Cultural Outcomes of the Occupy Movement

By William Gamson

I must begin by acknowledging the extent to which the occupy movement has occupied my own life in the last several months, knowing no boundaries between work life and social, political, and personal life.  In my worklife, I was teaching a graduate seminar on social movements (“The Quest for Social Justice”) in which each participant chooses a case to study and to which they apply the various course readings. Two of the students chose to study the Occupy Movement and, in particular, its Occupy Boston branch; a third student took the highly similar Israeli Summer tent city movement.

Outside of class, in my professional life, I have been struggling for the past few years in trying to understand why there was not some high energy mobilization against the increasing economic inequality in American society.  But like other students of social movements, when it happened it took me by surprise.

The movement has already succeeded in making its efforts an item of widespread cultural interest in my circles of friends and family.  During the past few months, nary a social get-together would pass without some period in which collectively or more individually, conversations would focus on how to understand the occupy movement, where it was going, and whether it would make a difference.  During the several hours a day I usually spend at my computer, I would watch countless videos and slide shows, read selected reports and blogs, with a relevant supply that was ultimately beyond what I was capable of keeping up with.

My wife and I made time to make personal visits to Dewey Square (Occupy Boston) and Zuccotti Park in New York and to participate in meetings and actions of our local support group, “Occupy Martha’s Vineyard.” Occupy was everywhere at almost anytime in the public and quasi-public spheres I encountered in my daily life.

The Cultural Change Goal.

The single most important thing to understand about the Occupy movement[deleted plural ending] is that it is primarily a movement about cultural change, not institutional and policy change.  Cultural change means changing the nature of political discourse and the various spheres in which it is carried on, especially mass media.  Changing what is salient on the public agenda can open discursive opportunities for various groups seeking specific institutional and policy changes.

The cultural mission of the Occupy movement is to raise consciousness about the corporate domination of American political, social, and economic institutions – and to the enormous inequalities in income and wealth produced by this domination.  At the same time, it attempts to build a collective identity within its constituency by making personal suffering a shared experience.  While I have no systematic data to prove it has done so, I am quite confident that, when such data is available, it will show that in various forums there has been a sharp increase since September, 2011 in references to corporate power and actual or potential abuse of corporate power and to statistics showing the dramatic increases in wealth and income controlled by the richest one percent or fewer families.   Hence, it seems reasonable to argue that, whatever future institutional and policy changes may or may not take place in the future, this movement has already been a major success by changing the nature of U.S. political discourse.

It also seems reasonable to argue that this cultural change is a necessary though not sufficient condition and a facilitator for a number of specific institutional and policy changes.  It does not in any way guarantee the success of those groups who are trying to stop the ability of corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns – especially through undisclosed, negative advertising to discredit uncooperative office holders and candidates.  But these efforts to reverse  the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling strongly resonate with the cultural themes and counter-themes being amplified and enhanced by the Occupy movement.

Other specific causes that are enabled by this cultural change include the efforts of environmental groups to prevent or, at least, regulate fracking and to prevent the building of the XL Pipeline across the continental United States.  But these are not outcomes by which to judge the success of the Occupy movement; they depend on other collective actors to follow through on the openings that this movement has created.

One can ask how lasting this cultural change will be.  Will it become a central part of the consciousness of many Americans over the next several years?  Or will its themes fade from public discourse as the Occupy movement goes through a demobilization or abeyance phase?   Part of the answer, I suspect, is tied to whether any significant institutional or policy changes will occur that actually begin to reverse the direction of increasing inequality and lessen corporate domination of U.S. politics and elections.

Strategic and Tactical Innovations.

Prefigurative Politics.  “One could say that the process is the message,” an anonymous spokesperson for Occupy Boston told one sympathetic interviewer who asked, “What do you say to those who ask you to specify what you stand for?”  In its decentralized, non-hierarchical organizational structure and its emphasis on non-exclusivity and direct participation, it offers a vision of participatory democracy that stands in contrast to the non-transparent, top-down, corporate dominance that it is challenging.  The unequivocal public commitment to non-violence is an essential component of the vision and helps to deal with some of the potential vulnerabilities.

There are a host of problems associated with such decentralized organization, especially when coupled with efforts at reaching consensus at general meetings on major decisions.  The literature on this begins with the classic discussion by Jo Freeman in her well-known article (1970) on the “tyranny of structurelessness.”[i]  The potential problems range from an inability to make timely decisions at all to their being made by a largely invisible and unaccountable handful of strategically placed participants.  Transparency and openness renders such organizations vulnerable to extensive surveillance by authorities that may include the use of spies and agents provocateur who engage in actions intended to discredit the movement. The Occupy movement has not escaped such problems.  Whether the gains in offering a contrasting vision of participatory democracy in contrast to rule by the 1%  are sufficient to offset the problems it creates is an issue on which I would suspend judgment pending more evidence.

