The most remarkable thing about Occupy Wall Street is how fast it spread. Beginning with a tiny prompt on #Occupywallstreet, an Adbuster’s blog, it soon lead to encampments popping up in hundreds of cities. Even small towns decided to join in — places like Mosier, Oregon, that with a population of 430, no stop lights and a gas station that closed years ago.
It’s as though Adbuster’s tiny prompt punched a hole in a dam holding back a deep reservoir of public opinion. Almost as remarkable is the legion of academics, university students, union leaders, journalists, celebrities and prominent people who have stepped forward to support the initiative. Something indeed is going on when so many line up behind an initiative that looks so flaky. While #Occupywallstreet might have some legitimacy in New York, it seems more like a bandwagon response in other U.S. cities and even more so in Canadian cities.
Initially, like many others, I panned #Occupy because it lacked any clear objective beyond airing vague complaints about economic inequality. I now think more thought needs to be given to the pressures that burst the dam. Popular culture forms can be weak when they address a yearning that is strong. #Occupy has made it clear that the yearning to address inequality is stronger than anyone believed. So the question is, What happens to #Occupy when the tents are removed? Before going there I want to consider what lay behind the dam.
Economic inequality has been with us for some time. The Gini index, a measure of income inequality, has been slowly going up everywhere. But it has not experienced a sudden increase that would drive people onto the streets. We could speculate that large numbers of people had just read The Spirit Level and suddenly realized the fundamental importance of equality. But that seems far-fetched.
A more plausible explanation would be that inequality has received dramatic highlighting in the huge number of foreclosures in the United States. On Nov. 14, the CBC program The National ran a Special Report on Cleveland. It included a scene where a Cleveland planner pulled out a map that showed all the foreclosures in the city marked by red pins. The map was a sea of red, a ghastly picture that looked more like an out-of-control skin disease than a city map. It made evident a new reality that many Americans see every day. The sudden appearance of widespread economic hardship collides with images of excess that have been always been a favorite of mainstream media. What must be particularly upsetting is that it looks less like an aberration of the financial system, than a huge fraud perpetrated by capitalist enterprise in the normal course of business.
There’s always been a tolerance for some people having more than their share, if it appears to be a reward for talent or hard work. But the 2008 meltdown made clear that some people in financial institutions had became enormously wealthy at everyone else’s expense. And these people continue to prosper even though they were intimately involved in bringing about a blizzard of foreclosures, the dramatic increase in unemployment and general economic hardship. Soon after the collapse, Goldman Sachs was back to making profits in excess of $10 billion per year, and handing out huge bonuses to employees who many believed should be in jail. Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman Sachs seemed about right: “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
So how were we going to fix this problem? In the United States the great hope was Barrack Obama. He would fix what had gone so horribly wrong. Despite the enormous optimism around his election, the prospects did not look good because most of his campaign funding did not come from little people, but from Wall Street. Even so, many Democrats became profoundly disillusioned when Obama failed to place restraints on Wall Street, and failed to remove free market evangelists from key economic positions. The feeling of betrayal and the realization that ‘No we can’t’ if we rely on party politics conditioned large numbers of people to consider politics by other means. Young people have always been suspicious of party politics but disappointment in Obama has brought on board a much broader range of Americans.
#Occupy has been called a social movement, perhaps because no one knows a better way to describe it. Is it really a social movement? A lot of empirical research has been done on social movements, but few people are aware of this material because it is buried in academic journals and is miserably difficult to read. Fortunately there is a short translation online, Social Movements: A summary of what works.
It is instructive to look at #Occupy in the light of what we know about social movements. #Occupy has in common with them:
1. a broad issue of injustice that affects large numbers of people;
2. dramatic highlighting;
3. concentrations of people who have come together to address the issue;
4. a robust communication network;
5. people with time available to address the issue.
This sounds like a good start. Setting up tents in public places provides an opportunity to maintain a concentration of people over an extended period of time. This is unusual and helpful where participants come from many different backgrounds and hold different points of view. Time-in-contact allows conversations to take place that help synch many different points of view. Many occupations have done a rather good job of sorting out a lot of issues including those related to operating a camp.
But there’s a whole lot about #Occupy that gets in the way of making progress. Much has been made about how #Occupy has no clear objectives. But objectives hardly matter when you have no resources. #Occupy faces one crippling problem: How do you get anywhere on big issues when all of your time is used up addressing small issues such as finding food, washing, removing trash and staying warm. In a camp setting these activities leave little time for anything else. Add to this security problems that come with attracting undesirable people, and the constant threat of eviction. Under these circumstances about all you can do is try to maintain a public presence as an irritating reminder that something is seriously wrong.
Research into social movements has led to a generally accepted view of what works is known as Resource Mobilization Theory. At its core is the idea that social movements are successful to the degree they can bring forth two key resources, people (with time) and money. So what will happen now? #Occupy could very easily evaporate into thin air as protesters are evicted and the tents are removed. That would be a shame given that it seems to have such broad and deep support.
To survive #Occupy needs to grow. That could happen as if supporters on the fringe — academics, students, union members and various other supporters — moved from the fringe to the centre. The removal of tents actually makes joining the movement more attractive because it eliminates camping requirement. But growing requires something that is difficult to achieve: concentrations of people willing to devote enough time-in-contact to get results. Also hard to achieve is an adequate frequency of contact. Grassroots movements really start to roll when those involved see one another every day. They move more slowly when people see one another once a week. Whittle that down to once a month and they grind to a halt. An optimistic picture of a thriving but different #Occupy would see a broad-based coalition of the left supported by autonomous local groups that meet frequently to make contributions to some larger effort.
Growing a movement means getting more people to join in. How do you do that? I can recommend no better book than Join the Club, How peer pressure can transform the world, by Tina Rosenberg, published this year by Norton.
Finally to the question of objectives. If the goal is to reduce the gap between the richest 1 per cent and the remaining 99 per cent, then it makes sense to emulate countries with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor. These are the social democratic countries of northern Europe: Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. People in these countries are happier and healthier and show higher levels of trust in one another than people in countries like the United States. Americans need to adopt a measure of humility that will allow them to learn from political practices beyond their shores. In particular they need get over there morbid fear of socialism brought about by a peculiar insistence on conflating communism and socialism. Most of all Americans need to recognize that they live in a country that was born of revolution and that it may be time to reactivate what gave rise to the country in the first place.
Charles Dobson teaches sociology at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. He Is the author of The Troublemaker’s Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action.
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