A Second Act for OWS?
It was always more performance art than political movement.


Now that its various franchises have been emasculated and their light dimmed, Occupy Wall Street’s architects are trying to turn their attentions to a second act. Yesterday afternoon I wandered down to see Zuccotti Park, post-eviction, and found it radically changed. The revolution is gone. A handful of assorted placard-wavers were still present along the barriers at the front, reduced to a tenth of their original number, and inside the cordoned-off park, there were two small groups of hardy protesters huddled quietly beneath trees that have been decorated with golden Christmas lights, Hollywood-style. But where the demonstration once bustled, it is now a damp squib — far from a portrait of the dying hours of capitalism, the scene now resembles the first minutes of a cocktail party, when only a few of the guests have arrived and it is unclear how many more will follow.

This transformation has not been lost on the Canadian anti-capitalist group whose infamous September advertisement set off the worldwide protests. Adbusters has recommended that the crowd that it inspired go home, regroup, and plan to reassemble in “the spring,” in order to “use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum,” and “emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad projects ready to rumble.”

Such an injunction is certainly timely. The cities of New York, Oakland, and Portland, Ore., have all evicted their camps, and what progress the movement made in occupying the headlines has been tempered by a sufficient number of violent or criminal acts that it has become impossible to spin the problems as anomalous. As has been widely noted, whatever the original intentions, the communes have proven an irresistible draw for undesirables of all stripes, and their rapid transmutation into safe havens for lawlessness, violence, and disease has proven too much for the initially indulgent authorities to accept.

While Adbusters’ call for a sabbatical from the revolution is understandable — politics aside, the tactics employed have quite evidently run their course, and the savvier of the protesters will have intuited this — the prospect of a second chapter poses a key challenge nonetheless: How to divorce the message from the medium? The group’s aims have still to be defined, and it will be a struggle to give them a solid form now that their advocates have gone home. Zuccotti Park is restored to its former state. Those who rail against false consciousness might well complain about the distracting baubles and trinkets of capitalism, but skyscrapers and electric lights speak loudly to American aspiration and will fill the void nicely. The vast majority of the encampments’ defenders have cast the inchoate nature of the movement as a feature and not a bug, celebrating as virtuous in and of itself the expression of indignation. But such an explanation relies at the very least on the physical presence of the disaffected. Now that they are absent, what of the new dawn?

We are also told by the likes of Douglas Rushkoff in the New York Times and the ever-reliable Naomi Klein in The Nation that it is precisely because OWS is not a political party and has no policy platform that it is powerful. Unfortunately for OWS, this somewhat anarchic approach relies heavily upon organic growth for success, and such growth never came. Despite claims to the contrary, neither Zuccotti Park nor the other encampments across the country were meeting points for ordinary and concerned citizens spontaneously taking to the streets. Instead, they were a veritable convention of the usual suspects. Members of the professional Left congregated and were soon joined by a steady procession of young acolytes, whose disappointment that their expensive college educations had not shielded them from the vicissitudes of the dire economy roused them to join the witch-hunt. Then — less innocuously — the homeless, the mentally ill, and the downright criminal joined the unholy partnership. The necessary dramatis personae for a successful insurrection never showed up and, if Act II is to be more successful, Occupy is going to need to expand its base to include the general public — the sort of people who are now bustling past Zuccotti Park as they did before, as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened there.

Here the movement is running squarely into a brick wall. Most people in America either simply don’t share OWS’s aims, or have no idea what it is that the protesters actually want. At no point has America at large joined in. In a USA Today/Gallup poll from November 22, 59 percent of respondents said they don’t know what it is that OWS is after. This is unsurprising. Occupy Wall Street was as much about self-expression as about politics. After my first visit I described the camp as “the first posthumous Grateful Dead concert, with a sprinkling of Brechtian aestheticism thrown in for good measure.” Two months later, I have not changed my view. The performance art and communal elements were as important as the message, if not more so. I am not convinced that the two can be separated.

Much as it would be absurd to hope for a “Woodstock without the music festival,” perhaps it is as much a category mistake to try to organize an “Occupy without the occupation.” That is the challenge that those who would continue the movement will face. It is possible that the curtain has gone down on the Occupy movement and will not rise again.

Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.


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