“Occupy ___” . . . Two Years Later

It’s just about two years ago that the Occupy movement occupied the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, moving me to write a long post and to engage in a much longer conversation in the Comments afterward.

At the time, I was criticized for, among other things, not appreciating that this inchoate movement was the Beginning of Something Better, and that if I would just have patience, I would see . . . well, something better. I suggested instead that the Occupy movement was in the nature of the case going to amount to nothing—and even worse than nothing: despair that would lead either to burned-out capitulation or bitter violence. What it would not produce was significant social change for the better. Only focused energy, marshalled for the long term and aimed at a particular, well-articulated target, had any hope of making a difference.

So I’m wondering, as another summer ends and “Occupy” seems so quickly to have faded into nostalgia, whether any of my former critics, or anyone else, would like to say, “Aha! You were SO wrong! Here’s what Occupy accomplished!”

Bring it on! Since I was always sympathetic to what I understood to be at least some of the concerns of the Occupy movement, I’d like to be wrong on this one . . .

9 Responses to ““Occupy ___” . . . Two Years Later”

  1. Roger

    I offer only this brief story. In a lecture in Calgary Miroslav Volf was making the same point you make about the same time. In the audience was a mature student from Africa, who articuated how he and his family were deeply impacted by the economic spread. His question to Miroslav was this: We are in pain, we suffer these consequenes of this inequity every day: Who says that our cries have to be well articuated and organised? I can’t recal Miroslavs’s complete response but it was something along the lines of “perhaps he needs to pay better attention to the realities of the sufferers as he and other seek to speak for, against or about how the problem should be solved. How might you have answered this reaction from the student?

    • John

      First, it’s good to be clear that my friend Miroslav gets all his good ideas from me.

      Second, I agree, of course, with his point that we must listen to those who suffer, but I did and do, and out of that wrote what I wrote.

      Third, in response to the student, then, I might have said, as gently as I could, that the student had missed my point. No one, and certainly not I, am saying what he can and cannot do. Sometimes groaning is all any of us can do. But if you want to effect change, convening a mass groaning about a bewildering and even incoherent range of concerns is not, I suggest, the way to go about it. If you have the power to do more than groan, then do, and Occupiers do. Focus your energy, emotion, talent, time, network, and other resources on something in particular, and you might just move the needle, even reframe the situation. But look at what’s happened in the two years since Occupy. Yeah, that’s what I hear and see, also: nothing. As I predicted.

      I underline again that I am SYMPATHETIC to Occupy. I am suggesting a better strategy, not criticizing the pain or the validity of even most of its objections and concerns. And I’d be glad to be corrected, to find out that good things really did happen as a result of all that inconveniencing of others and disturbing of the public peace. I’m waiting to be so corrected…

      • Roger

        I am not yet convinced about your prescription for how to effect change. Your declaration that “only focused energy, marshalled for the long term and aimed at a particular, well-articulated target, had any hope of making a difference” seems too rational and in effect utopian in its limitations and prescription.

        It seems to me that history shows that revolutions begin with the cries of the disenfranchised and powerless who, at great danger to themselves, say enough is enough. Their neighbours may have similar and equally poorly articulated complaints but their joint efforts, often contradicting each other in their aspirations, methods and conditions of satisfaction, can force the change they seek. By definition they have little access to real power and fight and claw to form a loose coalition to force change of attitude and action. I think the recent uprisings in Yemen, Egypt and Lybia all started in this fashion.

        As to the lasting impact of the Occupy Movement. Who knows? But I can tell you that even as a pretty distant bystander their actions have caused me to rethink the distribution of wealth, including my own, to even more deeply distrust the markets of whom I am a beneficiary and to challenge authority of almost every kind as starting point. I hope those changes last. And if I have been changed in attitude and action, perhaps others have as well.
        In the end Occupy may not be the single cause of substantive change but I do think it will be a contributing factor to some fundamental reordering that is long overdue.

        • John

          Well, what can I say? As I wrote two years ago, “I’ve studied and taught the Puritan Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. I have a nodding acquaintance with 1848, with decolonization in Africa, with Indian and Israeli movements toward independence, with the history of suffragism, abolitionism, and civil rights.” I know a fair bit about Canadian history, the Sixties and their aftermath, the history of Christian missions, and a few other odds and ends of relevance. So if you have a different view about how social change is best sought, sound off indeed.

          I think it’s hilarious, though, Roger, to characterize my views as “utopian.” Trying to be realistic about how to improve a situation is a far cry from ushering in the Kingdom! As for being “too rational,” I’m rather at a loss: That’s what historical and political analysis is, right? Rational? So that’s a bad thing how…?

