What is "new" about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and how relevant is it to scholarly research?

Posted by Gordon Douglas, community karma 549

Much has rightly been made of the rapid growth, impact, and apparent cultural significance of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have swept the country and parts of the world since September. In addition to the attention it has brought to economic inequality and the state of the American Left, the movement has inspired a great deal of discussion (one might even call it trendy!) among the press and the public of the changing nature of contemporary protest, including the seemingly novel role of public space (POPS, "right to the city," etc.), spatial symbolism, and place-making. National media organizations have confronted these questions frequently (and I've blogged about it myself). Social scientists and urban design theorists alike seem only too willing to dub these actions the long-awaited and uniquely American rising of a sleaping giant of Western activism.

But recent discussion with friends leaves me uncertain - what is really new about these protests? And (as a way of getting at this) how far reaching is their relevance academically? It's tempting to say the spatial element is novel, but has urban protest not used such symbolism centrally in the past? How does this differ? Were the protests of the Arab Spring different? The Paris Commune, civil rights sit-ins, May '68, or the Million Man March? Does O.W.S. represent something new? More broadly speaking, does this whole phenomenon have scholarly relevance beyond its waiting observers in critical human geography and political economy? Are those historians, philosophers, economists, and social movement scholars with historical perspective as interested as trigger-happy journalists and social-geographers? Indeed - and here's a more tangible question - what are some relevant references (beyond the obvious Lefebrvian 'right to the city' stuff) to help us analyze these times with more measured perspective?

Truly interested in hearing perspectives on whether all of this is really novel, or not!


Jeff Lundy, community karma 227

I agree that OWS has definitely gotten a lot of buzz -- from what I've gathered, my economist and business-type acquaintances absolutely hate the movement, suggesting that they're doing something right.

Here's what I think is striking (if not necessarily new):

1) Economic inequality being discussed in a technical way.  There have been protest signs with charts about economic inequality -- that's pretty new. 

2) Apart from charts, what is *new* is that they are daring to do things not done in a while; i.e. take over a public space, fight vociferously to hold a place in  the face of police opposition, have a general movement that resists any small-scale, specific agenda.  These things are not innovations.  However, since the 60s/70s civil rights movements these tactics have all but been abandoned; so they are new in the sense that they represent a break with the protest tactics of more recent decades (80s/90s/00s).

3) A la point 2, the whole "occupying" idea isn't new, but OWS has taken it to a new level.  Of course, the AIM took over Alcatraz, and Berkeley students took over administrative buildings, but OWS has really upped the ante by taking over public spaces that are right in everyone's face (e.g. public parks in the center of town).  This occupying idea has spread -- students at UCSD are currently occupying a closed library, in defiance of the idea that budget cuts must lead to loss of academic services.  So another of the new-ish things OWS has accomplished is to reinvigorate the idea that you don't have to use bureaucratic channels to remedy a policy -- you can try physically taking something back that was taken from you.

4) The issue of OWS's relevance to academic social science strikes at something interesting.  I would say that for most academics in the social sciences this is not an interesting movement, because (as you mention) the tactics are not fundamentally new.  Put another way, academics don't really see much of interest because OWS is not employing novel social forms.  I imagine most academics think that because this isn't a new kind of fauna to be added to their catalogue, it's not interesting. 

However, as a sociologist myself, I think our currently existing society is of equal interest with potential/theoretical societies.  As such, I think OWS is quite interesting because of its relevance and importance to living individuals; even though it doesn't add to our catalogue of theoretical forms of social movement. 

over 12 years ago
Thanks to you both for these great answers, really interesting. Jeff, are their any sources you can refer us to for the sort of thing you're talking about in Part (2) here? I.e. the different tactics used in the 60s/70s (and today) versus those of the 80s/90s/00s? I saw something interesting about changing *police* responses over time a few weeks ago (don't remember where), but would be curious to hear about shifts in US protester repertoires over the same time (perhaps even, it sounds to me, lining up rather well with neoliberalism?).
Gordon Douglas – over 12 years ago
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Lawrence Bowdish, community karma 347


I've been thinking about this since I recieved an e-mail via the preeminent Women's History listserv (H-WOMEN), although it may have been sent in other History forums (fora?  is "forum" Latin or Greek?).  I'll copy and paste it below...

