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"Occupy reflected both the political diversity and marginality of the Left"

What’s left of the Occupy movement? Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of “The Occupiers”, outlines the movement’s successes, failures, and lasting impact on the American Left.

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The European: Michael, your book looks back at the Occupy movement and examines its social effects. Is the movement over, or is it still ongoing?
Gould-Wartofsky: I think it’s important to understand the Occupy “moment” in the context of a longer-term movement. Movements don’t just live and die according to the timeline that those of us in the media or academia assign to them. They have a life of their own. There are periods of advance and periods of retreat, periods of expansion and periods of contraction, and many of the occupiers have gone on to do other political work. Many were politicized by the Occupy moment. In that sense, Occupy Wall Street is certainly not dead. It’s no more dead than the people who participated in it.

The European: Was Occupy a brand new movement or the resurgence of an old idea?
Gould-Wartofsky: Again, you have to take a longer view if you want to understand the trajectory of a social movement. I do think that you can trace Occupy back to several other moments: the Seattle WTO protests, the global justice and anti-war movements of the Bush years, the anti-austerity and anti-racist protests of the Obama era, and, of course, the Arab Spring of 2011. But it was, above all, a reaction to the financial crisis that hit this country in 2008. We’re still seeing the effects of that, because it’s been the most uneven, unequal recovery in living memory. Although the urgency has subsided a little bit, and people are trying to move on with their lives, the effects of the crisis have lingered enough to create a basis for a new left formation in years to come.

“On the defensive for a very long time”

The European: Do you think crises and the urgency surrounding them are prerequisites to movements like Occupy?
Gould-Wartofsky: There are times when you can create urgency when you need to. The Civil Rights movement, for example, occurred during one of the most affluent times in American history, but there was a sense of moral urgency that the movement managed to engender. In recent years, change has only come in the wake of catastrophic economic crisis. The Left in the United States has been on the defensive for a very long time, and it’s because of that defensive posture that people only come out into the streets when there’s a crisis. The rest of the time the Left is just playing the defensive game. In order to make change less dependent on crisis, the Left will need a broader social base and a more coherent politics, as well as an organizational structure that can sustain these movements over time. We just don’t have that yet in this country. All we have is the mainstream political parties, what’s left of the unions and the non-profits. Those are important, but they’re not enough to bring about the kind of change that’s needed.

The European: Do you think that the Occupy movement has strengthened the American Left?
Gould-Wartofsky: Yes, we’re seeing the making of a new New Left, the first new Left that we’ve seen in the United States since the end of the Cold War. It’s a development that’s taking many forms: cultural shifts; independent media; organizing drives; political projects. One thing the Occupy phenomenon has given the Left is a vernacular, a language with which to communicate about the underlying issues and concerns that people have with class society. Another is a sense of unity that had been long absent from the political scene, the unity of the 99% versus the 1%. It was very simple in the way it was expressed at the time, but it also provided a basis for people to recognize that all their grievances were connected. We have seen the fragmentation of the Left over the last 30-40 years, and this was the first real attempt at reunification.

The European: Diversity and solidarity were major assets to the movement, but diversity also brings incoherence.
Gould-Wartofsky: It certainly can. In many senses, Occupy was characterized by a remarkable convergence of social forces, but at the same time you could also say the breadth of the movement led to dispersion and confusion. It prevented a common agenda from coming to the fore. After the tear gas cleared, there was no sense of a shared horizon, a shared set of goals the occupiers wanted to accomplish. Occupy reflected the political diversity of the American Left, but it also reflected its marginality. We haven’t had to operationalize our political priorities, because we haven’t had to deal with the question of political power.

“It created a space”

The European: As a movement with a common enemy but no unified goals, was Occupy a success or a failure?
Gould-Wartofsky: It’s hard to measure the success or failure of a movement if you’ve not grasped its goals. For many, the movement was its own demand; the goal was simply to make space for an alternative. For some, it was an alternative to the power of Wall Street. For others, an alternative to corporate power, or capitalism more generally. In my own view, it really came down to the underlying question of power. Occupy was able to exhibit disruptive power, people power in the streets. What it wasn’t able to do was construct a durable coalition out of that. So, to some people it was a success, because it created a space for those people to come together. A convergence on that scale is bound to have an effect on power politics in some way, and you have seen a change in public discourse and social consciousness regarding these issues in this country. So it’s hard to say it’s had no effect. On the other hand, if your goal is to change the underlying power dynamics in our society, then this is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.

The European: One of the movement’s successes was certainly to put class back on the agenda.
Gould-Wartofsky: Absolutely. It was a return of the repressed to American politics. It was a return of class politics to this country after many decades during which that issue was conspicuously absent from the conversation. Now it’s just politically impossible not to talk about class inequality. This is already readily apparent in the early stages of the 2016 electoral cycle. It’s just politically impossible. Occupy may have failed in some ways, but in this respect, it failed more successfully than other movements in recent years.

The European: Occupy happened under a Democratic president who’s also very concerned about inequality. Do you think the movement would have played out differently had a Republican president been in office?
Gould-Wartofsky: Undoubtedly. Larger political coalitions shape the context in which oppositional movements can take action. I was politically active during the Bush era, and it was much harder to have these conversations with people at a time when the singular focus was the Global War on Terror. Then, it was all about security. Now, it’s all about inequality. The transformation of American politics is underway. The Obama administration gave many people hope that things would change in 2008, and again in 2012. And I think that many within the 99% coalition were people who had worked for, voted for, and hoped for “change they could believe in,” and then didn’t see it. You had rising expectations met with disenchantment and disillusionment. I think there was also a sense of disenfranchisement, because people had voted for change and were rewarded with more of the same. That was a powerful impetus for a lot of people to go out into the street.