The Encampment Tactic.  It is difficult to build a movement and sustain a challenge for a sufficient length of time to actually change the nature of political discourse.  Initially, the Occupiers were not considered newsworthy by the main-stream media or were denigrated as hippie mobs but their continuing and growing presence eventually led to lots of attention.

By locating in public space, the participants underlined their claim to it as public citizens in a democracy.  But the emphasis on non-exclusivity led to the inclusion of the “houseless” and of street people with a myriad of problems.  By and large, they have found some ways of balancing services to these needy participants without undercutting their focus on changing the political discourse but it often has become an extra burden on those who are mounting efforts to challenge policies that enable corporate control and increase inequality in wealth and income.

Finally, by camping out in public space,  the Occupy movment has stimulated a number of social control errors and disclosures that increase indignation about the abuses they wish to highlight.  Reckless and casual use of pepper spray by police and the mishandling of journalists and non-violent bystanders and visitors are one example.  The role of the Federal Homeland Security Agency in supplying municipal police departments with sophisticated weapons to use against non-violent demonstrators and in coordinating telephone conference calls among big city mayors are an example of what the Occupy movement would characterize as politicians serving the 1%.

[i] Jo Freeman (1970). The Tyranny of Structurelessness, The Second Wave, Vol. 2. No. 1, 1972, p. 20; Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 17, 1972–73, pp. 151–165.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Outcomes of OWS

5 responses to “Cultural Outcomes of the Occupy Movement

  1. Bill, excellent lens for analyzing outcomes for Occupy: a cultural win. One small quibble is that the encampments, however creative in their implementations, are not innovative per se. I talk about some comparisons here and abroad, as well as why tents (still) matter symbolically for the OWS movement in a piece I wrote in Common Dreams:


  2. Pingback: Follow-Up: Three reasons why I do not occupy | vreedwrites

  3. Hi Bill.

    Yes, Occupy is a nice response to your question (from your McCarthy Award event in Notre Dame) about why economic inequality has not generated political protest. Perhaps the obvious answer–that those who suffer the most lack the slack resources for collective action–will make us more sensitive to the class and status base of the Occupy Movement.

    When I looked at photos of Occupy Oakland, I was amazed at the sea of whiteness. This looks like a white middle class movement (like the hippies of old), but they seem to be more interested in getting their piece of the pie than in cultural alternatives to corporate capitalism, but I’m willing to be schooled on that. I have not really looked at the movement.

    Your discussion of cultural revolution (not your term) reminded me of Barbara Epstein’s book (which I use in my social movements course). Some of the affinity groups were clearly dedicated to cultural revolution but the movements she covered seemed to be using cultural alternative as means to an end–as organizational weapons or strategies, rather than as organizational forms (e.g., communes) that were clearly considered to be ends in themselves.

    Are we looking at a distinct interest group (constituency), new tactics (repertoire), or issue? What I see in West Lafayette is a coalition of existing activist organizational leaders (the usual suspects) forming the base of a relatively popular movement that tries not alienate its somewhat diverse (in age and political orientation) constituency. For example, at the Occupy Lafayette picketline I was offered a “We are the 99%” button to add to my Blue Chicago jean jacket. I was also invited to make myself a sign. When I asked my lefty labor comrade if “Fuck Capitalism” was acceptable, I was told to forego the signmaking and just wear my button. It was cool to see students and clerical workers, soccer moms and labor organizers hanging together. The question (for me) is what can liberals hope to accomplish, or how can more radical interests seize this opportunity?

    Of course, that is my own bias toward the futility of consensus movements as instruments of social change. In that classic debate between McCarthy and Schwartz I remain on Michael’s side. At the same time, I really enjoyed your posting and will think long and hard about what the Occupiers represent.


    Rich Hogan


  4. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Discussing OWS (3): #OccupyWallStreet as a Culture Change Movement

  5. I agree with your analysis about Occupy changing the culture. In my most optimistic moments, I hope that we may look back at OWS ten or even twenty years from now and see that it was a harbinger of a period of strong collective mobilization in the United States. I recently discovered this blog, and just read this piece. I’m curious about your thoughts at this point, a year after the start. I went down to OWS in NYC in early October and was involved full-time for eight months (I am still peripherally involved). I’ve been active in the conversations about Occupy-as-tactic, and wrote this piece back pre-eviction of Zuccotti that I thought you may be interested in: THe Tactic of Occupation and the Movement of the 99%. Cheers.


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