Inspired by the creativity and strength of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy
movement around the world, Occupy History seeks to add its voice in
support of those speaking out against and demanding solutions to growing
injustice and inequality, both economic and social. We encourage
historians to work to build the discussion beyond inequality and injustice
to include the history of the struggle for equality and justice and the
changes needed in our countries' governments.

In addition to showing our support for the Occupy Movement, Occupy History
plans to provide resources to the Occupiers. Locally we would like to be a
resource Occupiers can go to for speakers and discussion leaders. On our
website we plan to provide resource pages with book and film
recommendations Occupiers can use for educational purposes.

We hope to develop a list of films, or perhaps the films themselves, that
could comprise a film festival of the history of progressive political
movements in America and around the world.

To learn more about Occupy History, including how you can participate,
please visit our website at occupyhistoryna.wordpress.com.

I'm not sure what to think about this.  Generally, as I get older, I care less about politics and become more cynical, so I'm trying hard to analyze this as a historian, and not as "Lawrence Bowdish: Curmudgeon"

At the very least, it seems like historians, if the list on the blog is any indication, are interested in indirectly engaging in this discourse.  Unfortunately, historians cannot or do not really wrestle with events in the present, so all they/we can really do is offer media "reccomendations," "build a discussion," and lead "discussion."

I would argue that in the late 1960s/early 1970s movements, historians got involved more directly as leaders, and to my anecdotal evidence, that hasn't seemed to be the case.  I guess that means in 30 years we won't have a bumper crop of history texts about the early 2010s from participants, like we did in the late 1990s/early 2000s.

over 12 years ago
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Bert Azizoglu, community karma 47

In abstract terms, little is new about OWS. The occupations, the anti-finance, anti-elite sentiments, practice of radical democracy etc. have been around for a while. The agency vs. structure debate and how to approach finance-capital in Marxism is nothing new either. I think what's new about OWS is though that its ambiguity manifests the vacuum of an intellectually guiding idea, the dissatisfaction with solutions proposed by contemporary social theories or, rather, the lack thereof. And that, I think, is legitimate and should be challenging enough for intellectuals...

over 12 years ago
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Brian Cody, community karma 165872

I agree with Jeff's point that the OWS movement "doesn't add to our catalogue of theoretical forms of social movement" (though I bet there's a dissertation in progress pointing out how wrong you/we are!), but I was thinking the OWS movement might be important to Marxist theorists due to the strong class-based framing of the movement.

There seems to be a newness in how the OWS movement rejects common American categories of class ("middle," "upper-middle," etc.) and focuses only on a stark super-rich 1% and the remaining 99%. From a Marxist perspective, there could be significant puzzles to unravel here: is it problematic to include such a wide swath of economic actors so that the 98th percentile is seen as part of the "lower" classes? Does targeting the top% of individuals distract from more prominent owners of the means of production (such as corporations)? I'm guessing that OWS will be used as a lens to think about Marxism in contemporary times, and as a case for how Marxism is changing (for either pro- or anti-capitalism ends).

over 12 years ago
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Dana Bassett, community karma 67

Brian, I am hoping that OWS leads us away from Maxist thinking and towards new ways of imagining and carrying social change. I am excited about the resonance of the movement with Italian post-fordist thinkers and notions of rhizomatic and emergency theory. I admit that while I am optimistic about the potential for different (maybe not so new) means of revolutionary practice, the movement is definitely in danger of simply becoming the background context of American society rather than a game changer.  

about 12 years ago
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