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Why does #OccupyWallStreet succeed and endure where previous movements failed?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd November 2011


Micah Sifry reflects on a analysis by Andrew Boyd.

Andrew Boyd:

“* The tactic of occupation: The permanence of it. We’re not going to leave, we’re going to stick it out. The personal commitment and determination of people on the ground to see that through. That creates a human story and drama and a demonstration of personal commitment that matters, regardless of whether people think they’re “dirty hippies.” And it creates a dramatic narrative, too. Will the cops kick them out? Will they outlast the weather?

*The lack of demands: Functionally it’s genius, even if it wasn’t strategically intentional. This makes OWS an open space a that everyone can bring their resentments, anger, longings, and dreams, to. It also puts OWS in the “right vs wrong box,” instead of in the “political calculation” box. It doesn’t feel calculated.”

Micah Sifry:

Those last two points, I think, deserve more attention. Unlike these other well-intentioned attempts by American progressives to organize public attention on the issues of economic justice and democracy, Occupy Wall Street isn’t slick. It isn’t focus-grouped. It isn’t something professional activists would do. Instead, it feels authentic. The scene at Zuccotti Park, the videos of those women being pepper-sprayed, and of young people being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, calmly offering their crossed-hands to police officers, reek of authenticity. And social media knows the difference.

Willie Osterweil, one of the participants in the planning for OWS, put it this way in an email thread from early August, which he’s given me permission to quote:

We don’t want observers, we want participants. We don’t want to convince someone in an elevator ride to sign a paper or donate money, we want people to express themselves and experience and fight for freedom. We don’t want a media headline, we want our own media. We don’t want supporters, we want comrades.

As the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto wrote more than a decade ago, we instinctively know the difference between a human voice and a corporate voice. I know it may sound strange to say this, but could it be that the reason that so many progressive social change projects fail to connect with ordinary people and move them to action, is because they seem too corporate in style? Think of all those hand-scrawled signs on scraps of cardboard vs a thousand professionally printed signs from a union shop–which is more authentic?

Boyd offers a fourth reason for Occupy Wall Street’s rapid spread: it isn’t afraid to talk about revolution, a subject that may be on more minds that people realize. “This is a rebel yell, they’re running the revolutionary flag up the flagpole. It’s fucking bold.” Indeed it is. And it’s coming at a moment, in the wake of the August debt ceiling battle, when many Americans seem especially disenchanted with both parties’ leadership in Washington and literally searching for alternatives. And as David Graeber points out in his long essay on OWS”s “Strange Success,” there are hints that a large portion of America’s young people want to put topics on the table that the two-party system, with its longstanding rhetorical embrace of capitalism, just hasn’t made room for. Now, thanks to their own audacious efforts, and the decentralization of media power, it may be that America is going to have a much wider debate about its future. One that includes the vast majority of people–98%, 99%, who’s counting?

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