How the Occupy Brand is Evolving

by Reihan Salam

A college friend of mine, a D.C.-based business reporter with no ideological axe to grind, noted that a group that identified itself with the Occupy movement staged a protest action at a Christmas party for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet local Occupy activists claimed that the group at the Chamber party was in fact organized by SEIU and CTW. When my friend asked the protesters if they were affiliated with the unions, they confirmed that they had been “encouraged” by SEIU and CTW. I should stress that my friend made this observation without comment, so everything below is just my take on the matter. 

Since the Occupy movement is, as we’re often reminded, open source, there is nothing intrinsically suspicious about unions embracing the Occupy brand. It is, however, quite telling about the evolution of the labor movement. Organized labor is increasingly dominated by public sector rather than private sector unions. Public sector workers tend to be somewhat more educated than the larger labor force, and because they are negotiating with democratically elected governments, shaping political narratives is arguably somewhat more important to achieving their objectives. For whatever reason, a number of union officials seem to have determined that identifying their activists as Occupy activists is more likely to yield desirable results than identifying them as more traditional labor activists.

Recently, software programmer Daniel Suarez wrote two techno-thrillers, Daemon and Freedom (TM), that in many respects anticipated the open source logic of the Occupy movement, albeit on a much grander, more ambitious scale. To crudely summarize a fascinating, occasionally grisly, and consistently thought-provoking narrative, an eccentric and quite successful software millionaire dies. But on doing, he sets off a chain of events governed by a software program he creates that in essence creates a MMOG layer over reality — a kind of parallel economy in which people can make use of a highly resilient, highly advanced communications infrastructure to “win points” by executing various missions. Some of these missions are quite horrible. Indeed, one of the main characters in the novels is essentially a psychopathic killer who targets enemies of this emerging system. Others, however, are people who drop out of the failing, collapsing mainstream economy, controlled by a brutal corporate oligarchs, to find new, more sustainable ways of farming, etc. 

The basic idea behind Suarez’s ur-theme, this open-source set of tools can be used for evil or for good. All depends on how the tools are actually deployed in practice. What seems to be happening is that an ostensibly anti-vanguardist, inclusive movement for deep structural change, rooted in anarchist insights about the inescapable collusion between even a democratic state and corporate power, has become a somewhat more au courant brand for fairly traditional rent extraction and labor activism. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.