When Occupy Wall Street ballooned from just another paint-by-numbers demonstration of activists into a broad-based and politically progressive movement, a lot of people - myself included - were given hope for the first time that national politics could be reconnected with the reality of ordinary people's lives on a rigorous, ongoing basis. These hopes were further galvanized by the involvement of labor unions, big name activist organizations, and the highly effective creation of the "99%/1%" political frame, as well as the nationwide character of the partner demonstrations that arose - not just in big cities or liberal states, but also in suburbs, rural communities, and the Reddest of the Red parts of the country.
For a while, I saw a real possibility that in at least some places this could lead to the organization of standing local Assemblies that would produce a permanent direct democracy branch of government to work with and contribute to the existence governmental structures: A real democratic authority in which ordinary people - not just white folks with dreadlocks and emo hipsters - would participate and consider it just another civic affair, like voting or jury duty. Silly me, that I thought that was the whole point of Occupy - but that apparently wasn't on the agenda, and as soon as the tangible manifestations of the movement (the encampments) were broken up, the movement largely dissolved back into the self-important causehead cacophany out of which it had first coalesced, with seemingly no memory of the Promised Land it had glimpsed from on high.
This is what drives me absolutely batshit about the left in general - even when I agree 100% with the slate of issues being aired, there is such a divisive, centrifugal extinct; such a compulsive need to not fuse disparate agendas into one, overriding agenda that serves them all. "I don't want to talk about managing the environment as a whole - I want to talk about desert turtles, spotted owls, and the watershed in one particular place no one has ever heard of. I don't want to talk about national living wage legislation, I want to talk about the economic exploitation of the native peoples of the island of Ooobleyanooa. And if no one listens to me because they don't know what I'm talking about or don't care, that's their problem. My heart is pure. Nyeh!"
The teeth-gnashing, soul-grinding pettiness, self-involvement and anti-gestalt of it all makes me want to break something. So I was extremely surprised and heartened when Occupy came around and made me think, for a precious moment, that left-wing activists had discovered how to effectively cooperate for the universal good for the first time since the birth of the labor movement. Here they were - the people who usually made careers out of impotent complaining and obscure rhetoric - standing side by side with folks who don't normally protest as well as folks who push change through the ordinary mechanisms of politics. With one voice, they were raising awareness of the profound inequality in America, and the fact that the political classes have only served a tiny fraction of the people for decades. And the message got out. "99%/1%" is no longer some obscure ideological term, but a recognized demographic reference.
Unfortunately, the core of the movement didn't seem to understand what they had created, what it signified, or what to do with it - in fact, many seemed intensely suspicious, if not jealous, of what it might become. They weren't used to being paid attention to, and weren't comfortable with having to interact on a regular basis with people who didn't share their elaborate political and social fetishes. Fears that the movement would be "co-opted" were regularly aired, and "shibboleths" created to emphasize the identity of the movement rather than encourage it to go any more mainstream. Pointless differences with everyday society were created just for the sake of being different, regardless - if not precisely because of - the barriers it would create to being understood and adopted outside the Occupy community. One example was the use of "wavy fingers" to signify assent, because apparently just raising hands or holding up colored cards or something more banal would have been too establishmentarian, and thus The Man would win.
Occupy hadn't risen to prominence because of wavy fingers, drum circles, or any of the thousands of totally irrelevant things it came to be associated with through sheer self-inflicted scatterbrainedness. It had gotten attention because the inequalities in America had reached epic proportions, and were being perpetuated by the erosion of democracy in governance. In other words, it was about democracy, pure and simple - or at least that was the source of energy that brought it the national stage. But precious few seemed to understand that, particularly among diehard activists who had originally created it, or if they had at first they seemed to forget - so much of the rhetoric came to be about "sticking it to The Man," offending bourgeois sensibilities, defying the police, blah blah blah, and the unity message that had made it significant came to be identified as some kind of compromising Trojan Horse intended to distract Occupiers from the real mission of post-capitalist anarcho-syndicalism or some other obscure bullshit.
Don't get me wrong, there have been a few interesting and potentially promising initiatives from Occupy since then - e.g., the debt buyback that could slightly mitigate a tiny handful of people's financial problems without penalizing or changing the financial system in any way - but this is the stuff of status quo activism that could, and probably would eventually have come up anyway. It creates nothing new in the world, just establishes that philanthropy can be involved in debt relief - and will never, ever come anywhere close to making a dent in the actual size of America's debts. It's a feel-good measure, like pretty much everything they've done since then.
Let me paint a different scenario - an alternate history where Occupy did what it was supposed to do, and evolved into an effective political force that could have easily overwhelmed the Teahadist insurgency into Washington. Instead of asking themselves "How can we make Occupy Assemblies as obscure, complex, and threatening to the outside public as possible" they asked "How can we make this process seem as ordinary, familiar, and inviting as possible? How can we make it easy for Assemblies to just pop up anywhere, among people who have never been especially involved in politics?" What if they asked, "How do we regularize Assemblies, and get them working with official government institutions to develop their political power?" What if they asked, "How do we get people elected who support the core principles of Occupy, of democracy, fairness, and equality?" What if they asked, "How do we get the squares practicing direct democracy?" rather than "How do we stop the squares from co-opting and corrupting our purity?"
Maybe if that had happened, the causehead clowns who were never really on board with the purpose of Occupy would have flaked off to go do whatever it is they do, but then maybe the average folks of neighborhoods throughout the country would be meeting on a regular basis to exert direct political power and engage with their local, state, and federal government rather than just occasionally voting or writing a letter. Maybe we would have 15 people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the Senate, not just those two, and a hundred people like Alan Grayson in the House rather than a couple of dozen. Maybe Walmart workers in some cities wouldn't have to strike at all, because the city and county government itself would be dominated by Occupy people who would make life hell for any business that screwed people over like that. Maybe President Obama would be desperately fending off calls to raise the top income tax rate by 40%, not having to justify refusing to cut it.
Just as vehemently as I demand that the rich share their money to give others a chance, I also demand that those with an excess of energy and dedication on the left share their passion for the sake of a broader agenda than being obsessed with symbolic fetishes and laundry lists. We could have had these things by now, folks. Assemblies as a new branch of government are still a good idea - quite possibly the only idea that can save this country long-term - and are not only the means to address the economic inequalities we currently suffer, but a means to address every other wrong in society. But instead of focusing on process; instead of being leaders; Occupy shrank from responsibility and chose to remain issue advocates. That, folks, is why even the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party doesn't trust the left, and that will remain the case until it finally steps up to the plate. Occupy is not dead, and this doesn't have to be its epitaph - if it can finally realize the potential it had originally squandered, it can become everything it was meant to be, as can this country.