Why Occupy failed

The Occupiers' disdain for everyday democracy brings them dangerously close to their neoliberal foes.

June 21, 2012
article header image

It was a just a year ago—on July 13, 2011—that the Canadian magazine Adbusters sent the tweet that triggered the Occupy movement.  "Flood into lower Manhattan," said its editors, "and Occupy Wall Street."  Thousands responded, not just in Manhattan, but in cities around the world.  By the end of 2011, Occupy was hailed as the most powerful progressive force in American politics in a generation. Today, just six months later, it is all but dead—an apparent suicide, killed by its own distaste for democratic politics.

It may seem odd to say this.  The hallmark of the Occupy movement was its commitment to open, consensus-based decision-making. "This is what democracy looks like," its supporters proclaimed.  Anyone could attend one of the Occupiers' general assemblies and block a proposed decision if they felt that it violated an ethical principle. Of course, this made it difficult for assemblies to agree on policy demands, manage life in the Occupy camps, and condemn vandalism by fringe elements. Many sympathisers quit the movement out of frustration. Some said that Occupy's problem was actually too much democracy.

But was Occupy really what "democracy looks like"? To answer this question, we need to be clear what democratic politics is about. Certainly, a healthy democracy is one in which political power is broadly distributed. However there is more to it than that. As the political scientist Bernard Crick famously said fifty years ago, democratic politics is a way of living within a community composed of groups with differing interests and truths. To succeed, it requires a willingness to bargain and compromise. As Crick said, it often demands that we work with people who are "genuinely repulsive to us." It compels us to accept results that fall short of our ideals but which are feasible in practice. Democratic politics, Crick concluded, is "a messy, mundane, inconclusive business."

It was this conception of democratic politics that the Occupiers rejected. The movement believed that it would be possible to achieve social transformation without really engaging with groups or individuals who had power to help or hinder its cause. One of its most prominent philosophers, David Graeber, said that the movement refused "to recognize the legitimacy of existing political institutions." This was not merely a swipe at politicians corrupted by Wall Street. It was a rejection of the entire political order, including many people who were prepared to work with Occupy because they sympathised with its goals or simply found it politically expedient. "We don't need politicians to build a better society," boasted an Occupy Wall Street website.

Indeed, Occupiers had a habit of alienating potential allies. When Occupy Denver was asked by the city's Democratic mayor to choose a representative to negotiate about policing of their camp, its general assembly responded by electing a dog. When Representative John Lewis, an icon of the American civil rights movement, asked to address the general assembly of Occupy Atlanta, he was blocked by an Occupier who objected that "no singular human being" was entitled to special treatment. "They were rude, they were hostile," Atlanta's Democratic mayor complained to National Public Radio about the Occupiers. He shut down the camp two weeks later.

Occupy's relationship with the labour movement was also difficult. In December 2011, Occupy Oakland organized a shutdown of the city's ports despite the opposition of major unions. "We weren't consulted," a union leader complained to the sociologist Todd Gitlin. "When working people aren't involved in the decision on whether to shut down their jobs, that's problematic." When unions close to the Obama administration proposed an Occupy-themed protest in Washington in December 2011, Occupy supporter Glenn Greenwald complained about their attempt to "convert and degrade the movement" into an arm of the Democratic Party. Occupy sought to remain above the fray. As Todd Gitlin says in his new book, Occupy Nation, the movement "wanted to win reforms and to stay out of politics. At the same time."

This hostility to messy deal-making was also evident inside Occupy itself. The consensus model that was used in assemblies gave an assurance that no Occupier would be required to bend principles because of membership in the movement. The universal right to veto was defended as a core element of anarchist philosophy. But it could also be described as an application of the principle of consumer sovereignty within the realm of politics. As they say at Burger King, you could have it your way—even if this promise crippled the effectiveness of the movement as a whole.

Supporters called the Occupy model "pure democracy." Indeed it was pure, in the sense that it reduced the need for horse-trading with adversaries and fair-weather friends. But because it was pure, it was not democracy. It was a form of utopianism that sought transformation in the established order without violence (which in any case would have been efficiently suppressed) or action through existing political structures. Some Occupiers hoped that their camps would cause change by example alone—that Americans would be inspired by this demonstration of how the "institutions of a new society" might work. But Americans did not like Occupy's methods, even if they approved of its goals, often because these "institutions of a new society" barely worked at all.

Ironically, the Occupiers' disdain for conventional democratic politics is shared by their fiercest opponents. The architects of the neoliberal revolution—the thinkers who launched Reagan, Thatcher, and the global movement toward free markets—also hated the messiness of everyday democracy. They thought that it produced shortsighted and fickle policies that discouraged economic growth.

The neoliberal response was institutional reform to impose discipline on democratic states. Thomas Friedman once called this the "golden straitjacket."  The best example is the transformation of central banking. Over the last thirty years, dozens of central banks were given formal independence so that technocrats could make hard decisions about monetary policy free of the influence of elected politicians. Central bankers were supposed to be like Plato's guardians. But then the financial crisis showed that they were mortal like the rest of us. The institutions of neoliberalism are now in crisis, as protests and riots throughout the developed world demonstrate. Built on a disdain for democratic politics, these institutions now lack democratic legitimacy.

Bernard Crick had a phrase to describe the philosophy of people who refuse to accept the complications of everyday democracy.  He called it anti-politics.  Neoliberals engaged in a kind of anti-politics, and so did Occupiers. Each group sought its own utopia, free from dissensus and deal-making: either the self-regulating market, or consensus-based anarchism. Neither project has come to a good end. Democratic politics may be messy and inconclusive, as Crick said. But it is still better than the alternatives.