Having grown at an annual rate of 3.2% per head since 2000, the world economy is over half way towards notching up its best decade ever. If it keeps going at this clip, it will beat the idyllic 1950s"
- Economist editorial, January 2007
When people look back on the events surrounding the 2008 financial meltdown, the moment will not be remembered as a period of social unrest and rebellion, but as a collective retreat marked by anguish, fear, confusion, and the false hopes of the 2008 elections. As the Tea Party seized the spotlight, the left sat back in disarray. Satire was attempted by comedians Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert in Washington D.C, yet it was all within the terms already set by the extreme right. It was not until the Occupy Wall Street movement began to gain momentum that the voices for economic justice and radical change began to seize the moral ground.
However, given the general acquiescence of the American people to a seemingly endless series of outrages and controversies, one must wonder....why now?
A Coming Together
Malcom Gladwell's insightful "tipping point' theory -- defined as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold"- provides a unique, overlooked method of analysis for understanding the dynamics of political movements. While Gladwell's focus is mainly concerned with those brief, enigmatic moments of change within social epidemics, his three agents of change for tipping points (the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context) are all highly relevant as the Occupy movement folds around us.
The Occupy movement easily fits in to the law of the few. Originating from the minds of the Adbusters magazine, the Occupy movement stemmed from "a few" who were able to articulate the anger and desires of the "many". Despite the mainstream media's constant "demand for demands", the Occupy movement's basic " we are the 99%/they are the 1%" message has proven to have a high level of stickiness -- a quality Gladwell describes as: a specific message that remains memorable.
Of course the most important factor, the power of context, brings us back to our initial question of: why now? There has been no shortage of political injustices and horrific crimes carried out under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Nor has there been a moment where one activist group or another has failed to issue some form of protest to those injustices (war, education cuts, torture, the B.P oil spill). Clearly, the simplistic calculations of injustice + protest = resistance has proven to be the farthest thing from reality.
The Occupy movement's initial success represents a synergy of factors brought together by a powerful message aimed at the right target (Wall Street) at the right time (in between presidential elections). The expectations in Obama have been dashed, the hope has slowly faded away. If Adbusters attempted to launch this movement in 2009, it is safe to assume that it would have petered out before anyone would have taken a notice. In fact several other organizations and coalitions have attempted to occupy institutions in various parts of the country that resulted in a limited amount of press and sustainability"until now.
A New Morning
The initial stage of the Iraq military invasion was based around the concept of "shock and awe". Perhaps the Occupy movement can best be described as an awakening from the shock and awe of the 2008 financial melt down. The passive mood of the population, along with the hegemonic strength of the ruling elites, allowed for just the right combination of illusions and self-preservation to set in among the people in order to ward off any major opposition. The public discourse was so constrained, that aside from some perfunctory condemnations of the bailout within progressive circles, the demand for the bailout to go towards rebuilding the communities hit hardest by the financial crash had zero viability within American politics.
The terms of debate have shifted.
The sentiment that, not simply Obama or the GOP is responsible for the today's dire economic conditions, but that the American capitalist economy is responsible for the current situation, is increasingly becoming a legitimate conversation in American society. Instead of the endless parade of rightwing fanatics (Glenn Beck, Donald Trump, Herman Cain) monopolizing the public debate with controversial remarks that shift the center further and further to the right, the Occupy movement has pushed the conversation in a new direction. The Occupy movement is a living example of the principle that quality generates quantity"not the other way around.
The success of the Occupy Wall Street movement has shattered the conventional wisdom that mobilizing people means watering down your message to the lowest common denominator in order to appeal to the broadest constituency. Images of ordinary people taking over public spaces have jolted people back into the reality that the Internet is simply a means to an end, not an end in of itself. The Occupy movement has created the space to gather and the moment to act; once a pole of resistance is firmly planted for the nation to see, the chance for people to translate their frustration and anger into meaningful action becomes a real choice. The common sentiment expressed among many Occupy protesters that, " I've been waiting for this moment", profoundly underscores the missing link in American politics: a vehicle for the people to channel their discontent.
Latch on to the Established Structures or Build our Own?
It seems as if the first month of press coverage was a menagerie of smug columnists making a "demand for demands", along with progressive activists and bloggers defending the clarity of the movement's message. However, within this back and forth, the most important point remained unspoken: the demand for demands was not simply for demands in general, but for demands within the mainstream, electoral framework. In this sense, the success of the "politics of utopia' caused a certain cognitive dissonance with the "politics of the possible'. Already politicians like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold are articulating practical demands and working to bring the movement into the fold. T he seemingly harmless decision to appeal to progressive Democrats has in fact led to the demise of every major resistance movement in the past decade.
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