The Tactic of Occupation and the Movement of the 99%
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A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol — with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.
Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.
Occupation as tactic
It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.
On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.
But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”
By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular—even that they are common sense—and connected to a social base.
Occupy Wall Street as “floating signifier”
I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something — became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for.
Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier — amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the “Tea Party”). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular—too associated with any one current or group within the alignment—it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.