12/04/2012 12:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Occupy the White House

A couple of days after the November 6 election, my New School pal Sam Binkley posted this comment on his Facebook page:
As I see it, the Occupy Movement deserves a lot of credit. Nobody was talking about economic inequality before fall '11, but after all the media coverage of the various occupy groups, that theme became a fixture of the liberal and democratic narrative right up to the election, and remained a staple of Obama and other campaigns. Did I hallucinate that or did it happen?

He didn't elaborate on this sentiment, which he could have easily done from his perspective as a cultural sociologist, and perhaps he did in another context and I just didn't know about it. But I believe he's right. So I'd like to take a detour from my normal blogging beat to explain.

New social movement theory as laid out by Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato in their authoritative text Civil Society and Political Theory can be seen to have four distinct phases of political action, which I call the four "I's." (Cohen and Arato use slightly different language but I feel that the alliteration has value as a mnemonic device.)

The first is identity, coming out as it were to declare one's right to openly exist in the public sphere. The individuals who physically showed up in the place originally known as Liberty Plaza Park in Lower Manhattan on September 17, 2011, in the opening episode of the Occupy Movement, to protest growing social and economic inequality in the United States, embraced such a political identity. That public intellectuals such as Naomi Klein and Slavoj Zizek and celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo, and Deepak Chopra, among others, put in appearances with the Occupy crowd further raised the profile.

The identity position of Occupy soon spread to other parts of the country and then around the world, leading to the second phase, namely, inclusion. In this phase, identity (in social theory lingo, subjectivity) establishes a collective aspect. More and more individuals recognize the identity/subjectivity as applicable to themselves and embrace it. This was neatly summed up by the slogan, "We are the 99 percent," which had numerous iterations in various media, from handmade banners and buttons to formal organizational designations.

The critical mass of inclusive identity led to the third phase, influence. While the mainstream media ignored the phenomenon in the early days, the Occupy Movement soon became to large to ignore. The meme of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent changed the national conversation just as Binkley asserts. In social movement theory, the ability to redirect public discourse toward your point of view is called "reframing," and it's a primary objective of consciousness-raising efforts of many varieties.

The final phase, institutionalization, is the most difficult to achieve. Cohen and Arato refer to it as "the politics of reform" in which the state accommodates the mandate of the movement within the official political process. Civil rights legislation is one of the more readily identifiable examples. The 2012 presidential election, I would argue in concurrence with Binkely, was another. Certainly in recent memory there has been no more clearer icon of the 1 percent than Mitt Romney, a self-satisfied scion of the ruling class, apparent prep school bully and vulture capitalist, who made a quarter of billion dollars pillaging takeover targets of any value and then stashing who knows how much of it in offshore accounts to avoid taxes. He basically admitted as much himself with his infamous "47 percent" comment even if he low-balled the number by a tad under half.

But before we get too celebratory about all of this, I ask you to also consider the following. In their important study, Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward observe that the institutionalization of social movement activism within the state apparatus and other establishment structures tends to effectively put people back in their place. The biggest gains tend to come in periods of disruption -- the industrial labor movement in the 1930s is one example they give -- only to be co-opted in their assimilation into the so-called mainstream, as in the subsequent evolution of the American union movement as a partner of management in the years since.

I have been convinced pretty much from the beginning that the first election of Barack Obama served a similar function in 2008, providing a cathartic release for the widespread disenchantment being felt among so people with the dismantling of the American dream under the Bush Administration. (This even though I admit to welling up with emotion when on election night as I watched the scenes being broadcast from Grant Park on TV as the president-elect pronounced that "this [was my] victory.") And I further think that the 2008 election may very well have delayed the emergence of the Occupy Movement by three years.

Whether the second Obama administration turns out to be another Thermidorian Reaction remains to be seen. Although I did hear a rumor that the other day someone on K Street saw Grover Norquist blink. One can only hope.

Image: Vince Carducci