The Outcomes of the Occupy Movement: Which Lessons Can We Draw from the Social Movement Literature?

By Marco Giugni

According to Time magazine, which devoted the Man of the Year cover to The Protester, 2011 was a year of protest movements and collective mobilizations. Of course, the so-called Arab Spring has much to do with this choice, but other movements as well have flourished around the World. The Occupy Movement is surely one of them, along with the Indignados in Spain as well as in other countries. Now, at the dawn of a new year, I think that two main questions need to be addressed: Firstly, will the movement last? And secondly, what are its outcomes? Other people have addressed the first question. Here I deal with the second one.

While few of us would deny that the popular upsurges that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and to some extent also Libya are largely responsible for the fall of the authoritarian regimes there (what will come next is still an open question), most of us would be more hesitant about spelling out the consequences of the Occupy Movement. Yet, it is easy to speculate in this regard. So, what lessons can we draw from the now vast literature on the consequence of social movements and protest activities?

Social movements, including the Occupy Movement, can have an impact on different spheres as the latter can be observed at the political, cultural, and biographical level. Edwin Amenta and Bill Gamson have addressed the potential political and cultural impact of the movement, and there is little to disagree with them in that regard. What should perhaps be stressed is that previous work, has shown that the narrower and more specific the movement goals, the more likely they are to get a response from the establishment. In this perspective, the Occupy Movement is not well placed as is has very broad aims and demands, or perhaps better, the latter have become broader in due course. On the other hand, previous work has also shown that social movements are more likely to be successful when they can take advantage of a favorable public opinion and open political opportunity structures. In this sense, the situation looks more promising as, given the present bad economic situation, the public opinion and most political leaders alike seem inclined to support the movement’s claims, or at least they are more receptive.

So, there are both signs pointing to a political impact of the movement and signs suggesting that this is not easily forthcoming. However, I expect the direct impact of the Occupy Movement to be rather limited. Such a broad movement is likely to have its broader effects in the longer run and only indirectly. Take for example what I see as its predecessor, namely the so-called global justice movement. Faced with one of the most serious economic crises since the thirties, if not the most serious one, governments and public officials have resumed the idea of introducing a Tobin tax, that is, a tax on financial transactions. Remember Attac? Although this social movement organization today has lost most of its strength and popularity, we should not forget that its name stands for “Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action” (Association pour la taxation des transactions financières et pour l’action citoyenne, in French). Would some political leaders today propose the introduction of the Tobin tax if this organization and more generally the global justice movement had not mobilized on this issue more than ten years earlier? And is it by chance that its strongest proponent today is French President’s Nicolas Sarkozy? Of course, we will never know, as there is no counterfactual. However, the suspicion is more than legitimate.

Thus, perhaps the most crucial impact of social movements resides not so much in provoking some immediate reaction from political leaders apart from increased repression, but in providing a fertile ground for what would come later. If this is true, the most significant impact of the Occupy Movement is perhaps seen in the cultural rather than in the political sphere. I am speaking of a cultural impact here to the extent that some of the movement’s demands, once they have entered the public domain, gain legitimacy and may change the way institutional actors frame a given issue. This does not mean that the political impact of the movements is nonexistent, but that it is at best an indirect one. Just like the global justice movement of the 1990s and early 2000s appears to have at least some of its demands met today, although only a minor part of them, the political impact of the Occupy Movement could well occur years from now, as a result of the cultural changes it brings about first. Of course, this is just a hypothesis that would need to be carefully investigated.

Another cultural impact of the movement can be seen in the “spillover” effect on other movements and citizens across the globe. Surely, the upheavals in the Middle East have encouraged citizens in other part of the world, including the U.S., to take to the streets to show their discontent. But such connections among movements can also be seen in the longer run. In this sense, in fact, the Occupy Movement itself could well be seen as a long-term product of the global justice movement, which laid the seeds for what would occur more than a decade later when the circumstances became favorable for the emergence of this new wave of contention. More to the point, we can expect the Occupy Movement to leave a legacy that will bear its fruits in the future, opening up the democratic space for new waves of contention and citizens’ political participation.

But there is another potential outcome of the movement, which is perhaps even more significant in the long run. I am alluding to what the social movement literature calls the biographical impacts of activism. They refer to effects on the life-course of individuals who have participated in movement activities, effects that are at least in part due to involvement in those activities. Here previous work agrees that involvement in social movements has significant and durable effects on the personal lives of participants, especially strongly committed activists. Although I do not have empirical evidence to support this, I think that the Occupy Movement, similar again to what the global justice movement has done 10-15 years earlier, has drawn a new generation of young protesters that not only contributed to the rise and mobilization of the movement, but will also carry the consequences of their involvement in the years to come.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Outcomes of OWS

6 responses to “The Outcomes of the Occupy Movement: Which Lessons Can We Draw from the Social Movement Literature?

  1. Indeed, as Marco Giugni’s past and current work has noted, the consequences or outcomes of social movements are (perhaps quite often) not immediately “political.” Rather, their cultural importance – particularly in shifting the “hearts and minds” of the public (conscience constituents if you will) – can eventually have, in the long run, important political impacts. In this essay, Giugni quite rightly reminds us that cultural and political outcomes are not mutually exclusive but, when thought of in the long-term, can be mutually reinforcing. Wonderful essay!


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