Monday, January 16, 2012

Where is the Occupy Movement Heading?

By any measure, the impact of the meteoric rise of the Occupy movement on the media was substantial. Suddenly, talk of the 1% versus the 99% had, at the very least, bled into mainstream discussions which, for the first time in ages, tackled questions of inequality and power. Now, we could also compile a long list of complaints about the way in which the Occupy was being covered (or, rather, distorted) when the movement was white hot in October. But it's undeniable that the movement had a huge effect on the content and tone of discussions in mainstream media outlets. In the space of a few weeks the inane dead-end chatter about deficit reduction was swept aside as people talked about grassroots democratic self-governance, the role of the police in capitalism, the economic and political dominance of the 1%, and so on. Millions of people were electrified and catapulted into militant political action for the first time in their lives.

But, in the wake of a violent counter-attack from above, co-ordinated eviction efforts by Democrats and Republicans alike, and other less blatant forms of repression, the movement has come back down to earth. That is not to say that it has dissolvednothing could be further from the truth. The movement proper is still going strong in numerous cities accross the nationand not just in New York: struggle in Chicago, in particular, has been propelled forward by repression from above, hard-edged austerity and the upcoming NATO/G8 summit in May. But, though the movement has by no means been defeated, it is also undeniable that it has been dealt a momentary setback. Occupy has entered a new phaseone that is characterized by regroupment, reflection and local-level struggle against austerity and repression. That is not due to any inherent failure. On the contrary, all movements experience an ebb and flow in terms of the intensity of struggle. With the hard-nosed repression from above, it could not have been otherwise. And the movement has learned a lot of lessons along the way that will inform the future trajectory of struggles from below against a political and economic system dominated by the 1%.

But with the momentary ebb of struggle and mass mobilizations, the bourgeois media has, predictably, reverted right back to business as usual. In doing so it gives us no doubt as to its basic social function: to preserve status quo conditions, legitimize the way things are, and discourage any discussion that might involve imagining alternatives.

If there is an unspoken message to mainstream media writing and TV production right now, it is this:
Forget about Occupy. Pretend as though it never happened, and forget about inequality, power and all the rest of it. Sit down, shut up, and tune in to the horse race. Pick your favorite contender from the list of approved candidates, and cheer from stands. We'd appreciate it if you remain calm at all times and purchase plenty of concessions while you're waiting. We'll keep you filled in on what all the experts say about the racedon't bother asking yourself whether you have a stake in it at all. Just get excited, focus on the innane chatter about which horse has got the "goods" and bet accordingly. It will be fun. This is what living in a free society is all about.
Of course, I exaggerate slightly. But only slightly. The way in which the politically meaningless 2012 elections are aggressively shoved in my face by the media is not a figment of my imagination. I should also say that I don't think that this media phenomenon represents some kind of conspiracy from above to try to control people's minds. I think we are just seeing the for-profit media industry for what it is: a conservative force that does not reward critical thinking or speaking truth to power. On the contrary, it generally panders to advertisers and "received wisdom" and bows before the alter of greed. Think about it: why shouldn't Big Media cover the election in such an aggressive way? It's what they know best: it's predictable, they know the lingo, and its an ever-ready source of sensationalist, gossipy tid bits about so-and-so's sex life, etc. What's more, the election is talked about in a way that is familiar to a business culture in general: the ways that candidates "market" themselves, "brand" their "narratives" and so on are fodder for an industry whose lifeblood is advertising and consumption.

The macro-level consequences of this are apalling. Think about what's happened in the last 6 months. The peopleunpredictably and semi-spontaneouslyerupt in anger over the injustice of our system. And, after doing its best to ignore the phenomenon, the media is forced to weigh in and pay attention. But, at the first available opportunity, the media coverage recedes sharply. And what replaces it is exactly what the movement opposed: the ossified, politically meaningless, broken electoral system and its exploits.

It's hard not to feel that the message here is that we should keep our heads down, stay isolated from others, and buy into the self-image of the age: that we live in the "best society in the world", that our system is vigorously democratic, that "things are getting better every day". The trouble is that this deeply conflicts with the daily experiences of the vast majority of Americans. More and more people are everyday seeing this system for what it is. Confidence in the major electoral parties is at an all-time low. Young people tell pollsters they are more sympathetic to socialist ideas than to capitalist ones. For this reason and many others, we can expect that Occupy (just like Wisconsin) was not a flash in the pan. People are going to fight backin larger numbers than we saw at the height of Occupyand the only question is when and where. The task of the Left is how to organize in the meantime, participate and strengthen Occupy, and join arms with millions facing wage cuts, layoffs, school closures, austerity, and police repression. There is nothing less political than the scripted 2012 horse race that is thoroughly administered from above.


-sf said...

I agree with your analysis about participating in elections as an ineffective method for bringing about the changes you describe. What do you think about using the heavy duty coverage of the elections as a means by which to advance the movement's goals? I'm thinking about action that would demonstrate that the whole two party system is unresponsive to the demands of the people. I had an idea that I don't know if I've shared about a write-in campaign by Occupy to elect "anonymous" or something like that (or how about voting for Bank of America or something as protest against the logic of citizens united... just spitballing here). Basically make it a protest vote so that no one can accuse the young and left of being apathetic (I plan on sending in my ballot no matter what, but I don't know if I'll be able in good consience check off any of the names on the list) Since the media attention is only going to heat up, wouldn't it be advantageous for Occupy to co-opt the coverage to make a broader point about electoral politics in the US?

t said...

I like your ideas about write-in's as a protest vote, esp. "Bank of America".

I would only add, though, that such a move should be an accompaniment to what is, I think, most important: collective struggle (e.g. strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, mic checks, etc. etc.). In conjunction with those kinds of efforts, however, I think it could definitely be a nice way to throw a wrench into a political system that offers us no choice and no chance of changing anything.

Binh said...

I was hoping for a more specific elucidation on the tasks of socialists at this juncture (participation is not specific and should go without saying) as well as what initiatives are underway that will shape the spring offensive i.e. where Occupy is actually going. Perhaps my expectations are too high.

t said...

@Binh: Fair enough, this is a short post. There's more to say. At a high level of generality, however, I'm not sure how helpful such an analysis would be. I mean, there are obvious things to say: socialists should try to link struggles and connect the dots within Occupy (e.g. link anti-racist struggle with anti-police repression initiatives, connect NATO/G8 to the global 1%, argue against electoralist co-optation, etc.). Moreover, socialists should be actively engaged as participants in the movement rather than outsiders with all the "answers". Socialists should be open to learning from the movement--and I think they are already. We've acquired a whole new kind of energy and a new set of tactics (e.g. mic checks, people's mic, etc.). But socialists shouldn't be tailists--they should try to engage within the movement and argue for a militant, anti-capitalist approach that links the movement to the working class. Bringing knowledge of the history of past struggles is also key.

Aside from those sorts of things, I think local struggles are taking different forms and it the role of organized socialists will of necessity take different forms in different contexts. I don't think there's a silver bullet here, but I think the Left groups that are most successful at the moment are groups that are young, energetic, organized and fiercely independent of the Democrats--like the ISO.

For more on my views re: organization, see my recent post on Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg.