If Occupy Is Ephemeral, Is That a Bad Thing?

02/01/2012 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2012

With the last "permanent" Occupy encampments in D.C. and Oakland beseiged, the first chapter of the Occupy movement seems to be closing. Will there be another, and if not, is that a bad thing?

First, let's think about what the movement has accomplished so far: nothing less than a reshaping of our national political discourse. Last summer, debt and deficit occupied the thoughts of the political chattering class. Would the government extend the federal borrowing limit? Would the "supercommittee" come up with enough cuts to satisfy the Tea Party wing of Congress? Would $2 trillion in cuts to basic government services somehow restore America to the greatness of our national myths?

In 2012, by comparison, the national debt is a side-issue -- talk of income inequality and economic opportunity dominates our political discouse, a direct result of the Occupiers and the ruckus they were able to raise in Zuccotti Square and similar encampments across the country. As Occupiers planted tents in physical spaces, their online supporters staked out social media turf and people across the country started wondering what they were actually talking about with this "99%" stuff. Google searches spiked, politicians and the media took notice of the public interest, and income inequality took over political ground ranging from President Obama's State of the Union to the Republican presidential primary process.

So far, Mission Accomplished! But what's next?

Plenty of plans are in motion, including a May 1st national strike, protests around upcoming G8 and NATO summits and a bunch of local actions (no doubt online-enabled -- hmmmm, I wonder where we've heard that before?). But with the long-term occupations coming to an end, and more traditional activism coming to the fore (protesting international summits is not exactly a new thing), is Occupy fading as a distinct movement?

If so, it might not be a bad idea. Why should Occupy become an Institution, with all of the attendant bureaucratic needs and imperatives? How about an alternate model:

My friend Nate Wilcox likes to talk about the internet giving rise to a new form of machine politics, one built on distributed armies of online activists. This model contrasts with the classic 19th century-style American political machine, which was locally based: each thrived when it could deliver government services and political patronage in exchange for votes in a given city or neighborhood.

The urban political machine largely wilted away in the 20th century, and for a variety of reasons so did much of citizens’ direct involvement in the political process. By the 1990s, they weren’t seriously expected to participate substantively in politics at all, at least in most campaign professionals’ minds. A voter’s role began and ended on election day, and he or she was otherwise mostly just a target — of direct mail, pre-recorded phone calls, and an endless array of repetitive TV commercials.

The internet, though, is a different KIND of medium — back-and-forth rather than broadcast — and the rise of such a participatory public space has completely changed the political media ecology, opening new niches to be exploited in turn by new kinds of organizing entities. Nate’s 21st-century political machines would be a nimble breed, assembling to back a candidate or cause and maintaining influence to the extent that their supporters stay engaged, involved and active. Some campaigns would be ephemeral, others would endure, but in most cases their limiting resource would be time — not necessarily their own, since staff can be bought, but that of individual people willing to donate a piece of their lives to what they see as a greater good.

My own instinctive distrust of institutions derives in part from something my Dad, a very wise man, said to me when I was much younger: "don't trust anything with a name, because when you give it a name, it comes to exist for itself rather than for whatever it was created to do." Bold words from an anarchist at heart! But in the past 20+ years I've also worked for a lot of different kinds of Institutions, and I haven't seen much difference among corporate, nonprofit and government entities when it comes to the question of self-preservation (hint: they're all for it).

If Occupy joins the ranks of 501(c)3s and (c)4s -- if it in effect becomes a self-preserving entity -- in some ways that would be a betrayal of qualities that made the movement what it has been. Many of my friends in the D.C. communications space criticized the vague nature of the occupiers' demands ("they need a coherent message!" was a constant refrain), but to me that was always one of the strengths of the movement -- it was less an organized political operation than it was an almost primal expression of political frustration. And if its goal was to change the terms of our politics, it's clearly succeeded, at least for now.

But what's next? Well, thousands of activists across the country have come together to express their desire to change the political system, and many of them are still at it. Whether they call themselves "Occupy" or something else is ultimately irrelevant -- now that we're past the flashy stage and the media's turned away, their continuing work nationally and in their own communities matters more than how it's branded. Occupations were a tactic, Occupy was a buzzword, but the movement's long-term success now depends on lots and lots of organizing, persuading and (ultimately) voting. Power to the people! But not necessarily to the names we give our movements.