Occupy After Occupy

Its critics may disagree, but Occupy Wall Street’s legacy has been an enduring one.

A year after Occupy Wall Street was sparked, the mainstream media reached their consensus on the movement: it failed to create change. “For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement is dead,” eulogized the New York Times. In a nation with a notoriously short attention span, it’s not surprising that the lack of immediate success gave rise to lamentations about its failure.

Unlike the Tea Party, to which it is often compared, Occupy did not have a mainstream party in its thrall, nor major donors keeping its issues alive. The 2012 elections were not marked by much attention to the grievances that enlivened the two thousand protesters who set up camp in the tight quarters of Zuccotti Park in September 2011, who inspired hundreds of similar occupations across the nation.

What a difference another year makes. “Maybe Occupy Wall Street Wasn’t Such a Failure After All,” mulled Business Insider on OWS’s second birthday, reconsidering the received wisdom and concluding that this was a case of “delayed success.” We agree. Occupy’s impact on US political discourse and its formative influence on many of its participants endures to this day, and its legacy continues to unfold.

The specific concerns that galvanized OWS and captured public support — surging inequality, unemployment and underemployment, the mortgage crisis, student debt, and other types of economic precarity — remain palpable, in the United States and worldwide. Moreover, the global cycle of protest that began with the Arab Spring and the 2011 movements of indignados in Spain and Greece, followed by OWS and its progeny, has not abated. Instead the torch has passed to other venues: the 2013 upsurges in Turkey and Brazil, for example, recapitulate many features of Occupy and the 2011 movements that preceded it.

Although each such uprising has its own unique context and internal logic, they all share certain key features: an antistatist animus and a rejection of mainstream politics. They have been led by educated, middle-class youth, making extensive use of social media.

When it suddenly appeared on our doorstep, Occupy Wall Street was an irresistible object of study for the three of us. Drawing on both survey data and interviews, we explored some basic questions: Where did OWS come from? Who were the protesters? What motivated them to join the uprising? Why did OWS gain so much traction with the media and the wider public? The result was our spring 2013 report, Changing the Subject: A Bottom-Up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City. A year later, we continue to reflect on the meaning of the Occupy movement’s historical arc and its enduring legacy.

Like many social movements, OWS did not appear out of nowhere; it was planned by experienced political activists, inspired in part by the Arab Spring and other protests around the world in the first half of 2011. The organizers of the Zuccotti Park occupation aimed to focus public attention here in the United States on the injustices tied to the global economic crisis and the staggering growth of inequality. In this respect, Occupy succeeded far beyond the organizers’ own expectations, upending the national political conversation, as we and many other commentators have pointed out.

Equally important, but less often noted, the movement attracted many participants who had little or no previous experience with political protest, who were radicalized by their involvement in OWS and who have remained involved in progressive politics ever since. Our report’s title, Changing the Subject, was meant to encapsulate both these phenomena.

We reported that news mentions of the term “income inequality” rose dramatically as Occupy gained momentum over the fall of 2011, and that although the frequency subsided somewhat after the evictions of various occupations, it remained higher than in the pre-OWS period. Updating that analysis, as the graph below shows, we found that during the fall of 2013, mentions of income inequality reached the peak levels of the Occupy era once again, and at the end of 2013 the frequency of mentions spiked far beyond that level.

OWS famously refused to define its demands, a stance that was widely criticized at the time. But our interviewees passionately defended that aspect of their movement and argued that it was a key ingredient in its popular appeal. And even in the absence of formal demands, our survey data suggest that several specific concerns motivated OWS supporters. The issue most often cited was Occupy’s trademark, namely inequality and the 1%, which nearly half of our respondents cited as a motivating concern, followed by “money in politics” and “corporate greed,” student debt, and access to education.

To be sure, the issue of inequality has been reframed and arguably co-opted in the post-Occupy era. That is perhaps an inevitable consequence of its incorporation into the political mainstream. But this is the price of success: the truth is that inequality is now front-and-center in US political discourse, a direct legacy of the Occupy movement. It is no accident that the recent spate of media attention to inequality coincides with the electoral calendar, reflecting the fact that many candidates have embraced the issue. Two notable candidates are Bill de Blasio, in his victorious run for mayor of New York City, framed primarily as a critique of the “tale of two cities,” and Seattle’s new mayor Ed Murray, who is promoting a $15 per hour minimum wage there. Although OWS activists themselves largely disdained electoral politics, their success in riveting public attention to the issue of inequality helped pave the way for the success of candidates like these.

The upward trend in media mentions of inequality also reflects recent mobilization efforts that themselves embody OWS’s lasting discursive legacy — such as the Black Friday protests of Walmart workers, the fast food workers’ campaign for a $15 minimum wage, and the SeaTac referendum for a local minimum wage of $15 in November 2013. All these campaigns were financed and led largely by organized labor, but some of the organizers involved were OWS veterans, and it seems unlikely that these campaigns would have been launched at all in the absence of the groundwork laid by Occupy. Similarly, OWS should get credit for the spate of efforts to raise the minimum wage in states and cities around the country. Of course, none of these examples embody the radical vision that animated OWS. But they are nevertheless part of Occupy’s lasting legacy.

