Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupy Movement's Overwhelming Success

What started on Wall Street with the habitation of Zuccotti Park early this fall has transformed into a global movement where public spaces within our cities, big and small, have become populated with citizens braving the elements around the clock. The “Occupy Together” Movement, or simply the “Movement”, has brought attention to a number of issues in our society which, frankly, weren’t receiving the kind of attention that they deserved. The Movement has been an overwhelming success, even as inhabitants are being flushed out of the public realm in an increasing number of communities. That the future remains uncertain for all existing occupations can not detract from the Movement’s success.

Now, that may seem a strange comment for me to make. Wasn’t the goal of the Occupy Movement to change the world? Did that somehow get lost along the way? Well, yes and no. Changing the world is a noble goal, one I’m sure most of those participating in the Movement would love to see occur. But I don’t think that anybody sleeping in our public parks really thought that the world was going to change overnight. Indeed, the very type of change of being requested by the Movement wasn’t something which could just “happen” in the same way that the demands of the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square could be met. Changing our corporate greed-based economic system to a more equitable system based on values and compassion (if that was one of the many requests being made) was not going to happen with the resignation of any head of state.

The Occupy Movement was condemned to failure by some media pundits right at its beginning. Not all of the pundits questioning the Movement were necessarily predisposed to its failure (although a good many were). Even those pundits with whom the Movement’s issues found resonance found themselves questioning the Movement’s tactics. How could the occupation of public spaces bring about real change, particularly when there were no demands being made, and no leaders were emerging who could speak on behalf of the Movement? A goal-less, leaderless movement which would inevitably find itself on the wrong end of by-law enforcement (or police batons), well, how was that ever going to change the world?

So the pundits predicted that the occupations of public spaces would deteriorate, until the public became fed up with the presence of protesters in the public realm. Often, this sentiment was expressed with considerable disdain towards the people participating in the protest. “They don’t know why they’re there.” “They don’t understand the issues.” “They’re a bunch of communists.” “They feel a sense of entitlement and don’t want to work.” Sometimes, the protesters were belittled because of their levels of income, almost as if a person’s worth in society really did have a dollar value attached to it.

Would a violent end to the occupations of public spaces be good or bad for the Movement? Although that question was not being specifically asked by the pundits, clearly those paying attention were watching, almost waiting, for the violence to break out, much as they were at the Toronto G20. Violence makes for good video footage after all, and it allows us to create a barrier between “us”, the non-violent watching events unfold at home, and “them”, the violent anarchists with whom we have nothing in common. In short, violence plays well for the mainstream media, because it’s interesting and makes media consumers feel alternatively fearful and good about themselves. It sells.

That a number of occupations have been brought to an end now, mostly with minimal violence, has probably been a disappointment to those who have been keen to see the peaceful protest fail. There has been a desire amongst the right-wing media in particular to want to separate the protesters from the common people who might otherwise support the Movement. That violence may still be the result should our armed police services instigate it against peaceful protesters who have been ordered to leave our parks will not diminish the success that the Movement has already achieved.

Look, I’m one of those people who pays very close attention to the mainstream media, as I believe that the media wields real power through its ability to influence public opinion. If you have a cause, for example, that isn’t being talked about in the media, it becomes very difficult for you to get your message out. Trust me; I’m a member of the Green Party, and I speak from experience. Perhaps getting the message out is a little easier now with the advent of social media, but even social media users find themselves in a whole other realm when the mainstream media picks up their YouTube clip of the day, or investigates something arising from someone’s blog or Facebook status update. The mainstream media, in my opinion, remains a venue for public influence. The mainstream media isn’t just a mirror being held up to society, reflecting society’s image back at it.

Jon Stewart on the Daily Show probably had the best line about the Occupy Movement and the media. When the Movement first originated on Wall Street, it received little media attention. Suddenly, that all changed. Stewart had an explanation of how that worked, and to illustrate, he showed a picture of a dial, labelled “Media”. The dial could be set to one of two settings, labelled: “Ignore” and “Circus”. Once the media circus began in New York City, the Movement was not going to be put back in its bottle.

