What is Occupy? A Conflict Analysis Perspective

by Rich Rubenstein on March 3, 2012 · 3 comments

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The advent of unexpected forms of social conflict challenges conflict analysts to answer two hard questions.  The first is “What’s really going on here?”  What are the underlying causes, current dynamics, likely outcomes, and possible options for resolving this conflict?  The second is, “Why have these events surprised us?”  Since we are conflict analysts, why didn’t we see this struggle coming and recommend creative ways to deal with it?  The answers to these queries are closely related, but let’s start with the issue of surprise.

An uncomfortable fact: new eruptions of large-scale social conflict almost always take most academic experts and policymakers by surprise.  Virtually no one anticipated the civil disorders of the 1960s and 1970s in North America and Europe, the global rise of religiously-motivated conflict in the years following the Iranian Revolution, the great massacres in Rwanda, the Congo, and Darfur, the uprisings of the Arab Spring, or the eruption of more than 2,500 mass protests in some sixty nations under the Occupy banner.  Conflict specialists are equally taken aback when expected struggles fail to materialize – for example, when the Soviet Union collapses or South Africa dismantles its apartheid system without a bloodbath.  While some commentators consider recurrent surprises of this sort a result of the inherent unpredictability of human behavior, others, such as our late colleague, John W. Burton, attribute them to our faulty understanding of society and conflict.  To paraphrase Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our nature, but in our theories, that we are taken unawares.”

Burton, it seems to me, had it mostly right.  Although the timing of mass protest movements is notoriously difficult to specify (one recalls a disheartened Lenin complaining that the Russian Revolution would not occur in his lifetime), they can be predicted with rough accuracy, provided that the analyst is paying close attention to relevant social and psychological factors.

The Occupy movement is the product of changes in social organization and human motivation that largely escaped analysis because prevailing theories directed our attention elsewhere.  Most of those theories, to speak of them generally, were of two types.  Stability theories, emphasizing the factors that make for social integration and political adaptation, viewed Western society (in particular, the United States) as “post-ideological,” and therefore no longer subject to intense internal conflicts of the sort that produced the labor-management struggles of the New Deal era or the mass protests of the decade following John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Conflict theories, while focusing on failures of integration and adaptation, took as their main text the story of social identity – the struggles of oppressed or marginalized ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and cultural groups for recognition and fair treatment, and the need for established systems to accommodate their demands.

These theories seemed diametrically opposed, but under the surface there were links.  Many analysts of both schools assumed that, since the underlying socioeconomic system (“late capitalism” or “finance capitalism”) was either stable or irreplaceable, basic questions of social order involving class structure and ranking, social equality, and the control of politics by major financial interests, were “off the table.”  When they spoke about basic human needs at all, the analysts tended to focus on people’s needs for identity, recognition, and autonomy – not for jobs, effective participation, and social justice.  Even when the economic system plunged into its worse crisis since 1929, these mindsets persisted.  Stability theories were so strongly held that few scholars believed that the Arab uprisings of 2011 or even the Greek and Spanish demonstrations provoked by the economic crisis could help inspire protests in “mature” capitalist nations like the United States.  Identity theories were so strongly held that the re-emergence of social inequality, corporate corruption, and the need for economic democracy as crucial issues for Westerners went largely unnoticed.[1]

What, exactly, do conflict studies specialists need to know?  What “research questions” should we be addressing?  First, I believe, we need to know what made so many people long quiescent, where matters of public policy were concerned, adopt a highly activist mode and turn out not just to protest injustice but to participate in acts of civil disobedience.  Assuming that many activists were mobilized, in part, by their direct exposure to the economic crisis, what other factors came into play to translate economic pain into a craving for radical change?  The received wisdom used to be that economic downturns dampened protest movements rather than generating them.  In this case, however (as in certain previous cases of mass mobilization for change), lowered satisfactions seemed actually to engender radical hopes.  Despite Ted Robert Gurr’s pioneering work, this phenomenon is still poorly understood.[2]

Second, we would like to plot possible future trajectories for the protest movement and for counter-movements of the Center and the Right.  Although numbers are hard to come by, the total number of activists participating in occupations in the United States probably does not exceed a few hundred thousand.  Yet polls conducted by Pew and other reputable organizations establish that more than 60% of Americans are in sympathy with their basic egalitarian, anti-corporate, pro-democracy sentiments.  Does this mean that the movement is fated to become larger and more important in the coming years?  Or is it likely to be divided, co-opted, and weakened by the political dynamics of a presidential election?