More in keeping with the prefigurative politics of the radical Occupiers whose vision did so much to shape the early movement, many groups remain around the country that are committed to direct action and transformative politics. According to the findings of OWS activist James Owen in a study that covered the period up to mid 2012, “Occupy organizing in NYC enabled a pluralistic network of alliances connecting over 200 nonprofits, emerging grassroots groups, religious organizations, and incorporated businesses with over 120 Occupy groups.”1 Some of the groups that are still active in 2014 include Occupy Museums, Occupy Homes, Occupy Sandy Recovery and Occupy Arts and Labor. Some former Occupiers are also creating worker cooperatives; others are engaged in training and education projects like Wildfire and seeking to strengthen other post-Occupy formations.

A key finding from our 2013 report that attracted an outsize share of attention was that Occupy activists were disproportionately privileged: typically white, college-educated, from affluent family backgrounds, and young. In terms of age, the dominant demographic was the Millennials, who, as Peter Beinart pointed out in a brilliant article, entered their “plastic years” at the turn of the twenty-first century.2 Millennials not only fueled OWS, but the movement also contributed to the ongoing political formation of active participants in Occupy and many other members of this generation. Beinart amassed a wealth of data suggesting that Millennials are not just disproportionately in favor of same-sex marriage (as everyone knows) but also far more skeptical about capitalism and class, and about mainstream politics, than their elders, and on this basis argued persuasively that they represent a new political generation.

Some of the young people we surveyed who participated in OWS were still students, but many more were recent labor market entrants with college or postgraduate education who faced dismal economic prospects after the 2008 crash, in a labor market in which precarious work was becoming the new normal. They were prototypes of what social-movement scholar Doug McAdam famously termed “biographical availability.”3 It was underemployment, not unemployment, that typically rendered them available in this way. At the same time, many millennial respondents to our survey had a personal connection to the issues Occupy raised: despite their relatively affluent class backgrounds, more than half of those under thirty were carrying substantial debt, and over a third had been laid off or lost a job in the previous five years. In this regard OWS was hardly unique; the wave of protest movements around the world since 2011, although attracting a diverse group of supporters, have been fueled by this generation.

As Paul Mason so aptly puts it, “At the heart of it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future.”4

This was the same generation that was infatuated with Barack Obama in 2008, and then disillusioned with the results of his election. Although we found that most OWS organizers were well to the left of Obama before 2008, the larger population of Occupy supporters included many for whom the process of political disillusion reinforced economic disappointment. As an organizer we interviewed put it, “The Obama presidency was disillusioning to a lot of people, and that’s why Occupy Wall Street spread so much. We tried to get the best liberal we could, and then we got more of the same shit. Then it’s either cynicism or we’re going to try something completely different.”

Millennials are the first generation for whom social media are the dominant mode of communication. That is why, as Manuel Castells has noted, Occupy “was born on the Internet, diffused by the Internet.”5 OWS’s reliance on social media helped meld together previously distinct activist networks into a single movement. Even those who helped plan the September 17 occupation recounted their surprise at seeing few familiar faces from the planning meetings at Zuccotti itself.

OWS activists not only rejected mainstream US political parties as hopelessly corrupted by corporate power; they also spurned traditional left-wing organizations as overly hierarchical. More influenced by anarchist and autonomist traditions than by the socialist left, their eclectic political critique and praxis combined elements of all these traditions, united by a tactical commitment to nonviolent direct action and to prefigurative politics, which shaped the ways in which decisions were made as well as the organization of daily life in Zuccotti Park. In self-conscious contrast to the vertical structures of mainstream political parties, unions, and traditional left organizations alike, OWS embraced horizontalism.

As the movement expanded in size, however, horizontalist principles were often strained and compromised, sparking complaints that people of color, women, and other groups were sidelined.

Equally important was the transformation of OWS participants who had not previously been politicized. As one of our interviewees put it, the occupation “created the space for people to become radicalized.” Not only were such people transformed by the experience, in many cases into lifelong activists, but new networks were forged among them. Many OWS organizers told us how much they valued the personal relationships they had built with other Occupiers, and some were convinced that OWS was the beginning of a new wave of social movement activity.

It’s probably still too soon to know if they are right, but what is beyond dispute is that the basic social conditions that sparked the movement in the first place remain intact. Even if the anemic economic recovery eventually accelerates, reducing unemployment and underemployment, the Millennials will continue to confront far more restricted economic opportunities than their parents. Not only are they burdened by unprecedented debt, but many will be limited to precarious forms of employment like freelance or contract work.

Occupy itself is gone, but it does not seem farfetched to expect “the graduate with no future” to rise again, drawing as before on social media, to challenge the rampant inequalities that continue to fester in the United States and around the world. Although they will surely retain the anti-hierarchical, egalitarian approach that animated Occupy and that for many makes mainstream politics anathema, perhaps next time around they will find ways to transcend the limits of radical horizontalism, building new movements that can frontally challenge inequality and injustice.

  1. James Owens. 2013.“Occupy’s Precarious Pluralism: A Study of the Purposes, Identities and Politics Enabled by the NYC Occupy Movement.”
  2. Peter Beinart, “The Rise of the New New Left,” The Daily Beast, September 12, 2013. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/12/the-rise-of-the-new-new-left.html
  3. “Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer.” American Journal of Sociology 92 (1986), p. 64–90.
  4. Paul Mason, Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2013), p. 263.
  5. Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movement in the Internet Age. (Polity, 2012), p. 168.