Instead, the movement is bogged down in pursuing a long shopping list of grievances.
Anger and frustration have been major factors in driving the Occupied Wall Street movement, which arrived without warning and spread from Wall Street to other states and then elsewhere around the world, as public places were occupied in New York, Washington, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, Kuala Lumpur, Frankfurt and many other places around the world. To date, over 95 cities across 82 countries have joined in, illustrating that even protests against globalization are themselves globalized.
The underlying theme, below a cacophony of angry voices, is that capitalism and its offspring – globalization – are inherently unfair, favoring the 1% over the majority 99%. Getting a handle of exactly why protesters are so angry is not easy. Without a single voice or list of demands, beyond these two themes, protesters appear unfocused and confused to the outside world.
In the initial stages of the movement, the lack of focus has not been a problem. By occupying civic spaces, protesters have been able to attract public attention and media coverage, which served its purpose for the first few weeks. Then police and municipal authorities moved in to clear demonstrators out of public spaces. The story changed for the media, turning into accounts of running battles between the protesters and their evictors. The activists became obsessed with their right to occupy rather than seeing it as a means to publicize a broader agenda.
It’s pretty obvious that the movement has strayed from the issues that had brought them out into the streets in the first place and were loosing the opportunity of time in the media limelight to publicize a wider agenda are being lost.
When New York mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered police to remove occupiers out of Zuccotti Park on November 15, he told protesters, “Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” It was not surprising when protesters dissenters burst into gales of laughter. After all, Bloomberg is a billionaire several times over and the 12th richest person in the United States, and therefore, is very much part of the 1% against whom they were raging. Whatever his motives were in issuing this advice, it was nevertheless sound and should have been taken seriously.
Instead of taking Bloomberg’s advice, an ongoing battle followed in which occupiers returned to the park and were then evicted time and time again, fighting for space instead of values and ideas. Rather than doing the hard yards, and providing an analysis of what is wrong with globalization – and there is no lack of targets to hit – the Occupy Movement became a debate over whether banning camping of public land infringed free speech. Important, but unlikely, in itself to change the world or even to tell the world why capitalism and globalization needed reforming.
Perhaps, for the occupiers, this was the easy way out. It allowed the anger to continue and put off the day when they would have to go on to craft a second act – its own narrative on what is wrong with globalization and capitalism. Of course, this is harder work than coming up with a few simplistic slogans, offering up bloodied faces to TV cameras, or being dragged by police out of their tents.
It’s interesting to compare the Occupy Movement to the Tea Party Movement in the US. The Tea Party Movement also arose out of anger and frustration of the bailouts of US banks and the nationalization, or partial takeover of major businesses by the government. In the case of the Tea Party Movement, however, there was a second act, and there is every reason to believe that it is even moving onto a third act.
The second act was nurtured by right-wing think tanks, which have a strong presence in the US. They were able to provide the Tea Party Movement with a ready menu of reforms – small government, low taxes, deregulation and support of the free enterprise system. So, what started out as colorful street protests, with participants dressing up in colonial garb, provided Tea Party protesters an opportunity to publicize their narrative about the problems of big government, unsustainable welfare programs and crony capitalism.
This platform has, in turn, been translated into political action as Tea Party candidates dominated the mid-term elections that now presidential Republican candidates fall all over themselves for their approval and support.
The Occupy Movement, which broadly covers the left, does not have the same luxury of a network of progressive think tanks ready to supply it with the narrative and solutions that will take it into a second act. This is both a lost opportunity and tragedy, as there is much wrong with globalization, which has been corrupted through special interests during its post-war history. While the Occupy Movement stays on the street and engages in running battles with municipal police for the right to occupy public spaces, it won’t achieve that critical second act, let alone move onto a the third act where they achieve real change.