#2. Perspective on Occupy: Occupiers, Sympathizers, and Antagonists

Blog 7


The air is filled with speculation about what the occupiers of sites like Liberty Park, Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland,[1] Dilworth Plaza at Philadelphia City Hall,[2] etc. will do if they are evicted from their locations. That’s an important question for the occupiers, and a difficult one; my earlier piece has suggested a two-site or multiple site solution, but it will be up to the occupiers themselves to make their decision.

The perspective for the occupiers, however, depends more on what others do than on what the occupiers do. It is worth looking at who the non-occupiers are, how they line up today vis-à-vis the occupations, how their fundamental interests suggest they might line up, where they fit into the landscape of power within which the future of the occupiers’ message will be received. Very symbolically and very tentatively, the analysis below suggests a breakdown of the situation as it appears today. Take it as theoretical ideal states descriptions of broad categories with guesses at orders of magnitude, without empirical basis at this point.

The Range of Positions

Positions in reference to the Occupations


.5% Actual occupiers
15% active supporters
22.5% Passive supporters, signers of petitions
20% sympathizers with occupations in polls
24% sympathizers with tea party
14% Active opponents of occupiers, tea party, fringe conservatives
3% Lackeys of power
1% rich, powerful (Wall Street)

The Underlying interest-based (class) divisions

15.5% (.5%% + 15%) Exploited, discontented, explicitly oppositional
22.5% Exploited, discontented, generally aware of roots
20% Exploited, discontented, but unconscious of roots
58% (15.5% % + 22.5% + 20%) The potential opposition to prevailing power
38% The co-opted but insecure supporters of system
4% (3% + 1%) “beneficiaries,” active supporters of system
96% (100% – 3% – 1%) Long termed injured by system, occupiers’ “99%”)

The resultant strategic landscape of power


15.5% (.5% + 15%) The active opposition, organized supporters, the left
42.5% (22.5% + 20%) The passive but sympathetic opposition
58% (15.5% + 42.5%) The sympathetic but inactive supporters of the occupations: the low-hanging fruit for the opposition
38% (24% + 14%) The contrary-to-interest supporters of power; the hard-shelled fruit for the opposition
4% (3% + 1%) The prevailing power structure
96% (100% – 3% – 1%) Potential long-term opposition to prevailing power

Look at this analysis (and forgive the purely symbolic and non-empirical numbers used to categorize the positions.) Leave the niceties of definition aside, look at the big picture:

Introducing the question of power into the equation, where it belongs but seldom appears, real change will only occur when there is a real shift of power relations. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that happens when sixty percent support the left end of the spectrum; that would be “winning.” How, and under what circumstances, is such a result possible?

Three conclusions seem to flow from this analysis.

