A whole decade ago (I know right? Father Time; he gets to all of us) the world economy went tits up in the most major way since the 1930s.
Approximately three years later, with almost every country in the world having experienced the effects of the downturn, amid a landscape of austerity programs and bank bailouts, the Occupy movement arose as a concerted campaign against the way the system was playing out.
Broadly an anti-capitalist protest, Occupy became known for its rallying calls of “we are the 99%”, its participatory democracy-style gatherings and arguably, in the end, a lack of clear demands.
Between September 2011 and February(ish) 2012, Occupy protests sprung up in over 950 cities across 82 countries around the world, with over 600 protests in the US alone.
As far as protest movements go, Occupy was a phenomenon.
Yet just as quickly as it grew, it all but disappeared.
Its aims (disparate and non-defined as they were) were never realised, and what initially promised to be an heir to the anti-war and civil rights movements of the sixties, very soon lost all momentum.
So with the benefit of hindsight, why did the Occupy movement ultimately fail? What tactics did it use to great effect and what tactics perhaps contributed to its demise?
And perhaps most importantly of all, in a world that is now feeling the political repercussions of the economic crash, what lessons can we learn from Occupy’s successes, and failures? If we were to attempt to create a new movement, to rail against the excesses of capitalism, or to fight the fascist tide, how could we go about getting the same momentum, the same force, as Occupy, but go further, be more successful, and last longer?
Unsurprisingly, the key method of the Occupy campaign was to occupy public and private spaces; usually well-known or symbolic locations.
The movement drew inspiration from similar tactics used during the Arab Spring, and was committed to a doctrine of non-violence.
Social Media played a pivotal role in the organisation and dissemination of information, but clearly the physical coming together, the act of “occupying” a space in a group, was the defining characteristic.
The participatory democracy style of these meetings, with a non-hierarchical system, was also an important factor in both how the movement spread so quickly, and then burnt out — the lack of leadership in the end detrimental to creating a focused campaign.
Here’s where it becomes a bit less clear.
Initially, what made Occupy so successful in terms of rapid growth was that its aims were vague enough to encourage participation from a broad church.
But whilst this was to its credit in the beginning, as it developed, this lack of clarity ultimately damaged the movement.
A few key ideas did spring forth from the movement: a Robin Hood tax, tighter banking regulations and bring to justice those who played pivotal roles in the 2008 crash. This then grew into ideas about job creation and equality, and corruption in politics.
Though some of these ideas caught on somewhat with the public, and certainly affected US political discourse, on a global scale the movement lacked focus and found itself battling localised issues as well as these broader goals.
First of all, and most importantly, the Occupy movement brought to the fore the topic of wealth disparity in otherwise rich nations.
Of course others had discussed these issues, but Occupy was the first movement to “brand” it, to categorise and publicise it.
Their slogan “we are the 99%” along with ideas of corporate and financial greed and corruption permeates political discussions to this day.
On a more microcosmic level, localised movements achieved various smaller and larger political “wins”.
In Spain, laws were passed to limit the amount banks could wrangle back from defaulting borrowers. In the US, bills were passed to limit the amount of corporate funding in elections. In Nigeria, fuel subsidies that had been removed during the crash were reinstated.
In the UK, there are now tighter regulations on banks in terms of separating the risk for investment/retail arms, though whether this was as a direct result of the Occupy movement is debatable.
Well, if we were to take those initial aims as a blueprint:
A Robin Hood Tax was debated by a range of governments worldwide, and in particular, the EU made serious proposals towards creating such a scheme.
Ultimately, nothing came of these proposals, perhaps in part due to the lack of concerted pressure on legislators by the Occupy movement in the long term.
As mentioned, the UK does now have somewhat tighter banking legislation, but beyond this, very little was done as a result (or even remotely in relation to) the actions of Occupy to regulate the banks. Any regulation that was put in place in the US and the rest of the world was mostly done so in the very immediate aftermath of the crash in 2008, way before the Occupy movement took off.
In terms of holding the perpetrators of the crash to account, in the UK the below thirteen people were charged with LIBOR-rigging:
Five went to prison.
In the US, as per Channel 4 News:
American SIGTARP investigations have resulted in:
402 individuals facing criminal charges, including 97 bankers charged with fraud. Wall Street traders were also charged.
324 people being convicted, of whom 222 were sentenced to prison.
Are any of these charges as a direct result of Occupy? Probably not, though the pressure exerted by the movement may have contributed.
Is it enough? Is convicting 400 or so mid level bankers and traders justice? Or should those at the very top have paid the price?
In this sense, whether you judge this as a success or failure, is perhaps down to perspective.
There are some obvious, and some not-so obvious lessons to learn from the Occupy movement for any would-be campaigners.
- Focus. Pick a specific issue and target that. Don’t simply be a broad church anti-capitalist movement. What’s an achievable goal with the resources the movement has available? Wins beget wins — if you focus your entire energy on having a Robin Hood Tax instated in your country, and that happens, you’ve won. Now you can focus all your resources on your next biggest aim. And so on.
- Think different. To ironically steal a trillion dollar company’s strapline. What got Occupy all the headlines, all the PR, all the interest, was a radically different set of tactics and methods to the usual March/Picket/Petition form that protests often take. Now of course, using those same tactics of occupying spaces and mass participatory democracy might seem cliche, thanks to the ubiquitousness of Occupy back then. But there are other things to be done. People are infinitely creative and can find infinite ways to resist and protest when required.
- Use the momentum to achieve something early. The Occupy movement never really had any incremental achievements to chalk up along the way, to show its members and outsiders that things were going their way. Though this may sound contrary to the ‘focus’ element, it’s in fact a part of it. You need milestones to tick off: first the movement gets first billing on national news, then it gets debated in parliament, then a bill is introduced etcetera. There has to be a scorecard, so that progress can be monitored. Otherwise how will you know when you win?
- Keep going. Occupy just fizzled out. Was that because people stopped believing and agreeing with its message? No. It was because they saw that its methods were ineffective, or demand unclear. Why are you creating a movement in the first place? Always keep that in mind, and keep going until you achieve what you set out, or fail knowing you did all you could.
- Brand well. ‘We are the 99%’ was a work of genius. The branding of the movement was superlative. A movement needs to be recognised and that was most certainly achieved by Occupy. Modern movements take note: a simple, catchy phrase or hook. An innovative quirk (the method of occupying). All this makes your message more memorable, gets people to sit up and notice, and let’s them know exactly who the protesters are and what they’re about.
We must take heed of movements like Occupy as they form part of our recent history of resistance.
Where they succeeded, we must now emulate them — whether that be using similar tactics to protest fascism or the same type of organisational methods to counter corruption in politics.
Where they failed, we must remedy. We must focus our goals, we must create milestones of achievement and we… Must. Keep. Going.
In many ways then, if we learn these lessons and use them to further future campaigns and movements, perhaps Occupy will have, in fact, wholly succeeded.
After all, though we are still the 99% right now, there may be a day soon where that will change.
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Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better. You can read some of these here: