Monday, January 02, 2012

Prospects for the Occupy movement in 2012

I can't speak to the prospects of the Occupy movement in other countries since the United States is such a completely different case, but as we start the new year I would like to summarize my perception of where the movement is (in the U.S. only) and what prospects the movement has for the rest of this new year. Basically, the movement started and persists as a "protest" movement. They seek "change" if not "revolution" (whatever that means), but to date they have only managed a number of half-hearted protests of limited size. Sometimes they manage to stage larger rallies with the cooperation of (some) labor unions and students, but other than relatively minor disruptions, they continue to come up empty on the "change" and "revolution" fronts."
 
Although the movement grew dramatically in October, they seemed to taper off and stagnate in November and December. Who knows, maybe that was the weather, but if that is true then the movement is even less potent than they seem.
 
The big, open, make-or-break question for the whole Occupy movement (in the U.S., at least), is the degree of support and actual participation that will come from average Americans, who although they appear to offer some sympathy for the demands of the movement, seem determined to remain on the sidelines.
 
It appears to me that although the movement can easily attract the unemployed, the students without jobs and large student loans, and the otherwise disaffected of society, they stand little chance of actively engaging the vast majority of average Americans with jobs and families and otherwise busy with their daily jobs. Sure, plenty of those people will honk their horns in support or maybe even donate a few bucks or maybe one of their kids will join the movement, that's about as far as they themselves will go.
 
One of the reasons that the Occupy movement will not make deeper inroads into the American psyche is that the unity of the movement is only at the level of vague aims, like fairness, political corruption, and social justice, but when you drill down and listen to what individuals in the movement are actually saying and promoting, things like commitment only to direct democracy and opposition to representative democracy and opposition to capitalism itself, it is difficult to imagine that such specific goals are going to be very appealing to many average Americans. In other words, as the movement starts to clarify and detail its goals, their level of support among the general public will wither rather quickly.
 
I suggest that you evaluate the movement at three levels: 1) sympathy, 2) support, and 3) commitment. Yes, their has been and will continue to be a significant degree of sympathy for the movement in terms of the issues they raise. There will even be some degree of support, although financial donations have already dropped off dramatically. Commitment is the really tough nut to crack. Sure, the movement appears to have a diehard core that really is truly committed, but that base doesn't appear to be growing and shows little prospect for dramatic growth in the months ahead, and without such growth the movement has little prospect of achieving the degree of "change" and "revolution" they seek.
 
Another factor impacting the movement in the U.S. is that America is very diverse and geographically distributed. Egypt, Cairo, Tahrir Square, and the Egyptian people were all relatively synonymous. But in the U.S., New York and Wall Street are geographically separated from our political capital of Washington, D.C. And we have quite a number of major business centers all over the country. That means that Occupy has to try to be everywhere, which means that it has to divide itself, its people, its resources, and its attention, and not have the kind of central focus it had in any of the countries of the Middle East. Even with a more lax and permissive attitude, the D.C. occupation has been only very modest in size. Despite the difficulties caused by the financial crisis, recession, and weak recovery, Americans overall are still in much better shape and have a much brighter outlook on the future, and have a much more diverse range of life styles, aims, and interests than the average crowd outside the U.S. or in the Middle East specifically. Occupy Wall Street has been and remains the central focus of the movement in the U.S., but our social and political diversity and geographic distribution have been severe impediments to the movement.
 
In summary, yes, the Occupy movement will remain with us for the coming year, but only as a shadow of their grand vision of last summer and fall. Yes, we will see a number of protests, rallies, and popup disruptions and flash mobs, but overall the level of disruption will be no worse than your garden variety of urban traffic jams and the like. Crowds will number in the dozens and hundreds and only occasionally in the thousands, but not consistently grow into the tens or hundreds of thousands that an effective movement would need on a sustained and regular basis to succeed as a force of change. Yes, the police will remain a constant, vigilant presence, but their response will become more measured as the protests fall into more predictable patterns. Yes, there will be a few protests that get out of hand and become near or actual riots, but overall the protests will be more at the level of minor annoyance and mere street theater spectacle than true "revolution" ala the protests in the Middle East. To put it simply, the United States, for all of its problems, is simply not the Middle East. Besides, the results from Tahrir Square are not looking so appealing of late.

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