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ANALYSIS

Will they still occupy us tomorrow? Add to ...

Mr. Bloomberg is too savvy a money-maker to miss the real issue: People have had enough. But a motley collection of ragtag protests and outbursts of street theatre set against a backdrop of yurts and drum circles? Could this really have been enough to undo the Thatcherite revolution and make the money moguls cower? Or to chart a course for social engineers, such as the hard-headed anti-poverty economist Jeffrey Sachs? He has called the Occupy movement “the start of a new era in America,” where the 99-per-cent utopians would get to “tax the rich, end the wars and restore honest and effective government for all.”

Heady stuff, but so far it hasn't proved easy to spot the straight line leading from the slightly goofy protests to the progressive paradise envisioned by Mr. Sachs. Much of the movement seems just as much caught up in the great American tradition of personal transformation.

“We all know we're going to get kicked out at some point,” says Cindy Milstein of Occupy Philadelphia. “But for now we don't want to lose the feeling of feeding each other, housing each other, taking care of each other. It isn't about holding on to a piece of concrete, it's about us wanting to find ourselves and wanting to change the world.”

Steve Collis is a participant at the Occupy Vancouver site. He's also a professor of literature at Simon Fraser University who studies the idea of artistic and social change. As Vancouver officials seek a court injunction to evict the protesters from their encampment on the lawn of the city art gallery, Prof. Collis acknowledges that the movement's attachment to an occupied space, and the confrontations that go with it, has become a worry.

“It's not clear how to think this through,” he says. “Some people say, ‘Let's become nomadic and virtual.' Others say, ‘No way, this is where we make a stand.' I think reality, the external world, will help with the decision: There'll either be a negotiated removal or a physical removal.”

But a virtual protest or a shift to backroom lobbying wouldn't satisfy Prof. Collis. The open, physical manifestation of dissent, with the three-hour general assemblies that take place each night across the Occupy sites, is for him a truer expression of the pure democracy the movement advocates.

“We're changing the way people think about political interaction,” he says. “Clearly the way [society has]been doing it isn't working, if fewer and fewer people vote and we can't redress environmental problems or issues of economic inequality. The Occupy space returns us to the old Greek notion of agora, the public place that's always open, where anyone can participate in a public discussion about ideas at any time.”

‘I'm looking at a bunch of outsiders'

But even two months of occupation has proved a challenge to the glorious Greek ideals. Few of the 99 per cent have the time or the energy for endless debates decided by consensus, and what started out as a democracy movement quickly turned, in large measure, into a mission for the homeless and addicted, who found the sites to be a salvation.

Day-to-day concerns with feeding people and keeping them warm and healthy tend to narrow the goals of the movement rather than expand it. When the crucible for democracy turns into a temporary shelter, the boundless limits of youthful idealism get confined quickly and policy-makers find it easier to look away.

At the political level, the movement has been treated as a municipal issue – which is to say, as a temporary nuisance, more like a music festival that has overstayed its welcome than a new way of imagining public discourse.

Athenian democracy attracted ingenious philosophers and eloquent orators, but Occupy sites are thronged with health officials and fire inspectors. Provincial and national leaders have barely acknowledged the existence of the movement, perhaps out of fear and uncertainty, or perhaps because they are pretty sure they can wait it out.

Liberal political strategist John Duffy's office window faces the Toronto Occupy encampment, and that has enhanced the conflict he feels in assessing the movement.

“I don't think everyone wants to be an outsider,” he says, “and I'm looking at a bunch of outsiders. Bob Rae said Canadians don't want a forced choice between the Tea Party and the Occupiers, and I don't agree with the messengers particularly. But I agree with the message – and the message is, we have to open up the conversation.

“If you feel that the free-market Chicago School and Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan and their heirs have dominated the discussion and shut down everyone else, then certainly you want the channel changed. So I welcome the channel changers. But you don't necessarily want to end up on their channel if you're a fan of the middle.”

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