Suddenly, the mainstream media was awash with discussions about income inequality, some serious, some much less so. What was different, though, was although some in the mainstream media had been writing about these issues for a long time (here in Canada, Linda McQuaig at the Toronto Star comes to mind), in general these were voices in the wilderness, reporting on niche-interest issues. Certainly, no one in government was talking about these issues, and there were an absence of talking heads on TV gabbing about income inequality. Although there has been considerable focus on the economy as of late (and for good reason), there were few voices talking about how those benefiting from growth have disproportionately been the richest amongst us.

The media circus in New York changed that, and pretty soon everybody was talking about the income inequality. Sure, some of the coverage was very negative, especially from the right wing media, which seems to want to make a political issue out of everything. But, Oscar Wilde once remarked that the only thing worse than being ‘talked about’ was not being talked about. In this case, Wilde was proven right yet again. Believe what you want about the issue of income inequality. But you can not deny that this issue has suddenly exploded onto the public agenda.

The TV talking heads can’t stop talking about it. Government officials from Presidents to Ministers of Finance have talked about it. Here in Canada, leadership hopefuls of progressive political parties have expressed a desire to incorporate some of the Movement’s messaging in public policy. Sentiments of sympathy for those concerned about the issue have been offered by the heads of major corporations and Wall Street bankers.

And this is why the Movement has already proven to be a success. No matter what happens next, the issue will remain on the public agenda. The issue has proven itself to be different from the kind of pop-up issue which the media tends to report on for a few minutes, and then drops when the next issue of the day pops up. Unlike when billionaire Warren Buffett urged the U.S. government to tax the rich (do you remember that?), this time the issue will have staying power, and it can no longer be ignored.

That the “issue” has no single expression is probably its greatest strength. Had the Movement offered a prescriptive resolution, or issued demands, those ideas would have formed the backbone for future discussions, which admittedly would make it easier to “get behind”, but it would also open itself up to criticism. By deliberately not describing what a desired outcome would be, by deliberately not drawing a line in the sand and laying out what it would take to declare victory, the Movement has proven itself to be a remarkable success. And that’s because now people will be engaged on finding workable solutions, of which there are probably many, but admittedly few which are going to be easy to implement. When solutions arise from considerable discourse, there is always more public buy-in.

Instead of creating a single idea, what the Movement has done has been to start creating the desire for change, of some kind. The Occupy Movement has been the spark which has led to engagement. Now, when we discuss economic issues at a geopolitical level, there will be a different voice which emerges to add its own perspective to the discussion. And that voice will be questioning the wisdom of the entire system.

In fact, it’s already started to happen. I see it creeping into mainstream media discussions about what’s happening in the Eurozone. Oh, it’s not an overwhelming voice yet, but some are questioning whether it might not be better for Greece to default, for example. Whether austerity measures make sense. And some have called Germany and France’s kyboshing of former Greek PM Papandreou’s call for a referendum a victory of the bankers over the democrats, recognizing that we are going down a slippery slope here in the name of economic growth. Is Italy really better off with a government consisting almost entirely of appointed technocrats? How will anyone be held accountable when the austerity measures are implemented?

Eyes are being opened to a new way of looking at the world, and what I’m seeing reflected back in the mirror are more people questioning whether the pursuit of gross domestic product and growth at all costs is going to ultimately be beneficial for a majority of the world’s population. For us all.

Our economic and political systems are broken. Together, those systems are looking after the interests of a minority of the people and ignoring the will of the majority. Income inequality is but one expression of this disconnect. There are many others, but all are intertwined with one another. The Occupy Movement has provided a spark to add income disparity to the public agenda. As it is so connected to many other important issues, like peak oil, climate change, poverty and homelessness, war and resource depletion, I remain optimistic that these issues, too, will soon begin to receive a higher level of scrutiny from all of us. And that we shall urge our decision makers to take them seriously on our behalfs, despite what the corporate interests might think about that.

It’s past time that we wake ourselves up to all of these issues. I know that it’s not going to happen overnight, but I am optimistic that it will happen. It is already happening. And when I see the success of the Occupy Movement, I know that a small group of people can accomplish a lot when we work together.

(the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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