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Why Occupy lost its steam

2014+17_islam_smallThe following comment was published in the May 2-8 2014 issue of The New Statesman, as part of a supplement produced by the Webb Memorial Trust.  Download as PDF.

It’s been three years since the magazine Adbusters sent out the tweet that triggered the Occupy movement: “On Sept. 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” By late 2011, many Occupiers were convinced that the new movement would change the world. Some called it “one of the most significant and hopeful events of our lifetimes.” Today, however, optimism about the Occupy movement has faded away. Why did it lose steam so quickly?

One important consideration was the internal logic of the movement itself. Occupy had an organizing philosophy that seemed to be well-suited to the internet age. Hierarchy was passé: power was fully decentralized, so that any Occupier had (in theory) the right to veto the statements or plans of his or her encampment. This made it hard for Occupy to build on early successes. Occupiers could not produce coherent statements about their goals. They could not negotiate alliances with other groups. And they could not control fringe elements whose behavior undermined public sympathy.

Occupy was also constrained because of changes in police capabilities and doctrines. Since the 1990s, major urban police forces have invested heavily in equipment and training for crowd control. The goal is containment and minimization of disruption. Because they have such strong policing capabilities, big-city mayors had complete discretion to shut down the Occupy protests when public support began to wear out.

And public sympathy for protests is also more limited than it was a generation ago. Today’s globalized economy is hypersensitive to disruption. When Occupiers briefly obstructed American ports in December 2011, for example, the business community reacted fiercely. Meanwhile Londoners and New Yorkers worried that protests would tarnish their city’s “urban brand” and harm tourism.

A final reason why Occupy failed: the emergency measures taken by the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. If the British and American economies had continued to decline, the protest movement would have had more strength. And legislators in both countries, pursuing austerity, certainly did little to avoid a further decline. But central bankers stepped in with experiments like quantitative easing. In the end, therefore, the politics of the economic crisis might have been shaped more by technocrats and police forces, than by movements like Occupy.

Alasdair Roberts is the author of The End of Protest: How Free Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent, published by Cornell University Press.

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