  1. It will not be the strength and strategies of the occupiers that will determine the outcome;
  2. The sympathetic but inactive (as to the occupations) low-hanging fruit must be picked;
  3. The hostile but against-interest supporters of power must be disarmed, the hard-shelled fruit must be cracked.
  1. Not just the occupiers will decide the outcome. The future of what the occupy movement stands for is not primarily in the hands of the occupiers, but rather depends on how those groups, sharing interests and understandings with the occupiers, mobilize, support the goals of the occupiers, work together, and confront issues of power as well as structure.The occupiers are a very small fraction of the population. I have seen no numbers, but the biggest turnout explicitly in their support, perhaps 130,000 in New York City on September 17, would be 2.5%, and New York City is hardly typical of the country as a whole. Thus the .5% symbolically used above. Their explicit supporters and sympathizers number perhaps 15%, the minority of whom are organized and effectively active. The hard core of these is not strong enough to achieve change by themselves; they are rather I have suggested the spark for a movement for radical change than its vanguard.Yet that for which they stand, have made explicit, what they have put on the national agenda, is supported by much larger numbers. Again symbolically 58.5% or so of the population, and ultimately up to the 99%, including all those who are not members of the 1% and thus at least in theory potential allies. The decisive question thus is: how is the message of the occupations getting through to those who are not members of the 1%, most of whom are sympathetic. The future will be determined by the non-occupiers: what they understand, what they do, how they deal with the message of the occupiers.When we read headlines that speak of how the labor movement has been re-invigorated by the occupations, how the campuses see renewed militancy, how political leaders make reference to the “understandable feelings” of the occupiers, even in passing, when we see the occupations considered the counter to the tea parties, the occupations are doing their job.
  2. The 42.5% of passive supporters must be mobilized and become active: those who theoretically should be in support, and are almost there. The low-hanging fruit must be gathered.Power will only shift when the bulk of the 99% demands it. That means that a substantial portion of those who are already vaguely supportive, and whose interests lie in the direction of change, but who have not drawn the conclusions from their situation that would lead to active engagement with the Occupy agenda. If some are short-changed in the manner of production and distribution of goods and services in the prevailing society, the deprived, then the emphasis will ultimately be an economic, a material one; as long as the system delivers them the goods, they will be hard to win. Thus questions of inequality and the potentials of other modes of organizing production and distribution must be highlighted. ­If others (and the categories overlap) are insecure, discontent with their lives and their opportunities, aware of suppressed potentials for happiness, then the sources of that discontent must be highlighted.But in both cases, the mobilization must come from and be led within the group itself; the occupiers cannot be looked to to do that job. It is conceivable that Occupy might play the role of an umbrella to bring many of such individuals and their existing organizations together to formulate common demands. There is already a multiplicity of organizations sympathetic to the cause, and many others, in the multiplicity of associations, clubs, and organizations that are a feature of every-day life. Maybe they can come together around the kind of specific demands that are consistent with the Occupations’ purposes. Occupiers may stress the commonality of the causes of their problems, and their structural nature, and consistently raise questions of power and justice; but the basic work must be done in the groups themselves, not by the occupiers.The occupiers are very much aware of this. They interact with and extensively support the oppositional activities of the 42.5% who are not themselves occupiers but are sympathetic to the occupation. Rather than tell the occupiers what to do, criticize them for not formulating demands for either short-term feasible changes or long-term desirable changes, that is the appropriate role for the sympathetic non-occupiers. Sympathetic non-occupiers belong to churches, to unions, to organizations of the elderly and of youth, meet in neighborhoods, work for charities, run for and occupy public offices, write letters to the editor, blog and twitter and use Facebook, go to classes or teach them, run businesses, work for businesses. They include academics, intellectuals, experts in many fields, writers and artists, organizers, professionals in many fields. Peter Dreier, in The Nation, gives examples of many such activities, and speaks of them as “the other wing of the protest movement.”[3] They have the responsibility of formulating their own demands, criteria, statements and manifestos, providing details for the message of the Occupations, formulating concrete demands, organizing lobbing and public relations. The controversial counter-temps between the Oakland occupiers and the Longshore Union shows the type of problem that can arise when the respective roles are not clear; the support by occupiers of the Take Back the Land movement, occupations of foreclosed homes, joining picket lines at strike sites, spreading information provided by supporters of universal health care, supporting documentation by others of levels of inequality and injustice, are examples of the positive relation between the occupiers and many of their sympathizers.

    The political argument for the involvement of the non-occupying sympathizers, is overwhelming. If the battle is left to the occupiers themselves, .5%, it is lost; the richest 1% will defeat them every time. They have the money, the media, most politicians, the power; the occupiers inevitably, have less of all that. While they speak for the interests of the 99%, they hardly have them all on their side; to the contrary, it is precisely in the battle for the hearts and minds of the 99% (realistically perhaps 96%) that, at least in a society with a still functioning if imperfect democracy, that the war for the occupiers’ goals will be decided. The situation is different in many countries, e.g. Syria or Egypt or Iran, where rule by the unbridled use of force is prevalent. Force also plays a role in many U.S. cities, viz. New York, Oakland, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, but it is still limited and subject to a significant level of legal constraint. By the same token, physical resistance will be more important symbolically than practically.

