Will the Occupy Movement Last?

Posted by Bob Lord

If you believe everything you hear at Fox and Friends, you’re certain the Occupy Movement is short-lived. But here we are, four months in, and Occupy hangs in there. Those on the right point to the lack of a coherent, uniform message from the occupiers. But is the message as simple as “we are the 99%?” (and we’re sick and tired of bending over for the top 1%) If the lack of a coherent message spells doom, how does the right reconcile that with their view that a movement whose message is “taxed enough already” when tax rates are the lowest they’ve been in half a century is here to stay? On the other hand, why should those on the left be so certain Occupy isn’t going away?

Obviously, the predictions regarding the fate of Occupy reflect nothing more than partisan views, at least those predictions I’ve seen. But it seems some logic could be incorporated into the prognostication process, such that the chance of being wrong might be reduced from 50% to, I don’t know, 48%. Here’s my take on things:

Start with three basic propositions:

First, in any society, if a group is dissatisfied, there is a boiling point at which the level of dissatisfaction causes the group to erupt. I’ve often remarked that we’re living in this great experiment here: How much wealth and income can we jam into the top 1% before the bottom 90% explodes? Since Reagan took office, more and more wealth and more and more income are flowing to the top. That becomes intolerable at some point.

Second, how long it takes to reach the boiling point and how the things move from stable to boiling depends in part on the openness of the society. In a repressed society, it will take longer to reach the boiling point. Fear of punishment will keep individuals in check longer than otherwise would be the case. At the same time, the transition from zero to boiling will take place more quickly in a repressed society. The movements in the Arab countries demonstrate this. Stability reigned, at least on the surface, for a long time, in the face of brutal unfairness, but once the forced stability began to weaken, things broke down almost overnight. In a more open society such as ours, getting from zero to boiling takes longer. Because we can speak out with little fear of punishment, there’s no need to make sure ten million people speak with you before you speak. So, an uprising here can simmer, for years sometimes, before the boiling point is reached.

Third, those trying to contain the boiling wind up clumsily accelerating the boil. Typically, in their zeal to contain the situation, they engage in brutality, which causes those who haven’t sided with the insurgents to do so and causes those silently supporting the insurgents to end their silence. Mubarak’s actions in Egypt are a recent example. The Kent State shootings during the anti-war movement here were another. Indeed, this lies at the heart of nonviolence as a tactic. It’s the unjustified reaction to the nonviolent civil disobedience that winds up being the catalyst for change.

With that as background, Occupy likely is here to stay, we just don’t know how long it will take for Occupy to transition from its current state to massive action of the sort last seen in the sixties and early seventies. It would be hard to imagine that in terms of the increasing inequality of wealth and income in America, if we haven’t either already passed the tipping point or are headed there with no prospect of reversing course before we get there. Even if the top one percenters are made to pay more in taxes, the benefit will be more than offset by the deterioration in wages that has been accelerating since 2008.

We’re witnessing the infancy of the Occupy movement. This is America, not Egypt or Libya. Occupy will simmer for a long time before it boils. I’m currently reading “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” by Howard Zinn, which, by the way, has been a great read so far. In discussing the civil rights movement, Zinn explains: “In Georgia, as all over the South, in the ‘quiet’ years before the eruption of the sit-ins there were individual acts — obscure, unrecorded, sometimes seemingly futile — which kept the spirit of defiance alive.” Just as those individual acts Zinn cites were the simmer before the boil of the civil rights movement, those seemingly insignificant crowds of occupiers are the simmer before the boil of Occupy. We may see a month go by with no activity, but that won’t signal the end of Occupy. As long as policies here increasingly benefit the few at the expense of the many, Occupy will be here, simmering on the surface or just below, maybe rumbling a bit at times, until the eruption occurs.

In all likelihood, the foolish acts of governors, mayors and police chiefs will galvanize the movement. We’ve seen a few of these already — the bungling by the Mayor of Oakland, the pepper spraying of an 84 year old in Seattle, and, of course, the insane pepper spraying of students at UC Davis while they sat, peacefully.

So, to me, the uncertainty isn’t whether Occupy is for real, it’s how long it will be before Occupy rages in a way that forces real change. I’m looking forward to that day.

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