11/24/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2014

Occupy, Progressives and Democracy

There are many folks occupying various niches of society who are mad as hell about what's happened over the course of the past five or six years, but are still taking it. They're anxious about their future prospects, and quite upset about how the elite manages the direction of the country they would like back. They may not even know exactly what a progressive position or direction is, but they know what they like and don't like and feel strongly that our institutions, especially the parties, are simply not responsive. Even unions, so thoroughly weakened in recent years that they've become susceptible to further attacks from republicans who aptly point to their inconsistencies, are seen by many as privileged entities that mostly represent those who live longer.

And there's a great deal of distrust of professionals and experts. The best and the brightest from the elite schools and networks that created our economic mess are unfortunately responsible for cleaning it up and allocating the spoils. But they're blocking change so why should their victims be that willing to defer to them now? There has to be another way.

Occupy promised to be. Surfacing in the aftermath of the 2010 Tea Party victories, its activists were the "left populist" answer to this blockage. They tried to capture the reigning discontent by focusing economic fairness, especially the divide between the 1% and 99%. Its national and international presence in the Fall of 2011 forced a sorely needed discussion of inequality that resonated with ordinary Americans, especially wage earners and small business owners. Though its epicenter was Wall Street, this explosion of innovative protest was really about Main Street, or rather its residents whose fates were linked to the financial industry as victims. This perspective was only barely part of the early Tea Party diatribe, which is still mostly about the alleged evils of big government and excessive taxes. So Occupy understandably spread, though not exactly like prairie fire, to the spaces all over the globe where these concerned citizens and victims reside.

Thanks to the crackdown by authorities, and cold weather, Occupy's huge and noisy presence is no longer. But the corporate media has been unable to ignore the issues it has raised. Occupy's proliferation of sites has kept its activism alive, and core members have been able to refine its messages and attract a greater diversity of sympathizers.

May Day 2012 was meant, perhaps idealistically, to renew Occupy's original motivations and spectacle. Plans for a general strike didn't pan out, and the crowds were not nearly as large as the organizers had hoped. But it was a dynamic mix of activists and protesting styles. This day has long symbolized the struggle for workers' rights through the participation of unions and traditional left organizations, but Occupy brought a diverse cross-section of non-traditional activists who embraced a broad spectrum of issues, not merely those bearing directly on the economic plight of workers.

Though less spontaneous and much smaller, this gathering resembled the 1999 WTO demonstrations in terms of the agenda and those represented. The latter highlighted the status of unorganized labor and the role of global sweatshops, pointing to the growing gap between haves and have-nots. The addition of Occupy to May Day focused inequality as a larger social issue than merely workers fighting for their own wages. With these elements in place, the May gathering had the potential to be noisier and larger, like the WTO protests. But the WTO event was a surprise, one-time occurrence. At subsequent global meetings early in the decade, police and military authorities were ready to meet protesters with firm, well-planned controls, and the gatherings themselves were mostly held in isolated locations, aiding their efforts.

Authorities have refined their techniques considerably since then, giving them the advantage at public protests. Recently federal legislation was passed that imposes huge fines and jail time for protesting too close to certain sites and persons. The effect of these changes and measures, as many suggest, is to discourage protest in advance.

But if the numbers are small and the protests are much quieter than what many feel is needed to provoke an effective response, the form of Occupy has the potential to build a base of active outsiders, citizens who've been excluded from the political process and want to belong and be heard, witness democracy at work. In a sense then the police crackdown that led to the dispersal of the occupiers from the various sites, on Wall Street but also those in other major cities, to locations out in the heartlands of everyday life, was a blessing. Many folks don't exactly have the time or funds to vacation in the metropoles, a constraint that would limit participation.

