The movement to challenge corporate greed and excess that began on Wall Street and rapidly became a global protest movement is nearing its end. Many countries have seen working people, and the formerly working, come out in the tens of thousands to lend their voice and bodies to the clarion call for a fairer, a more equitable society. As governments exercise the ‘rule of law’ to close down the tents and end the demonstrations—“illegal tenting”, “sanitation”, “obstruction”—while still claiming to embrace free speech and expression, there are important lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.
Firstly, as much as people are legitimately aggrieved by the destructive policies pursued in the realm of high finance, it is critical for any protest movement to have a clear goal in mind. The Occupy movement is a genuine eruption of the collective will of everyday people but its objective has been limited to consciousness raising and calling out corporate crooks. Many participants, though, longed for changes in policies or laws that would limit the seeming free rein financiers appear to enjoy. If the goal is to raise consciousness the organizers have achieved this; and at some point further protest loses its relevance.
Those commentators who liken this movement to the Arab Spring misunderstand: those movements in the Middle East had the explicit political objective of toppling authoritarian rule and developed mass consciousness as part of that effort. If there is any parallel to be drawn it is that 2011 saw a rupture of people power in raw, unadulterated form. Indeed, this year can be seen as a tamer version of that pivotal year, 1968, which saw students, peace activists, black power activists and Prague Spring all challenge hegemonic power.
Secondly, the Occupy protesters set out to challenge a group who has no requirement or obligation to answer to the public. This is an altogether different undertaking than going after those who hold political office. And given their objective of merely raising consciousness, the men in suits could simply ignore them publicly while working vigorously behind the scenes to bring an end to the protesters’ campaign. If there is a weakness in their strategy there was a failure to link politicians with Wall Street: bailouts using tax payers’ money, repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act separating retail and investment banking, and tax loopholes for major corporations, were all designed and passed by legislators with cozy relationships with the corporate world buttressed by campaign donations.
Thirdly, while the Occupy protests may well be at an end entirely by week’s end, there is an important message they leave behind: people have a voice outside of the formal political process, they have power irrespective of their wealth and they have the capacity to make change, even if in this instance, it remains at the level of consciousness raising.
Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” The Occupiers have given away none of their power. And through their example they have inspired everyday people everywhere with the notion that elites do not have a monopoly on power and they power they do have will not go unchallenged.