‘They are dismissed as dreamers, but the true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. They are not dreamers; they are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything, but reacting to how the system is gradually destroying itself.’ (Zizek, 2011)
The protests of the Occupy movement galvanised public support from a range of sectors, moving beyond the traditional protest dynamics that involved those from working-class backgrounds. As a reflection of the extent of the problems that ensued resulting from the financial crisis of 2007/08, Occupy captured a latent disaffection in the public consciousness; a sense that people had become entirely powerless. The financial and corporate excesses that led to the collapse were the ideal catalyst for a social movement. Indeed, the cumulative effect of years of steadily increasing social and economic inequalities – added to the uncertainty and instability of advanced capitalist societies – necessitated a tough response from civil society.
Occupy is, in every sense, a postmodern movement. The focus on identity and culture reflects the changing direction, and tactics, of protest groups. Attracting people from entirely disparate backgrounds is, furthermore, recognition that society is no longer homogenous. Politicising and radicalising previously apolitical citizens in multiple locations is regarded as one of the strengths of the Occupy movement – ‘we are the 99%’ being the predominant message. The excluded and the marginalised joined in unity to oppose political structures, which, seen from the perspective of the Occupy movement, privileged an elite group of individuals and corporations. The populism of Occupy resonated clearly and profoundly with people that had lost everything, and, in the wake of a crisis that resulted in the gap between the richest and the poorest widening. The exceptionality of Occupy – and the era in which Occupy began – has been accurately and cogently explained by Wendy Brown.
What makes this era unique is the unprecedented mutual identification among working middle class families carrying under-water mortgages, unemployed youth carrying under-water college loan debt, laid-off factory workers facing contracting unemployment benefits, public workers forced to shoulder ever growing contributions to their own “benefits” or losing long-promised pensions, and skilled and unskilled workers – from pre-school teachers to airline pilots – whose salaries for full-time work cannot lift their families above poverty level. (Brown, 2011)
The social problems of poverty and inequality clearly are concerns for sociologists and social policy scholars. As the Occupy movement began to permeate academic discourses, those involved in global, European and (inter)national social policy paid close attention to the role of new social movements, and their influence on public debates.
In profoundly unequal societies, the issue of income parity has dominated social policy agendas. New social movements are actively involved in these debates, and will continue to be as long as there are structural inequalities, producing even greater social problems. What is clear is that if we are to understand some of the most entrenched contemporary social issues, we need to engage as fully as possible with new social movement. Their actions and perspectives on such issues provide a beneficial insight into the how new models of democratic participation, societal organisation and resource distribution might be operationalised. Martin (2001) discusses the role of social movements in social policy: new social movements, broadly, “are concerned with resource allocation, but also pose important questions about how resources are to be distributed fairly to a diverse set of groups” (Martin, 2001: 372). New social movements, such as Occupy, seek to question material distribution and structural inequality – issues that are very much central to welfare theory and social policy.
The reaction to austerity in Europe and the rest of the Western world, as evidenced by the Occupy movement, shows that civil society was indeed concerned and frustrated by the exceptionalism of large financial institutions. As scholars involved in the pursuit of researching, and eliminating social problems, we need to be engaging with new social movements in order to understand how we might construct societies sympathetic to the goals of redistribution, regulation and social justice.
Brown, W. (2011) ‘Occupy Wall Street: Return of a Repressed Res-Publica.’ [online] Theory & Event 14(4), The Johns Hopkins University Press. Project MUSE database http://muse.jhu.edu [Accessed August 2nd 2012].
Martin, G. (2001) ‘Social movements, welfare and social policy: a critical analysis’, Critical Social Policy, 21(3), pp. 361-383.
Zizek, S. (2011) ‘Occupy first. Demands come later.’ [online]. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/26/occupy-protesters-bill-clinton [Accessed 7th August 2012].
By Greg White.
You can find out more about Greg on our contributors page.