Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Fresh Look at the Success of the Occupy Movement

By Clare Saunders, University of Exeter, Silke Roth, University of Southampton Cristiana Olcese, London School of Economics
Contact: silke.roth@soton.ac.uk

The Occupy movement has been seen as emblematic of protest in a global age. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Occupiers in more than 700 cities in 80 countries had set up camps to protest against the financial system, its inherent inequality and the failure of democratic and undemocratic regimes alike to deal with associated problems. Occupy camps have been considered to be motivated by the increasingly apparent unfairness of austerity measures, which governments brought to bear in the wake of the global financial crisis, which were spurred, in turn, by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
Occupy was heavily reported in the media throughout 2011 and 2012, and it would be hard to have not noticed the movement take off. Now, in 2014, it has largely dropped out of the media spotlight. At the same time, the economic system remains, firmly to date, unchanged by this significant wave of dissent. Even when it was gaining significant media attention, Occupy was sometimes caricatured as a rather disorganised ideas factory: its openness, transparency and emphasis on participatory and deliberative forms of democracy meant that it lacked a discrete goal or any concrete plans for how we might create a better alternative to the current global financial system.

Does this mean that Occupy failed?
Not necessarily. No-one ever thought that thousands of tents alone could shut down a corrupt banking system, or create an equitable financial system – at least not in the short-term. In London, Occupy attracted support from broad swathes of the populace, most notably bank workers, including a Bank of England official, and prominent members of the Church. Canon Giles Fraser famously resigned from his position at St Paul’s Cathedral in disgust that the Church would be implicated in a violent eviction of peaceful protest on the Cathedral’s steps. So it did succeed in getting broad support and public sympathy.

Occupy lives on
Although Occupy London – at St Pauls and Finsbury Park – was evicted back in 2012, the movement lives on through various related enterprises and initiatives. It is, for example, behind an initiative called ‘RollingJubilee’, which, in its own words ‘buys up pounds worth of debt for pennies and then writes it off’. In addition to gathering the support of people from many different walks of life, Occupy was a huge success encouraging people to engage in politics as a day to day activity: that is, in academic speak, in ‘prefigurative politics’.

A peak on the inside
Only by looking inside Occupiers’ tents can we understand what Occupy really meant for its participants and who those participants were. Our research did exactly that. We conducted in-depth interviews with participants – many from inside the tents – and analysed data from a survey of participants to illustrate the very concrete success of Occupy. Our survey was part of the pan-European ‘Caught in the Act of Protest’ project, which has surveyed protests across Europe. We reveal how Occupy was much more than just a protest, and much more still than an unsuccessful protest. Indeed, for some, it was a way of life. For many of those, it represented a better way of life.

A diverse range of participants
In terms of diversity, we found that participants were from a wide range of backgrounds, although most were highly educated. What many had in common was a sense of the need for a new direction in their lives: many were in between jobs, or looking for a new place to settle. Some were homeless and/or mentally ill and in need of types of care not readily available in the City.

Living outside of capitalism
One significant success of the London Occupy camps was that they revealed to its participants the possibility of existing outside of the confines of the everyday capitalist system, unearthing and attempting to resolve issues thrown up by the capitalist system in the process. For some homeless and mentally ill people, the place was a panacea: food, shelter and the creation of humane and highly supportive community were part of Occupy London’s success story. Whether or not one was vulnerable in day to day society, it was possible to live at an Occupy camp on very little money. At the same time, it was possible to learn from and make use of mutually supportive community systems, including food provision and inclusive decision-making. Those participants who had previously been involved in more organised forms of politics (e.g. through formally organised NGOs) found Occupy to be a breath of fresh air: it was less exclusionary, more participatory and generally more rewarding than many of their prior political experiences.

Tensions in camp life
This is not to suggest that life at the Occupy camps was plain sailing. As in any fledgling community, the bringing together of a diverse body of people created tensions. Amongst other incidents, there were allegations of sexual abuse and complaints about drunken people. These incidents made it difficult always to  present the camps as respectable places for political dissent, especially to the well-to-do folk of the City. Despite these very real challenges, Occupy still managed to get itself cast in a largely positive light in the media. As our research illustrates, Occupy London also succeeded in interweaving on-line and off-line forms of political action.

A success?
So, in many ways, Occupy was a huge success. Unravelling the global financial system and instituting a more equitable alternative is no small feat. It is so challenging that it would be unfair to set that as a bench mark against which to measure the success of a protest movement. Successfully bringing together a diverse range of people in a temporary community to explore possible alternatives is no simple task, either. To succeed at that whilst gaining largely sympathetic press coverage, and to have sparked a host of follow-on political initiatives suggests that Occupy did not, not by any means, fail. It succeeded. And its legacy will doubtlessly endure.

This blogspot piece draws on a research article written by Silke Roth, Clare Saunders and Cristiana Olcese, ‘Occupy as a Free Space: Mobilization Processes and Outcomes’, published in Sociological Research Online, 19(1).

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