          If it took the Occupy Movement to cause you to change your mind as you did, then great. But I don’t see that changing the mind of someone like you (or me) in those gentle respects was among its many objectives. I thought the Occupy Movement was about actually making things better for the “99 per cent.” So if someone can say, “Yes, a poor person got fed” or “a policy got changed” or “an oppressor got convicted” or “a company got exposed,” or “a rich person gave away a substantial amount to others,” or “a government got toppled,” then I want to hear it. Two years after the uprisings in the countries you mention, one can point to a wide range of changes in each case. How about in Canada, the US, or the UK? That’s what I’m asking.

          • Victor Robidas

            Well John, there is no doubt in my mind that on the surface or below, the “Occupy” movement did not accomplish much substance wise. If you predicted that it would go nowhere, and I really need to read what you said, I see a link above, then you were right. I’m not surprised that you would be criticised because anyone who publicly or in writing indicate that it is just another movement which will fizzle out will be given a tough time…

            How many times have I heard, well if we don’t get everyone on board, then it will fail…. We saw that with “Idle No More” recently in Canada.. It seem to be strong, I heard that it was gaining strength and words like “we will not stop until we complete our mission”. I’m not sure where this movement sits today, but news coverage has suddenly stopped, unless you are seeing something out your way.. My wife is a Principal was up on James Bay Coast in Kashechewan, and says there is no present talk of it today!

            I appreciate the fact you know Canada’s history well, because that knowledge alone would give you an insight into something that would just fizzle out… It always does….

            Allow me to throw this caveat into the mix! From a Believers standpoint who has a good grasp on prophecy, and what is to come before and after the rapture and during the tribulation, am I expecting any changes for the good? We Christians know that everything is lining up and falling into place to fulfill scripture’s warning about the future… (i.e. One World Government, a peace deal with Israel that will later be broken when Israel realizes the temple they were building and told they would get to worship in was going to be destroyed, they, the West for to War with the East… Taking place of course in Middle East…

            If your wondering, and I doubt it, where I’m going with this, what is coming is coming and no movement is going to stop it. In fact, these movements would likely play right into it…. Just a thought about the reality of what God’s word says about the future! I would go as far as saying, there will be no fantastic change that will be good for man kind… Just not going to happen! It may at first, but just a smidgen of things to come..

            Some may read this and wonder, “were doomed”! Not the message I want to send… There is a way to avoid the worst….

          • Roger

            I am not arguing the scope of your research but I am still unconvincedby the conclusions you offer. Having observed recent uprising in situations places such as Syria, Libya and Egypt personally and knowing people who are at the heart of each of these uprising I am suggesting that these and perhaps the more local NA Occupy moment may be pointing to another way in which change happens than you have suggested.
            I knew you would not like my dual charges of too rational or utopian so perhaps I could alter my choice of words to “too formulaic” That is unless you have indeed so fallen in love with your analysis to the degree that no alternative is acceptable.
            I am sure that any of the lists of revolutions that you cite in the long list above certainly took more than two years and that you can’t seem to find any examples of real change from Occupy including the personal ones I offered suggests to me that you need to expand your research sample.
            Positively, I remain convinced that the additive impact of the Occupy protest, the G6 in Toronto and the growing public backlash to the abuse of power and position is gaining momentum and that we are moving, perhaps slowly, towards the boiling point that will include the often silent majority who will demand substantive change at every level. That it is not yet evident or at least not following your prescription for change is not, for me, grounds for declaring it a failure.

            • John

              I never “fall in love” with my analysis, Roger. What a cheeky thing to say! 😉 I only ever offer you the sober truth, grounded on the granite of indubitable fact.

              As for revolutions taking more than two years, well, it does depend where you start the clock, doesn’t it? I’m starting the clock at the beginning of public gatherings, the open engagement of the protesters with the powers that be. Compare that to 1776, 1789, or 1917, and you’ll find, I think, that there remains something to the thesis I’m advancing. I’m certainly open to expanding my “research sample,” so by all means suggest some alternatives. But I am honestly confused by your pointing to Syria, Libya, and Egypt, where change HAS been happening all too obviously, and not because of Occupy-like tactics. Or is that your point, that the Arab Spring in Libya, the pendulum-swings in Egypt, and the civil war in Syria are so similar to the Occupy movement that you’re counting them as evidence for the efficacy of Occupy’s strategy and tactics? If that IS your point, then I’m surprised, since I don’t know how many observers would say that they are all pretty much the same as each other, let alone the same as Occupy.

              As for your remaining convinced that we are moving to a boiling point, well, sure, you might be right. What I’m asking for now is actual evidence that you’re right. So far, I think I can point to evidence that the Occupy movement hasn’t accomplished much AND that after two years it ought to have something to show for all that activity. You seem to be saying that it doesn’t need to show any evidence of efficacy because the time-frame is too short and I should just wait and see. That’s what I was told two years ago, and it may still be good counsel. But I trust I will not be faulted for offering the suggestion that the counter-interpretation I am offering has, at least, the merit of conforming to the facts as we have thus far observed them.


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