet their needs for food and shelter, others come to meet their needs for hope and joy. They have not felt good about the country’s trajectory for a long time, if ever, so they are creating communities that make them proud. These communities may serve as launch pads for large scale social transformations, but their success does not entirely hinge upon it.
Response 2. Occupation is just the beginning
Though the first demand of Occupy is occupation, many Occupiers are focused on policy change, and there is evidence of early success. Below, I sketch four mutually reinforcing mechanisms through which this is happening. The big question is will they add up to large scale impact?
Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know with confidence. Social movement outcomes are notoriously difficult to measure due to the complexity of factors involved and the fact that we can’t repeat history. For example, we don’t know if the anti-Iraq War protests shortened the war’s length or changed its course.
I confess, I am skeptical that Occupy will lead to transformative policy change. But combined with many other approaches social change, I think it has the potential to do so. And the brutality of the current economic order makes pursuing such opportunities imperative. Of the mechanisms below, I have most optimism about #4, but I think the movement should currently be focusing on mechanism #3.
- Changing the electoral equation: According to Politico, media mention of the term “inequality” quintupled since the start of Occupy. Though it’s impossible to prove, some argue that this has provided political cover for elected officials to push progressive policy (e.g., Obama’s student loan plan) and helped defeat conservative ballot initiatives (e.g., the defeat of Ohio’s anti-union law). Last Saturday, Chris Hayes leaked a memo from a high powered financial lobbying firm, which says that Occupy is creating an environment in which “Republicans will no longer defend Wall Street companies—and might start running against them too.” It proposes a nearly $1m campaign to squash Occupy.
- Pitchforks: Despite Occupy’s focuses on moral and cultural critique rather than policy, the threat of disruption may scare power holders into action. Occupy protests may have contributed to Bank of America’s unilateral withdrawal of its $5 monthly ATM fee. They successful pushed the University of California’s Board of Regents to postpone a meeting in which student fee hikes were to be discussed, and to take fee hikes off their agenda for now. While successful social movements in the 1960s may have required centralized organizing, monetary support, training, and demands, the advent of social media enhances the capacity of decentralized movements to achieve these ends.
- Alliances (aka “pitchforks plus”): Sociologist Peter Evans argues that many successful social movements weave together tree-like organizational forms (hierarchical, traditional institutions) and rhizome forms (flexible, spontaneous networks). In this model, traditional social change organizations that focus on electoral politics may ally with Occupy. One of the best examples is Refund California, a coalition of education, labor and community groups that seeks free up state revenue for public education and social programs. Refund engages in strategic policy research and electoral politics, but also draws on Occupy’s rhetoric, energy, and people power to orchestrate mass mobilizations. Last week, I attended a march co-organized by Refund. 250 protesters occupied a Bank of America branch in San Francisco, erected a tent inside, then demanded that a University of California regent who also sits on Bank of America’s board sign a pledge to support five policies which will help reverse the defunding of California’s public education system.
- Diffusion: Occupy energizes and educates movement participants, who in turn will effect policy change in diverse, unpredictable, and immeasurable ways. Most Occupy participants are young people, who are at inflection points in the formation of their political identities. Like participants in the social movements of the 1960s, this exposure will lead some to transform their life paths and pursue careers in social and environmental justice. Others will follow more mainstream career paths, but will find other ways—from volunteer work to interventions at home and work—to enact their values. In this sense, Occupy is not about a set of demands per se, but a general awakening that is necessary for a range of social issues to gain ground.
Manuel Rosaldo is a doctoral student in Sociology at UC Berkeley and a participant in the Occupy movement
Photo by deanv41