“The crisis gave an opening to the Left”

The European: Were there other conditions that led to Occupy happening when it did?
Gould-Wartofsky: Another contributing factor was, of course, the financial crisis. Since the end of the Cold War and the triumph of global capitalism, the Washington Consensus had gone unquestioned. That orthodoxy is no longer uncontested in this country, just as it is no longer uncontested in the Eurozone. I think that the crisis gave an opening to the Left to challenge that orthodoxy with a kind of anti-capitalist heresy. But it really required a push from below to actually start to see some cracks in that worldview. Now, Occupy’s once unconventional wisdom that banks have too much power, that corporations need to be reined in, and that democracy needs defending, is starting to take hold. That’s the new consensus that’s emerging, at least among young people.

The European: Anti-establishment movements have emerged on the Right as well, the Tea Party for example. Are these movements related or comparable?
Gould-Wartofsky: There is a kind of anti-authoritarian undercurrent in American life and culture, which both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were able to draw upon and to articulate in a very clear way. But the Tea Party assigns responsibility to government and government alone for the present state of affairs. The occupiers, by contrast, see state power and corporate power as not only fundamentally illegitimate, but also inseparable. Theirs is therefore a critique of both the political system and the economic system.

The European: Occupy is characterized by its criticism of inequality, but you write that inequality was actually visible in the inner structures of the movement. Do you think that has contributed to Occupy’s negative reputation, even among Leftists?
Gould-Wartofsky: Absolutely. It speaks to the deep structural basis of inequality in this country that it manifests itself even in the very movements that seek to abolish it. It’s as true in protest movements as it is in political elections that people with the most at stake have the least wherewithal to participate in the process, and those of us on the left really have to think hard about how to enable the participation of those people if we’re ever going to have a chance at a left majority in this country.

“Even opposition movements will be branded”

The European: You write a lot about the “Occupy brand”. Do you think they managed their image well?
Gould-Wartofsky: The Occupy brand is one thing; the movement is another. There were some incredibly savvy people who saw an opportunity in Occupy. For some of them it was a political opportunity. For others, it was a marketing opportunity. I think, to some degree, that it’s inevitable in a capitalist society that even opposition movements will be branded, coopted, and ultimately commodified. There’s nothing that guarantees that a movement is somehow going to be pure and free of all the forces of capitalism. Those forces are just as present in an oppositional movement as they are in what it’s opposing. On the other hand, I think you have seen an uncooling of capital in the years since Occupy. I think that’s been another important contribution to the larger political culture.

The European: Why do you think Occupy wasn’t intertwined with a larger cultural phenomenon as previous movements have been, for instance anti-Vietnam protests and the hippie subculture?
Gould-Wartofsky: That’s an artifact of the movement’s demographic diversity. There’s an impression that Occupy was mostly white-collar or white college kids, a revival of the hippie phenomenon or the counter-culture of the 1960s. That is not consistent with the evidence I’ve seen. There were many cultural movements within this political movement, and they coexisted, sometimes uneasily. You had the drum circles, you had the general assemblies, and then you had people with other ideas about what they should be doing or producing or consuming. The movement did make space for a lot of these oppositional subcultures and counter-cultures to coexist in the same place. You had everyone from hip-hop heads to punk rockers to jazz musicians to party kids in the park. I view that as a sign of progress from the rather monocultural, middle-class cast of past movements.

“In principle, everybody could participate”

The European: You’ve been to a number of protest camps other than Zuccotti Park. Would you say that there were significant differences among them?
Gould-Wartofsky: Yes, each occupation was a microcosm of the local political climate and history. In New York City, for example, Occupy emerged in a specific context: the most unequal city in the most unequal country in the industrialized world. Even if they didn’t share a political or ethnoracial identity, many occupiers here shared a sense of class identity, and an interest in asserting 99% power against the power of the so-called 1%. I think that was true elsewhere, but to different degrees, and it was expressed in different ways. In London, there was a similar inequality and perhaps similar internal dynamics, but specificity to the local history and politics of the City of London. In Chicago, there was no camp in the first place, because Mayor Emanuel wouldn’t allow it. In Oakland, the police response was the most violently repressive, and that shaped the way the occupation played out there. Ultimately, the kind of political coalitions that supported the movement varied quite a bit from city to city, as did the political forces arrayed against it. This made it a tall order to build a movement on a national or international scale.

The European: So is it incorrect to call it a global movement?
Gould-Wartofsky: Not quite. Despite the differences, there was still a kind of internationalism to it. There was no international organizational structure, no elected board or leadership, but there was a shared interest and a shared struggle that led people to conceive of themselves as part of an international movement. I do think there’s something to that, but the reality is that Occupy rarely organized at an international level. International connections were critical to the emergence of the occupations, but Zuccotti Park, Puerta del Sol, and Syntagma Square were distinct sites of protest, with diverse origins, dynamics, and logics of development.

The European: What can future protest movements learn from Occupy?
Gould-Wartofsky: I would say that the first lesson concerns the importance of meeting people in the places where they live, work, study, and struggle to make ends meet. Another concerns the priority of political strategy over short-term tactics. Still another requires a rethinking of the role of consensus, and a recognition of the need to wrestle with differences out in the open instead of pretending they don’t exist. There was an illusion of consensus in the squares that was never really achieved in practice. Nor was the model of direct democracy. In principle, everybody could participate, but one of the lessons to draw from the Occupy phenomenon is that you have to have actual structures in place to see that that happens. You’re not necessarily going to get a democratic outcome just because you say, “All right, now everybody is equal, everybody is free.”

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Michael Hardt: "Dissatisfaction makes me hopeful"

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