The profusion of small-scale actions at various sites encourages it. In Long Beach, for example, similar to many other cities and neighborhoods of protest activity here and around the globe, once the occupation of a downtown park was recently dispersed by the police, Occupy grew and dispersed throughout the city. No longer clustered in one place for the mere airing of dissent, the members began to occupy the specific sites that could make a difference. They recently gathered at a major bank that was foreclosing on a victim, as well as the home itself and the court responsible for the whole ordeal, all over a brief time span.

Once they have done all they can at one site, they're off to a different action, putting pressure on another perpetrator of wrongdoing. They want to make their presence felt and expose specific wrongs, not merely rant a laundry-list of general ones at a one-time event; or follow the Tea Party playbook of repeating abstractions ad nauseam.

They experiment with democracy in their own group and mostly shun the system. They have little interest in sponsoring candidates for office, or in answering to traditional leaders who tend to craft an agenda and pass it down for ratification. They invite input from below and listen to the voices wanting to contribute in their special ways through the regular general assemblies, and wait for the moment when democracy has had a chance to work and people are more aware of what's happening around them.

They also avoid pinning themselves down to an agenda, the subject of much criticism in the mainstream press which has mocked the movement for lacking a sense of purpose and direction. But they believe in the value of remaining open to possibilities, keeping the process going, and refusing a particular script. This helps them avoid being coopted into the system as mere claimants after their own interests.

The occupiers are in many ways trying to avoid the path taken by the Tea Party. It was able to get many of its followers elected in 2010, but they're now members of the establishment, funded by the usual plutocrats. They've gone from "radical populist" outsiders to ultra-conservative insiders. If leaders with an agenda begin to surface from Occupy and take the electoral route, will they become only well-funded democrats? Can Occupy have an impact without moving inside; without mounting a full effort to reform the system? Arguably it already has in putting inequality on the agenda.

They're reformers, but the paradox they face is that as a force from outside it has limited ability to change the system's power relations. How far can raising awareness go if the insiders refuse to alter them? As the Civil Rights movement showed, the pressure from outside can succeed in changing the system from within. But that also took a decade. And if the outsiders take a seat inside, will the energy and hope they bring tend to disappear?

Occupy's answer is to remain provocative, keep up the pressure, and see what happens. Its tentative, exploratory nature makes sense since it's mostly concerned with seeding long-term change. But the danger is that Occupy, though more diverse and populist according to Todd Gitlin, will go the way of SDS in the late 60s and flip off the system ("To the Point," KCRW, Santa Monica, CA, 12/26/12). One of the crucial failings of SDS, according to Gitlin and others, was its withdrawal from the 1968 election in the belief that Hubert Humphrey, the democratic nominee, and Richard Nixon, the republican one, were mostly the same and that it wouldn't essentially matter who won. This attitude was driven by the disappointment that followed the assassination of RFK, whom SDS passionately supported and believed would win the election and represent their progressive agenda in the White House.

Just as their withdrawal gave the election to Nixon, Occupy's thumbing down of the establishment, and refusal to try and create links to players inside who could begin to produce change, may retard progress toward developing a credible alternative. But many Occupy activists are burned out and frustrated, especially with the recent crackdowns and falloff in members, at the intransigence of the power structure, its paid-for politicians and legislation in the wake of Citizens vs. United, and the continued arrogance of the 1 percent in blaming victims. It's easy to see why many feel working in the system is hopeless. More and more are turning to community sharing in the belief the system is not going to appreciably change. Institutions are simply refusing to act. And unfortunately, widespread apathy and dropping out can have the unintended consequence of propping up these institutions.
Occupy can catalyze a peaceful people's revolution. Its form is democracy-in-motion and it offers an answer to a system that's controlling the direction of change from top-down. But it must eventually get more bodies on the line. It isn't enough to expose how business as usual has helped to pervert democracy over time. Yet one of Occupy's major contributions is exposing the illusion that elite interests with superior know-how can speak and act for us.

From A People's Manifesto (2014).

John O'Kane's recent book is Venice, CA: A City State of Mind. It is available at bookstores and online sites.