Is Occupy Part of the Solution?

Today people are calling for change, transparency and accountability.

Posted Oct 20, 2011

With Occupy Wall Street celebrating their one-month anniversary at Zuccotti Park, and having inspired demonstrations in cities around the country and world, more and more people are looking at this social movement and wondering if it represents their concerns and interests, and asking if it can, somehow, help us collectively transcend current destructive political and institutional patterns. Is Occupy part of the solution?

The answer is yes, in that the Occupy movement represents part of, and is fundamental to, the American political process. The Occupy community's early behavior and values characterize the type of interaction we envision for our country and from our leaders. Their general assembly, composed of its members, meets daily and no policy decisions are made without passing though the group's majority. So why have the group's protests and perspectives received such disparaging media coverage?

In part, the problem is, as Elliot Currie (Yale) and Jerome H. Skolnick (University of California, Berkeley) pointed out in their 1970 paper, "A Critical Note on Conceptions of Collective Behavior," that "Collective behavior theory has its roots in the antidemocratic theorists of nineteenth-century Europe, best represented by Lebon." Beyond Gustave Lebon in France, Scipio Sighele and Pasquale Rossi in Italy, and Sigmund Freud in Austria produced writings that supported the mob idea. Freud, most importantly for America, transferred his libidinal dynamics of individuals to groups, and convinced many that individuals think and act differently towards other people when they are in groups-that the minds of individuals merge. This not only bolstered the notion of mob mentality, but also increased the level of misleading and anachronistic language used to describe group dynamics and the organic nature of democracy—people who come together, exercising their constitutional right to assemble, protest and petition.

It was on these shoulders that American sociologist Robert E. Park, (1864-1944) who, while teaching at the University of Chicago, developed theories of immigrant assimilation and race relations, and also founded the field he termed collective behavior. In 1967, the anthology of his writings on the subject was published: On Social Control and Collective Behavior. Even though Park didn't portray collective behavior as irrational, he and others that followed transferred the anti-democratic biases of European scholars of collective psychology and crowd theory to the American field of collective behavior.

I recently spoke with Sophia Lucas, an art curator and librarian for Occupy Wall Street, to gain a perspective on the dynamics of the group from her point of view. She said, "We are cognizant of individual agency but very aware that we function as a group and are viewed that way by the media. If someone asks me a question, I'm empowered to speak for myself, but I don't speak for the group unless we have ratified the statement I am making. The daily assembly is mostly about working procedures, as the composition and needs of the group change every day. We do want the group profile to continue to grow until it represents the demographics of the 99 percent. Because the collective body is in a state of flux, it's impossible for me to speak completely for the group. The one thing that has been ratified and that we can all speak to, on behalf of the group, is the Declaration of the New York General Assembly, but this is also open to amendment.

In terms of how we relate, and sustain the movement, there is a lot of structure to the organization, which is based on people's skills and interests, but at the same time, people are free to contribute anyway they see fit. For instance, we have an articulate press group, but when the media chooses a person to talk to, he/she can either speak for themselves, or defer to the press group."

When I asked her about the new ad on television by the pro-Israel group Emergency Committee for Israel, which links Occupy Wall Street to anti-Semitic rhetoric, and asks our leaders to "stand up to the mob" (an anti-democratic expression), she said, "I have never seen, heard or felt any anti-Semitic sentiments, when I have been at the park. I do think that, when there are marches, many people are drawn in, and some of these participants might never have been involved in the functioning of the encampment or in general assemblies, and so their specific voices might be less in tune with the Declaration. It is a very inclusive document. It does not leave room for hatred towards any groups of people. I think if and when these ancillary agendas exist, they need to be recognized as existing outside of that definitive statement, and they need to be recognized as evidence of the very need for the kinds of conversations that occur within the park. The discussions are about education and exchange for the benefit of the majority, without exception to any group. We don't have an avenue for that in America, even though that's what democracy is supposed to be for."

It is well understood that people gain power by acting collectively, but it is not a given that the powers that be subscribe to the fact that individuals participating in collective action represent and express rational claims, beliefs and values. In a speech addressing the Arab Spring movements, Hillary Clinton stated, "The people of the middle east, like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and to have a role in the decisions that will shape their lives. Leaders need to respond to these aspirations and to help build that better future for all. They need to view civil society as their partner, not as a threat." As the citizens in numerous cities across the United States continue to face disproportionate aggression from law enforcement, it is evident that American leadership has not taken Hillary Clinton's words to heart on the home front.

It should also be noted, as American sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) has pointed out—that all social behavior is collective. In his theory of social interactionism, he asserts that while meanings inform behavior, and we arrive at meanings through our interactions with others, our final arrival at these meanings necessitates interpretation on the individual level. Ms. Lucas and others of Occupy Wall Street see their work as a project to get people together, to have conversation and gain consensus, something that must happen there and across America. Part of Occupy Wall Street's immediate mission is to increase their numbers, to grow until they represent the 99 percent. This effort to diversify and reach conclusions together, rather than to adhere to political philosophy, creates a place where individuals can come to their own place of meaning.

It may be exactly what the media has criticized the movement for—that they have no clear focus or demands—that is their strength. Their amorphous, growing nature, yet technologically advanced methods, ensure their continued growth and momentum. While Occupy lacks the sound bite, TV-land crowd-pleasers that can mobilize like-minded people rapidly, its authenticity and ability to expand in geographic base through social media, provides a framework for the kind of diversity and sustainability of the movement that just may lead to results that can contribute greatly to the solution.

Today people in revolutions and demonstrations around the globe are calling for change, transparency and accountability. It is not irrationality that has driven people into the streets, but pain and fear; it is there that they find meaning and rekindle the hope that a sustainable future can be created.

About the Author

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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