  3. Strong inroads must be made in the 38% hostile, those presently seeing themselves, contrary to interest, as antagonistic to the occupiers and their goals. The 1% and their dependents and lackeys have every reason to be hostile to the occupiers and their goals. Their position in society, their material wealth and political power, are threatened by the Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street is a potent slogan; unlike Occupy City X or Occupy Institution Y, Occupy Wall Street sets the line between friend and enemy, names the center of power whose role is being challenged. The rest of the population, symbolically 96% or even 99% in long range terms, has no such real interest in sustaining the status quo, but a great many have nevertheless spoken and acted as if they did. Why? The answer is complicated, and includes the overwhelming impact of the mainstream media, enjoyment of some of the material benefits of advanced capitalism, and social-psychological reactions to situations over which they exercise no control, repressive though they may be. I have discussed some of those mechanisms in an earlier piece, trying to understand what made the tea party tick. Consumerism plays a large role; the system seems to “deliver the goods,” and nourishes the appetite for more and more of those goods, as Herbert Marcuse repeatedly pointed out.By the same token, however, the belief in the status quo is ultimately fragile, as its promises fall short of what is really wanted, deeply felt, in terms of the full development of all human capacities, the full enjoyment of the richness of life, from the physical and sexual to the cultural and aesthetic. The potentials of alternate forms of social and economic organization of society have barely been scratched, as things are. It is in the hands of those who are aware of this gap between the existent and the possible, the world as it is and the world as it could be, that the conversion of the opponents of the occupiers to their supporters lies. And gaining the support of a significant part of those opponents, of the 42%, is thus a major task for the occupiers and their supporters. Two approaches are possible; both are necessary. One is to emphasize the immediate common interests of the two sides, occupiers and tea partiers; the other is to confront directly the common origins of their common problems, and be explicit in exposing the fundamental natural functioning of the capitalist market system that the tea party mistakenly supports.For example, in the first approach: both opponents and supporters of the occupations are hurt by the bailout of the big banks; protest against Bank of America might become a common enterprise, punitive action against the greediest of Wall Street, with their gold-plated bathroom fixtures, yachts and mansions. Even militant actions such as re-occupation of foreclosed homes should not be ruled out. I know of a few efforts in this direction; they are likely to initially be small and local. In one picket line of a branch of Bank of America in which I participated, on a busy through street, people in pickup trucks with signs supporting local Republican candidates honked their support as they drove by.But efforts in the second approach can have a negative impact on the occupiers’ position as well. Using the word “capitalism” pejoratively with tea partiers is likely to attract the label “socialist” automatically and pull down a wall that makes further discussion with them very difficult. Thus it is often scrupulously avoided in discourse at occupy sites, and absent from posters and signs and placards. Somewhat parallel, in their mammoth rally in Tel Aviv after the occupations of Rothschild Boulevard, it was agreed not to mention Palestine, the occupation of the West Bank, or the role of the ultra-orthodox in Israeli politics, all for fear of breaching a unity of action on a broader base. But in both cases, fundamental issues are swept under the table, and opportunities to confront issues and change minds missed. The question is not whether to raise these fundamental issues, but how. All possibilities need to be explored.For instance: The large majority (96%?) condemn the greed of bankers; occupiers and tea partiers might join in the condemnation. It is a logical step from there to question whether it is individual greed, or systemic pressures, that lead bankers to do what they do. A majority of Israelis undoubtedly criticize the shrinking of welfare provisions in governmental policy. And hawks as well as environmentalists criticize urban development policies in the country. It is a logical step from there to ask if settlement policies in the West Bank do not contribute to the problems, and to ask whether the favored status of the ultra-orthodox politically does not block action for change.

    Other instances: Confronting Republican headquarters in the primaries o caucuses, ather than denounce, suggest signs: DOES YOUR CANDIDATE FAVOR THE 1% OR THE 99%; WILL YOUR CANDIDATE STOP FORECLOSURES? DOES YOUR CANDIDATE FAVOR FAIR TAXATION? When protesting a particularly corrupt political act used to denounce all government, ask: is the corruption better or worse than in the private sector? Who has the gold-plated toile fixtures, a government official or a private entrepreneur?

These are all tough arguments, with high emotions involved, and need to be conducted positively and with consideration. But if they are not undertaken, the possibilities for long term change will be very limited.

And economic and international crises may create the conditions in which an opening for discussion can emerge despite the hardened positions that need to be overcome. But the impact of crisis can go both ways; celebration seems a bit premature right now.

The conservative Republican majority in the House does not seem to be affected in the slightest, and the European developments are at the most ambiguous.[4] Logic is with the occupiers. The hard task of organizing to pick the low-hanging fruit and crack the hard-shelled varieties remains to be done, and not by the occupiers alone but by all their sympathizers and supporters, each in their own way.

[3] Peter Dreier, “Occupying Wall Street, Building a Movement,” The Nation, October 24, 2011, p. 4-6. See also Stephen Lerner, “Organize and Occupy,” The Nation, November 7, 2011, and a number of other articles in that issue.
[4] See http://www.rosalux.de/news/38065/europa-no-future.html and http://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/RLS-Nachrichten/1201_RLS-Newsletter.pdf.
“Michael Hardt setzt auf das widerständige Potenzial der Krisensubjekte. Allerdings ist davon in der Realität noch nicht viel zu spüren. Im Gegenteil: In vielen europäischen Ländern erstarkt die radikale Rechte. Rechtspopulistische Parteien gewinnen an Macht und verbreiten ihr rassistisches Gedankengut.”

Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome. pm35@columbia.edu

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