Epitaph to a Dead Movement

By Alexander Cockburn

July 6, 2012 5 min read

It was very hard not to be swept away by the Occupy movement, which established itself in New York's Zuccotti Park last September and soon spread to Oakland, Calif., Chicago, London and Madrid. And indeed most people didn't resist its allure. Leninists threw aside their Marxist primers on party organization and drained the full anarchist cocktail.

The Occupiers seemed to have a complicated way of communicating with each other — finger gestures were important. And as with all movements involving consensus, everything took a very long time. Was there perhaps a leader, a small leadership group, sequestered somewhere among the tents and clutter? It was impossible to say and at that point, somewhat disloyal to pose the question. Cynicism about Occupy was not a popular commodity. But new movements always need a measure of cynicism dumped on them. An Occupy gathering was like being in church. Questions of organization were obliterated by the strength of the basic message — we are the 99 percent; they are the 1 percent. It was probably the most successful slogan since "peace, land, bread."

The Occupy Wall Street assembly in Zuccotti Park soon developed its own cultural mores, drumming included. Like many onlookers, I asked myself, "Where the hell was the plan?" But I held my tongue. I had no particular better idea and for a CounterPuncher of mature years to start laying down the program seemed cocky. But, deep down, I felt that Occupy, with all its fancy talk, all its endless speechifying, was riding for a fall.

Before the fall came, there were heroic actions, people battered senseless by the police. These were brave people trying to hold their ground.

There were other features that I think quite a large number of people found annoying: the cult of the Internet, the tweeting and so forth, and I particularly didn't like the enormous arrogance that prompted the Occupiers to claim that they were indeed the most important radical surge in living memory.

Where was the respect for the past? We had the nonviolent resistors of the '40s organizing against the war with enormous courage. The '50s saw leftists take McCarthyism full on the chin. With the '60s, we were making efforts at revolutionary organization and resistance. Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

There also seemed to be a serious level of political naivety about the shape of the society they were seeking to change. They definitely thought that it could be reshaped — the notion that the whole system was unfixable did not get much of a hearing. After a while it seemed as though, in Tom Naylor's question: "Is it possible that the real purpose of Occupy Wall Street has little to do with either the 99 percent or the 1 percent, but rather everything to do with keeping the political left in America decentralized, widely dispersed, very busy, and completely impotent to deal with the collapse of the American Empire ...

"Occupiers are all occupied doing exactly what their handlers would have them be doing, namely, being fully occupied. In summary, Occupy Wall Street represents a huge distraction." Then the rains of winter came. Zuccotti Park came under repeated assault; the tents were cleared from the park and from St Paul's Cathedral. By early this year, it was all over.

People have written complicated pieces trying to prove it's not over, but if ever I saw a dead movement, it is surely Occupy.

Has it left anything worth remembering? Here, surely, the answer is yes. With Bob Diamond squirming before British members of Parliament, and politicians jostling to apportion blame for the Barclays scandal, memories of the 99 percent and the 1 percent are still very much in currency.

Everything the leftists predicted came true, just as everything hard-eyed analysts predicted about the likely but unwelcome course of ecstatic populism in Tahrir Square also came true. I do think it's incumbent on those veteran radicals who wrote hundreds of articles more for proclaiming a religious conversion to give a proper account of themselves, otherwise it will all happen all over again.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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