Dissecting the Occupy Movement
Four USF professors discuss social movements and how the Occupy Movement fits in.
USF students set up on the green outside Cooper Hall Thursday, Nov. 10, work on signs. Photo credit: Aimee Blodgett | USF News
TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 9, 2011) – The images have been broadcast across the country and the globe, from New York to Tokyo to Toronto to Tampa: groups of people settling into public parks to make a statement, to protest perceived inequities in today’s societies.
The Occupy Movement is a series of demonstrations taking place around the world that started on Wall Street in September with the slogan, “We are the 99 percent.” Some protests have lasted only a day, others are ongoing with fluctuating numbers.
A new group, Occupy USF, emerged today with a handful of students setting up on the green outside Cooper Hall on the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus. Some of the students involved want to elicit intelligent discourse around the issues and possible solutions.
The Occupy developments, both locally and globally, are keeping four USF scholars enthralled with each new outcropping of protest.
USF Professors Harry Vanden, Peter Funke, Robert Benford and Ednie Garrison have researched social movements around the world and the United States. They are observing similarities and differences between the ones they’ve studied and the unfolding Occupy Movement. They offer the possibility of understanding where things might be headed.
Based on his research and work on the book Latin American Social Movements in the 21st Century, which won the Choice Academic Book Award for 2009, Vanden found it curious that similar unrest wasn’t showing up in the United States long before now.
“I wondered why people did not react with protests against bad – and similar – conditions here, such as growing unemployment, which has been a problem since 2008 and the rise in poverty,” the Fulbright Scholar said. “So I’m not surprised to finally see people taking to the streets in this way.
“These protestors recognize the system is not working for them, is unresponsive to the public’s needs and demands, there’s insufficient employment, a concentration of wealth and large sectors are being left out of what economic growth there is. They’re saying that if everyone paid their fair share of taxes, the government would be provided with the revenue it needs for education and social services. And they’re frustrated with trying to get traditional government and political parties to respond. This is what pushes people to examine other forms of action beyond voting.”
According to Vanden, in Latin America, underlying economic malaise, poverty, lack of political responsiveness coupled with outright repression led the way to demands for change. He and Funke, both political scientists in the Department of Government and International Affairs, see a pattern that follows in the wake of neoliberal economic policies which are characterized by privatization, lower taxes, pressure to engage market forces and reduction of social welfare expenditures.
“Chile under Pinochet was the first to privatize large sectors of the economy with very mixed results,” Vanden said. “Though there was some economic growth at first, it only benefitted a few at the top. Elsewhere in Latin America, deteriorating economic conditions could be traced directly to neoliberal economic reforms. Significant numbers of people in the middle class and even many in the upper class, let alone the poor, were adversely affected. Local industries suffered. Privatizing education meant only the wealthy were being educated. The hype and propaganda about reducing government with arguments about how it can’t afford to take care of people were proved to be completely fallacious over and over again.”
Funke traces today’s demonstrations in the U.S. to well before the Arab Spring, to the time when thousands demonstrated in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organization, as well as to the ongoing demonstrations since 2003 against the World Economic Forum and to students in the United Kingdom demonstrating against tuition hikes in late 2010. In addition, he agrees with the many comparisons to the student demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s, but Funke sees an interesting difference in today’s protests.
“There’s more of an emphasis on economic issues,” he said. “Those earlier demonstrations were about questions of equality and identity, civil and gender rights. There was a belief that they could petition the system and get results. Now we’re seeing more of a questioning of the normal processes of democracy and a fundamental critique of the political and economic systems.”
Benford agrees but adds, regarding the 1960s and 1970s, “Economic issues were in the background back in those days and identity issues are in the background today. None of those issues have been fully resolved.”
As a sociologist, Benford, chair of the USF Department of Sociology, approaches the Occupy Movement through social framing – an analysis of the ways people interpret and represent actions and situations that looks at structures and strategies. He has experienced activism as an activist during his student days and studied it as an academician.
“We’re looking at phenomena while they’re unfolding and social movements tend to take place over a long period of time,” he said. “Like a pebble thrown into the water, the ripples continue long after the central event has ceased and the effects become woven into the institutional fabric.”
He is somewhat skeptical about what to expect from the Occupy Movement.
“Many protests like this tend to be a flash in the pan,” he said. “But when you look at the ways the world gets changed, it’s either been through war or social movements. From the anti-slavery movement, to the fight against apartheid in South Africa to the transformation of Eastern Europe, to events in the Arab world, such is the case. Those who profited from those systems couldn’t imagine the world the way it is now and the ways it is changing. None of these movements is completed, but they’ve made great strides over time.
