Success or failure?
Although the financial shock was dramatic enough to cause a protest reaction in the form of the Occupy movement, the latter was not able to sustain itself beyond the initial outrage that gave rise to the mobilization.
There are two main reasons why the Occupy movement collapsed in the UK, and possibly elsewhere. First, the power and resources of the incumbents of the political field vis-a-vis the protesters were much greater. Therefore, the incumbents were in a strong position to thwart the Occupy movement's efforts as challengers of the field. Drawing on and adapting Fligstein and McAdam's (2011) theoretical framework, I argue that the challengers who are within the Occupy movement field (a sub-field within the larger AGM field, which resides in the larger political field) are not as well resourced as the incumbents of the political, economic and financial fields. The latter enjoy significant resource advantages over the Occupy challengers. The protesters lacked basic resources to sustain themselves for any length of time, such as food, clean water and heating. The absence of these basic necessities over the long run can lead to demoralization and subsequent collapse of a protest movement. By contrast the incumbents of the political and economic fields can rely on the support of loyal allies within the governance units both internal to the field and embedded in proximate state fields (Fligstein and McAdam, 2011: 9). Examples are: the police and courts that can carry out and enforce evictions, and established media that can spin events in a negative light. The incumbents of the political and economic fields are possessed of superior forms of material, cultural and political resources, which helped them endure the criticism for the few months it lasted.
The second reason the Occupy movement collapsed was the lack of any coherent political plan. Any political movement that wishes to influence and shape the political field must have resources and a specific idea of what it wants to achieve in terms of political objectives. Like most horizontal movement formations it incorporates too many different groups, with too many diverse and conflicting demands, which means members cannot achieve a consensus agreement on which way to proceed. Although this is presented as a strength, in reality, when faced with the forces of neoliberalism, it proved to be a disadvantage.
Although the Occupy movement has all but collapsed, some activists argue that it did achieve something in terms of holding the system to account and perhaps raising people's consciousness to a higher level of criticism than before.
The following activists provide their views on this. Alex, for example, says:
they have showed that it wasn't hopeless politically, because a lot of people were thinking that the crisis was so bad and that the political parties weren't doing anything, and the traditional left weren't doing anything. It was completely hopeless. You just get on with your lives. And they showed that actually it's not, you can have a massive effect. I think that's the same in the States as well. Maybe their achievements are a little less, but they raised the spectre of the 99 per cent, where it just didn't exist before. It wasn't on the agenda in the US, before, the idea that inequality is a bad thing. It just wasn't really in the mainstream, and now it is. I think that is a pretty big achievement.
David in a similar way claims that the Occupy movement in London at least made a step towards discussing what the problem was. In terms of defining the problems with the economy and democracy:
You need to be able to put your finger on it, what it is that you are against. You can't say I am against the economy, or I am against politics or something. It just doesn't really make sense; you have to be against a certain form of that. These were the kind of conversations that were created in that space. So in that way it was a success. For the first few months you had a very inclusive movement which was trying to say 'This is what democracy looks like, this is what we are trying to do', not what's happening over there in Parliament, or next door in the Stock Exchange, or even in St Paul's. (David)
Gavin has similar view when he says that:
I think it raised that brilliant slogan 'We are the 99%' which I think a lot of people will have taken on board, and I think a lot of people can identify with that slogan. And I think the anti-capitalism in this country is higher and bigger than it has ever been, and I think Occupy has played a part in pushing that and promoting that.
The UK Occupy movement on the surface only achieved a shortlived critique of neoliberalism. It is the case that there was a lack of resources and a lack of political strategy for this movement to advance any real political agenda. However, a deeper reading suggests that the movement has elevated a critique to the level of consciousness among a previously non-political citizenry. The statement 'We are the 99%' is a powerful slogan in that it raises questions about the distribution of wealth and power in society. Moreover, when we consider, say, Standing's (2011) work on the precariat, it would appear that some of the occupiers are part of the precariat. Indeed, some of them are those who would fall into the educated category. As such, an educated class of people with ideas to change the world could possibly have transformative power. As Graeber (2011) has said:
Just as in Europe, we are seeing the results of colossal social failure. The occupiers are the very sort of people, brimming with ideas, whose energies a healthy society would be marshalling to improve life for everyone. Instead, they are using it to envision ways to bring the whole system down.