Authorities have now evicted occupiers from public parks in New York, Oakland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities while leaving a few (e.g., those in Washington, D.C.) at least temporarily in place.  Evictions notwithstanding, protestors in virtually every location have declared that they will continue to engage in occupations (for example, of foreclosed or abandoned homes) and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, as well as working to build a movement for radical social and political change.  According to the steering committee of one Washington, D.C. organization,

Shifting power to the American people requires much more than an occupation.  The Occupy Movement needs to build on four strong components – (1) non-violent protest and civil resistance, (2) non-participation in the existing corporate finance-dominated economy, (3) the development of concrete plans and policies to transform the corporate economy into a people’s economy, and (4) ending government dominated by money by shifting political power to the American people.[3]

What everyone would like to know is whether this movement has “legs,” and, if so, what its future direction and function are likely to be.  The point originally made by many critics that the protestors had no political program had some apparent validity at first, but now seems increasingly less germane.  Movement representatives have called not only for a renewal of occupations on a large scale in spring 2012, but also for a series of conferences to discuss concretizing political policies.  Already, there is considerable discussion of demands for a tax on financial transactions, elimination of the capital gains tax preference and other loopholes for the wealthy, creation of a federally-funded and popularly controlled jobs program, development of community alternatives to the corporate economy, eliminating the private financing of political campaigns, and more.

There is a good deal of theoretical confusion about what demands like this mean.  When some commentators criticize the movement for not making “concrete, realistic demands,” what they are really criticizing is the unwillingness of the occupiers to play the political game according to conventional political rules (for example, by picking major party candidates for office and supporting them).  Most occupiers are not interested in making demands that are relatively easy to realize because they are consistent with existing structures of power and privilege.  Most are even less interested in becoming part of the base of either major political party.  The great question is not whether they will have political influence; they have already helped move issues of social class and inequality to the center of national consciousness.  The great question is whether they will have the sort of independent influence enjoyed by certain previous movements of mass protest in America, from the Abolitionists of the 1840s and labor radicals of the 1930s to the antiwar/civil rights/cultural liberation movements of the 1960s.

Are we, in fact, at the beginning of another one- or two-decade period of mass protest in America?  Or is this movement already “history”?  Belatedly, in the search for convincing answers to such questions, we are finally getting around to studying crucial social structural issues and their political/cultural implications.

Happily, it’s never too late to begin.

1. Students seeking enlightenment on these issues in the days before the Occupy movement emerged would not find very much to inspire them in the traditional Conflict Studies canon.  This is why so many of them found themselves watching Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Ranciere, and other critical thinkers lecturing on YouTube or creating new journals of their own, like the S-CAR on-line journal, Unrest.


[2] Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Paradigm, 40th Anniv. Ed., 2011)

[3] Statement by The National Occupation of Washington DC (NOW DC).  See www.October2011.org.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Ross May 14, 2012 at 3:51 pm

You wrote: “…Movement representatives have called not only for a renewal of occupations on a large scale in spring 2012, but also for a series of conferences to discuss concretizing political policies…”

Who are the “movement representatives” to whom you refer? And are they self-appointed? I would be interested in learning more about that.



Rich Rubenstein May 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm

“Representatives” are persons who speak for themselves and for some others in the movement. They are not “self-appointed” — a deprecating phrase — nor are they elected, since movements rarely elect their spokespeople. The representatives that I had in mind when writing this were Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese of Occupy Washington DC, although others elsewhere have also called for the same actions. More can be learned by clicking on http://october2011.org/blogs/organizer


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