Right now, members of Occupy Wall Street are preparing to mark the one year anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park on September 17 with an event halfway between a celebration and a protest. Meanwhile, Occupy’s energy and influence can be seen in a range of activism and dissent that stretches from coast to coast in America and beyond, from anarchist grand jury resisters in the Pacific Northwest to the solidarity networks supporting the forthcoming teachers’ strike in Chicago.
For something that happened only a year ago, not in a far-flung location but in one of the world’s largest cities and with plenty of cameras watching, the first few months of Occupy Wall Street have already taken on the hazy status of myth.
But in fact, especially for those who watched from across the country or indeed the world as the occupation of New York City unfolded, the re-named Liberty Park achieved that mythic power almost immediately. Why else did so many people make pilgrimages to the park, hurrying to experience it before the perhaps inevitable end?
And like any myth, Occupy Wall Street’s meaning, legacy and even the facts of how and why it came to be are contested. I have heard or read socialists paint it as a movement fundamentally begun by socialists that was later derailed by anarchists, and anarchists describe it as something fundamentally powered by anarchists who were later pushed out by reformists. There are those who think the movement – in New York City and nationally – needs to return to a supposed central purpose of “money out of politics” and focus on the corrosive influence of big banks, while others argue that, if it wasn’t true from the very beginning, that “all our grievances are connected,” embracing this intersectional view was a key moment in the movement’s growth.
Beyond these often misguided attempts at ideological reclaiming, there are nagging, anxious questions about how to duplicate Occupy Wall Street’s biggest successes. While Occupy movements have continued to take action throughout 2012, in new and interesting ways, these have rarely come close to achieving the numbers seen on the streets in New York in the fall – and numbers are usually the metric by which we measure movements’ success.
What was the essence of Occupy Wall Street’s appeal that made it seem not just a radical movement but a potential mass movement? How can its successes be duplicated, activists wonder – how to bottle the lightning?
There have been many words written on the subject of Occupy, but far fewer words that are informed, rigorous and in good faith, let alone both scholarly and radical. This is why we should applaud efforts to engage seriously with the story and meaning of Occupy Wall Street like Todd Gitlin’s Occupy Nation.
In Occupy Nation, Gitlin tells the story of some of the people who made Occupy Wall Street happen, and the human, social and ideological roots of the movement. He looks at the specific context that produced the movement: the “political-cultural ecology” including larger organizations, political parties and Wall Street itself.
But Gitlin is not just content to tell a linear narrative. Only the smallest third of his book is devoted to Occupy’s “Roots.” The other two focus on the “Spirit” and the “Promise.” Gitlin looks at the specific culture of Occupy – from leaderlessness and structurelessness to nonviolence and the participatory ritual of General Assemblies and the people’s mic – and traces what historical precedents exist. He explores “The Movement as its Own Demand” and “The Co-option Phobia,” and the divisions over conventional politics and reform versus revolution.
Finally, Gitlin looks to the future: To what he sees as the most promising directions of Occupy, and potential perils “I worry with this movement, not just about it,” he says, a sentiment that may be familiar to many of us who have both observed and felt caught up in the spirit of Occupy. He looks at the Occupy Our Homes initiatives, at the movement’s relationship with labor unions, and at the prospects of building international connections and global solidarity. And he looks at the potential for Occupy Wall Street to “make the political personal in a thousand ways” in the lives of people who may not even identify as part of the movement.
Todd Gitlin is well-placed to unpack and analyze these issues. He was a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society and its third president from 1963-64. Gitlin’s fourteen previous books about politics, culture, movements and media include The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and Letters to a Young Activist. He is professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD program in communications at Columbia University, and we’re very excited to welcome him to today’s FDL Book Salon.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]