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Leah Hunt-Hendrix

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Occupy, the Brand

Posted: 02/27/2012 11:25 am

2011 was a year of global uprising, a year that seems to already be fading from memory. From the Arab Spring, to the protests that raged across Europe, to Occupy Wall Street, people all over the world took to the streets to express grievances and demand change. But these days, the cynicism that reigned before these events seems to have descended once again.

Though deeply engaged with Occupy Wall Street, I frequently travel in unsympathetic circles, and for some time now, I have been hearing that "Occupy is over." It was a passing fad, people say, because of its flawed branding. It made sense when connected to actual occupations, but post-eviction there was little to sustain it as a movement. Many acknowledge that Occupy changed the national discourse and fundamentally affected the ways in which Americans think about wealth, power, and inequality. But it never clarified its message. Thus, its time has come and gone. It was a hit single, a one hit wonder. And like so many other ephemeral super stars, it was soon to be ushered off the stage.

"Occupy's branding?" I think, as I walk away. Fascinating, how trapped we are in this language of marketing and consumerism. Occupy has certainly faced challenges and there is much work to be done if it is to continue to have impact. But in my opinion, if Occupy resonated, it was because it insisted that life is about more than marketing, happiness is about more than income, and community is about more than consumption.

We live in a society shaped by business concepts, such as branding. Where once, brands indicated a distinction between consumer goods, now almost everything is enveloped in the logic of marketing. We create brands not only for merchandise, but also for non-profits, campaigns, and even ourselves on Facebook or Match.com. "Brand" has practically become interchangeable with "identity." How you market yourself is who you are.

But language matters, and we need to be wary of letting the lens of marketing color everything we see. To think of a social movement in the framework of branding is an understandable impulse given that one would hope to attract participants just as a company needs to attract buyers. But there are several fundamental, and deeply corrosive, flaws in this logic. The process of marketing and branding often has little to do with improving one's product, and more to do with reading consumer preferences, crafting an image, and buying ad time. Occupy, however, is not trying to convince the public to buy a product or to join a club. A movement is not a marketing campaign.

Occupy captured the imagination of the world for many reasons. It got off the ground partly because of timing, because of the desperate conditions many American families are facing. It rode the current of uprisings of courageous activists around the world. It also offered a new conceptual frame that captured imagination and gave language to what many had been trying to articulate. It became a "meme," a replicable label that could be used to tie together diverse efforts, such as Occupy the Courts, Occupy Congress, Occupy Homes, and Occupy Food, displaying that while these issues had once seemed separate, they were fundamentally tied together by the role of money in politics, the undue influence of corporations in public life, and a rigged system that serves the few at a cost to the many. Most significantly, it offered an alternative. For a moment in time, Zuccotti Park was a community. Decisions were made by consensus, everyone was fed, opportunities for education -- like the Think Tank working group and the People's Library -- were endless. It was an attempt to model the possibilities of another world, a world where every voice counts and every person matters.

There are certainly reasons to critique the movement, and important ways in which it needs to develop and grow. But to focus on its branding is to implicitly import the idea of the public as consumers -- the exact concept that many involved in Occupy aim to challenge. Consumption has, for too long, been one of the only modes through which we have been able to express ourselves. The public has, for too long, been reduced to a calculation of the profit they can provide for others. Most devastatingly, our political process has succumbed to this logic so totally that elections are essentially bought and sold. Since the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. the FEC, corporations can spend unlimited, undisclosed amounts on political campaigns -- money that is used to market candidates to a voter population that has little choice but to opt for the one with the best brand.

This movement is an attempt to reclaim the space of democracy, the public space in which we can act as citizens, as humans -- not consumers. It aims to insist that corporations cannot have more rights than people. It involves a vision of a world in which communities thrive and people flourish, freed from the burdens of debt and corporate greed. The media may have backed off, some of the public may have moved on, but the movement continues -- because the movement was always already larger than Occupy. Given our shortened, commercial-tutored attention spans, it can be hard to remember that change takes time. Social movements take decades, not months. Women worked for 60 years to obtain the vote. The civil rights movement took decades, and much work remains to be done. This movement, too, for the revaluation of values, will take time. But this will be deep work, requiring -- not branding -- but relationship building, conversation, friendship, and organizing.

The spring will bring new life, and the movement will continue, because the desire people have shown for a transformation of our political and economic systems has not gone away. It will continue because people in communities everywhere will grab hold of this moment, and bring together groups of friends or neighbors, and ask questions about why our lives are the way they are. It will continue because it had already begun, in the work of grassroots organizers and activists around the world. And it will continue, beyond the framework of "occupy," because the issues that have been identified will not be resolved until we all claim our role in creating the changes we want to see. As the movement grows, and as communities and faith institutions and organizations and allies find their voices, our one task is to ensure that the values which were central to Occupy -- the rejection of the prioritization of profit over people and consumerism over community, the commitment to justice, equality, and dignity -- remain core. Not because it's good branding, but because this is what we're fighting for.