When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked for his assessment of the French Revolution of 1789, he famously (and perhaps apocryphally) responded “It is too soon to tell.” Zhou remained reticent despite the perspective of nearly two hundred years; American political commentators examining the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street have not been so circumspect, but then again, few in the media had any grasp of the movement to begin with.
Taking stock of the legacy of Occupy requires taking the long view and examining big concepts and huge, structural problems in our society, all of which are increasingly a lost art in a media environment dominated by the 24-hour news cycle and its tyranny of half-cocked soundbite analysis and tawdry tabloid baubles. It’s true that one can’t point to many tangible, concrete accomplishments that came out of the movement, which is why so many of the the occupiers’ critics have written them off as a spent force who squandered their early energy. But few of the occupiers ever considered themselves a part of the conventional red-vs.-blue brawl of party politics and quotidian policy debates. These were (and are) largely idealists interested in changing the rules of the game, not scoring points for the blue team. The occupiers chose to operate outside the normal channels of American politics and deliberately eschewed unambiguous statements of principle–to examine them looking for a clean, simple manifesto is inevitably, and by design, to be confounded.
Before we go any further, it would be irresponsible not to add the caveat that what follows are only one person’s impressions. No one person speaks for the movement, and no two people experienced it the same way. Occupy Wall Street is a paradox for a journalist: it would be arrogant, presumptuous, and an attack on the spirit of the movement to make any absolute declarations on what it stands for, but to cover the protests without trying to explain them to readers would be professional malpractice.
An accurate sketch of an intentionally amorphous phenomenon is impossible to come by, but there are things we can definitively say Occupy Wall Street is not. Some of the worst, most simplistic analysis of modern American politics stems from the perception that the country is equally divided into two fundamentally opposing, but exactly equivalent camps: conservative, Republican, red-state America, and liberal, Democratic, blue-state America, and that politics follows some crude Newtonian logic, in which every phenomenon in one camp has its exact counterpart in the other.
In its laziest form, this worldview inevitably equates the occupiers with the Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street is emphatically, categorically not a left-wing Tea Party. The Tea Party as we know it was invented, organized, promoted and encouraged by paid, professional conservative activists, politicians from the right wing of the Republican Party, and sympathetic media outlets (most prominently Fox News and talk radio). That is not to say average citizens didn’t get involved or that conservative anger isn’t real, but since day one, the Tea Party has enjoyed the funding and support of members of the right-wing establishment with an eye towards purging Republican moderates and defeating the Democratic Party at the ballot box and in Congress. Occupy Wall Street enjoys little corporate or institutional support. There is no liberal equivalent to the trained, well-funded network of hard-right activist organizations that dreamed up the Tea Party, and very few established liberal institutions or Democratic politicians lined up to support Occupy protests (indeed, most of the repression faced by occupiers was ordered by Democratic mayors).
Occupiers seem to take little interest in the internal workings of the Democratic Party: nobody mounted Occupation-approved primary challenges against moderate Democratic politicians the way Tea Partiers did. The Tea Party focused much of its energies on putting rightward pressure on issues being debated in Congress, for instance maintaining the debt ceiling, stopping healthcare reform, lowering taxes, and ending social welfare programs. Occupiers have generally been drawn to larger, more abstract issues, such as narrowing income inequality, re-regulating the banking industry, debt forgiveness, and rebuilding the labor movement. It is only the virulent outbreak of false equivalence among the chattering classes that equates two groups with such divergent origins, goals, and modi operandi.
Now to a harder question: if Occupy Wall Street isn’t easily shoehorned into the conventional, red-vs.-blue paradigm of American politics, what is it? Your correspondent spent a large portion of last Fall and Winter among the occupiers, and an even larger portion trying to synthesize that experience into cohesive written reportage, and can happily and confidently report it can’t be done. If there is any one core, foundational principle of the occupations, it’s the conviction that our national conversation is dedicated almost exclusively to the concerns of people of a certain class, a certain race, a certain sex, a certain gender, a certain age, a certain ideology, and a myriad of other unfair distinctions that leave millions of Americans effectively unrepresented. The occupations are best understood as a proposed antidote to this kind of subtle oligarchy: a truly representative forum that treats all voices equally and operates through mutual respect and consensus rather than hierarchy and coercion. Aside from the most elementary endorsement of human equality and freedom of expression, an open, consensus-based forum is inherently without any ideology beyond what is mutual agreed by its members, and respecting this dynamic and keeping that kind of forum truly open and inclusive means deliberately avoiding potentially divisive manifestos and statements of principle.
Despite the general characterization of Occupy Wall Street as a haven for the far-left, there was never any rule or constitution stopping moderates or conservatives from making themselves heard; indeed, the paleo-conservative/libertarian subculture that made Ron Paul a cult figure were a noticeable presence from the movement’s early days. Any viewpoint that is glossed over in the sophomoric Democrats-vs.-Republicans plutocrat prizefight that plays out on cable news could be found represented among the occupiers, from avowed radicals seeking to smash the state, to property-owning nine-to-fivers nostalgic for robust banking regulation and the New Deal.
How did a theoretically non-ideological forum turn into a vessel for mostly left-leaning discourse? Perhaps the more revealing question is: how did the political and media establishment tilt so far rightward that thousands of Americans felt they had camp out in the cold and rain, risking arrest just to be heard? The institutions of American political life–the two parties, the think tanks, the consultants and pollsters–are generally viewed with contempt among the occupiers. Few among them have any desire to enter, or even engage with that world most view as corrupt and incompetent. The occupiers do not seem willing to act as foot-soldiers in our daily red-vs.-blue squabbles, preferring to change the conversation entirely: winning hearts and minds rather than engaging in political combat.
One year on, what can be said of an event as singular and nebulous as Occupy Wall Street? On the big questions: whether or not it was successful, what kind of impact it had, or whether it is a fad or the start of something bigger, we can do nothing but retreat behind Zhou Enlai’s maxim: it is too soon to say. Only in the rarest of historic circumstances is political discourse broadened and shifted within a year. Only after revolutions do ideas articulated by radicals in the streets translate so quickly into action from the highest echelons of power. No public opinion poll or election result can give us a tally of how many minds were broadened or changed. Young people were disproportionately represented among the occupiers. How many people in their late teens or early 20s will look back on Occupy Wall Street decades from now as the formative experience of their political lives, and how will their Occupy-influenced worldviews develop as they reach middle age and move into positions of power? It’s hopeless to try to answer these questions only a year on, which is why the huffing and puffing from the punditocracy has been more impotent than usual on the subject.
We’ll have to wait and see on the big questions, but when we look at the state of political debate thirteen months ago, which was largely characterized by centrist senators haggling over how much to cut from which social programs to mollify the conservative obsession with the national debt that kicks in whenever a Democrat takes the White House, one can’t help but wonder if the occupiers had something to do with banishing that conversation back to hinterland of right-wing media and think tanks. Without the occupiers making noise about inequality and oligarchy, Mitt Romney’s immense wealth and privilege, and more importantly, his utter inability to talk about it in a way that makes sense to the American people (or corresponds with reality) might not be such a campaign issue. It is easy to measure the tides, harder to quantify a sea-change, and it’s the latter where the occupiers set their sights. “Wait and see” and “Keep watching,” may not be a very satisfying way to mark the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, but when assessing such a unique movement with such grand ambitions, it is simply too soon to tell.