White on the (constructive) failure of Occupy Wall Street

I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because the movement revealed undelying flaws in dominant, and still prevalent, theories of how to achieve social change through collective action. Occupy set out to “get money out of politics,” and we succeeded in catalyzing a global social movement that tested all of our hypotheses. The failure of our efforts reveals a truth that will hasten the next successful revolution: the assumptions underlying contemporary protest are false. Change won’t happen through the old models of activism. Western democracies will not be swayed by public spectacles and mass media frenzy. Protests have become an accepted, and therefore ignored, by-product of politics-as-usual. Western governments are not susceptible to international pressure to heed the protests of their citizens. Occupy’s failure was constructive because it demonstrated the limitations of contemporary ideas of Protest. I capitalize p to emphasize that the limitation was not in a particular tactic but rather in our concept of Protest, or our theory of social change, which determined the overall script. Occupy revealed that activists need to revolutionize their approach to revolution.

White, Michah. The End of Protest. p. 27 (paperback)


Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “White on the (constructive) failure of Occupy Wall Street”

  1. But online activism cannot be dismissed. Some movements have had real impact, either by putting an issue on the political agenda or by taking over an existing organisation. Without the Occupy movement, the debate about income inequality in America would be much less prominent. The same goes for the Black Lives Matter campaign and violence against African-Americans. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters managed to commandeer the Labour Party. In America, Donald Trump seems about to do the same with the Republican Party (though whether he can do it to the whole country remains to be seen).

  2. The classic military formula for success: concentrate superior force at a single point. The Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out in large part because of its ridiculously fissiparous list of demands and its failure to generate a leadership that could cull that list into anything actionable. Successful movements are built upon concrete single demands that can readily be translated into practical action: “Votes for women.” “End the draft.” “Overturn Roe v. Wade.” “Tougher punishments for drunk driving.”

    People can say “yes” to such specific demands for many different reasons. Supporters are not called upon to agree on everything, but just one thing. “End the draft” can appeal both to outright pacifists and to military professionals who regard an army of volunteers as more disciplined and lethal than an army of conscripts. Critics of Roe run the gamut from those who wish a total ban on all abortions to legal theorists who believe the Supreme Court overstepped itself back in 1973.

  3. For many groups, movements and uprisings, there are spinoffs, daughters, domino effects, chain reactions, new models and examples and templates and toolboxes that emerge from the experiments, and every round of activism is an experiment whose results can be applied to other situations. To be hopeful, we need not only to embrace uncertainty but to be willing to know that the consequences may be immeasurable, may still be unfolding, may be as indirect as poor people on other continents getting access to medicine because activists in the USA stood up and refused to accept things as they were. Think of hope as a banner woven from those gossamer threads, from a sense of the interconnectedness of all things, of the lasting effect of the best actions, not only the worst. Of an indivisible world in which everything matters.

    An old woman said at the outset of Occupy Wall Street “we’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important”, the most beautifully concise summary of what a compassionately radical, deeply democratic movement might aim to do. Occupy Wall Street was mocked and described as chaotic and ineffectual in its first weeks, and then when it spread nationwide and beyond, as failing or failed, by pundits who had simple metrics of what success should look like. The original occupation in lower Manhattan was broken up in November 2011, but many of the encampments inspired by it lasted far longer.

    Occupy launched a movement against student debt and opportunistic for-profit colleges; it shed light on the pain and brutality of the financial collapse and the American debt-peonage system. It called out economic inequality in a new way. California passed a homeowner’s bill of rights to push back at predatory lenders; a housing defense movement arose in the wake of Occupy that, house by house, protected many vulnerable homeowners. Each Occupy had its own engagement with local government and its own projects; a year ago people involved with local Occupies told me the thriving offshoots still make a difference. Occupy persists, but you have to learn to recognize the myriad forms in which it does so, none of which look much like Occupy Wall Street as a crowd in a square in lower Manhattan.


  4. But a fuller answer, the more difficult answer, is that this particular type of response to perceived injustice; this type of explosion; this repertoire of contention; the apparently spontaneous, digitally coordinated, horizontally organized mass protests in public spaces ends up meeting, relying on, handing the privilege of interpreting these events to people like me.

    People like me ended up in this position that we did not earn and we did not deserve, of being called upon to explain to the world what was actually happening in the streets.

    The participants and the original organizers of these mass protest events, many of them now recognize that this is a fundamental flaw of this particular type of contention, that it relies on somebody else to impose meaning upon it from outside, because the meaning of the movement itself is incapable of speaking in one coherent voice. But whatever the reason for this, people like me, foreign correspondents, especially from the most powerful countries in the world, especially from the dominant corporate outlets, which have the biggest microphone on the global stage, were called upon to explain an endlessly complex set of explosions around the world, and we failed.


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