“The change that’s hoped for isn’t always as dramatic as the protestors would like. At best consciousness gets raised and the people involved develop a sense of personal empowerment. The idea that nothing will ever change is a self-fulfilling prophecy so if people want change, they have to do something.”
Vanden points to how social movements have changed societies.
“Pinochet was forced from office and today human rights offenses are being addressed. In Bolivia they tried privatizing the water, but there was severe pushback and the people forced the government to take back jurisdiction over water for the benefit of their society.”
Funke adds, “Social movements in Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela succeeded despite strong government and military crackdowns and current leaders have arisen from the ranks of the protestors because these movements were broad-based and brought together all kinds of smaller, local organizations that worked together. But keep in mind that these changes happened over decades and didn’t have perfect outcomes. In fact, we’re still seeing these changes working themselves out.”
He finds the leaderlessness and lack of structure in the Occupy Movement problematic.
“They really do need political vehicles and outlets to use this energy they have right now to actually get anything done,” he said. “Without structure they may be prevented from organizing in a way where they can be politically powerful and effective.
“What’s interesting though is seeing activists thinking outside of existing ways of doing things,” Funke added, addressing the fact that the Occupy Movement is refusing to work within a hierarchical framework. “It’s truly democratic for all the people involved to think of themselves as leaders. Interestingly, this movement is insisting that people can’t just walk away after voting and leave it to their representatives to work for them. They’re saying, ‘You are a citizen and you have to be involved.’ This is new politics, different from our textbook understanding of politics.”
New politics may not be as easy to see and recognize as old politics.
Garrison, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, is writing about U.S. feminist movements and has found there is more than one way to understand their flows of progress. Rather than look at events as successive ocean-like waves, which she says tends to leave out the contributions of marginalized people, she suggests taking a radio technologic view where “submerged, hidden, incommensurate, competing, minutely local and specific feminist movements reside. They often do not register below and outside the overly-amplified mainstreamed movement that is made to represent the whole of what counts as feminism.”
She suggests such movements are ”diffuse, multitudinous, proliferative, and often hard to recognize as movement,” she said. “Imagine yourself scanning the dial of a radio. Certain stations come in loud and clear and sound almost indistinguishable from others. Then there are those stations that are less corporate and appear in the lower ranges. In order to understand the full complexity of social movement, we must develop technologies to tune in to those stations we are not as skilled at registering.”
What’s happening may be just as significant as when it's happening. Benford finds the timing of Occupy Movement events in Tampa of particular interest.
“It’s not coincidental that we’re in an election cycle,” he noted. “What’s being played out here is a dress rehearsal on the authority side for testing social control measures and policies in preparation for the Republican National Convention. Tampa wants this event to boost its image nationally and to enhance its marketability. Protestors want to exercise their first amendment rights. It will be interesting to see how attempts to control behavior will play out.”
So what’s next? Funke asks, “With the fall of the socialist blueprints and no other grand economic ‘schemes,’ can we even conceive of some new economic system?” And he answers in part, “By emphasizing fair trade over free markets, parts of this movement are finding ways to work within the capitalist system. You have community gardens and the local food movement that are challenging systems in the food industry. And people are pushing back against the privatization of public functions like education and prisons.”
Benford asks, “Will we see a dramatic transfer of wealth and changes in how Wall Street operates? I don’t think so. But when groups collectively express grievances about the way the world operates, sometimes the best you can hope for is that they open up conversations that can lead to changes over time and maybe open some space for other movements to take shape.”
Vanden argues that “it’s not the size of government, it’s what the government does. The reason the people are in the streets in Greece is because the government is taking care of the banks and Greek workers are being told to absorb all the economic responsibility for problems that were not of their making. One wonders if banks should be allowed to maintain control of the economy especially in light of not taking responsibility for their errors, keeping their bonuses and continuing the same behaviors that got us into the economic situation we’re in today.”
Funke concludes that one of the biggest challenges the Occupy Movement faces is maintaining the energy they have now harnessed and keeping their people politicized. “Where do they go from here and where do they plug into? Without enough political organizations and political parties to work through, the movement might dissipate. They need political vehicles and outlets to use this energy to do something with their frustration and their demands. We may all need to rethink what change is and accept that it’s much more incremental than we like to think.”
Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.