What Went Wrong With Occupy?

By Joost van Steenis

There is no unifying target of Occupy, the struggle against the one percent has been abandoned, and leaders with old leftist ideas have converted the leaderless movement into a kind of organization. The 99 percent know that, with action methods and tactics that failed in the past, real change is impossible. For a New Humane World, we must pressure the one percent, creatively disturb their secluded and exclusive world.

Outdated leftist actions hardly put pressure on powerful people. The arrests and clashes only hurt the 99 percent. Damage to the 99 percent should be minimal and pressure on the one percent maximal. Most people in Western countries do not want to lose their more or less comfortable lives. Only a minority participates in demonstrations. In their private lives, the 99 percent often fight. Evading taxes, harassing the boss or colleagues or ignoring traffic rules are some activities carried out without any feeling of guilt. A new movement should minimize mass actions and initiate small autonomous actions common people can carry out with the capabilities and possibilities they have.

Some Big Tactical Mistakes

Occupy had a surprising start. Authorities were not prepared to cope with the occupation of thousands of public squares. Obviously there was a lot of discontent. People were waiting for new ideas to create a humane world. The first slogan “Occupy the financial centers” pointed at the greedy one percent who benefited from the crisis. The second slogan “We are the 99 percent” indicated that the one percent are different (in power and money) and should be the target. That idea attracted the sympathy of the masses. Soon this unifying target was replaced by partial political demands that have never changed the world. Occupiers fell back on old action methods. The people at the top of society were once again not directly pressured. A movement can only flourish with a clear target and a long string of small successes.

Electronic communication serves to spread ideas further and faster, but the power of the one percent can only be broken by direct actions and not by texts on internet or on placards in a demonstration. On Facebook there are discussions of what the other side is doing but hardly any about what the Movement should do. The Movement should unite all the 99 percent, but old terms like anti-capitalism, communism, socialism or anarchism have an adverse effect on many potential followers.

The present is our responsibility, the future the responsibility of the people who will live it. A better future can only be achieved when we have the power to defeat any selfish group of leaders. Our task is to take away the power and the money from the one percent and open the road to a New Humane World. Each action should contribute to this common goal, a New Humane World without a greedy one percent. The emphasis on building a more friendly society in communes can be attractive to the participants but will not change the power and wealth relations in the world.

The idea that big actions bring change nearer is a fable. Demonstrations, strikes, petitions, etc. make clear that many people agree with the goals of the movement. But authorities can easily control big actions, and their power is not contested. Big actions will not continue for a long time. We need a long string of guerrilla-like small actions and many small successes undermining the confidence and power of the one percent. The big demonstrations in Arab countries had some success by ousting some of the one percent, but the kernel of the one percent is still in power. By defending the occupied squares instead of pressuring the one percent, Occupy ceased to move. Activists became sitting ducks and authorities could gather the strength to clear all squares. Occupy did not have an answer.

Historical Context

Movements should move with surprise actions against clear targets. Past movements succeeded because of this simple truth, but eliminating the power of the one percent needs new methods to change the world (that past movements never achieved). Fifteen years after World War II, the 99 percent started again to move. The Civil Rights Movement and the French Spring (in Holland the Provo Movement) showed that people wanted another kind of society. The movements had clear targets and original action methods.

The massive protests against the Vietnam War were less successful, but anyhow the war stopped. There was a long string of successes in the growing number of Americans that fled the country to avoid being send to Vietnam. All actions were connected to the target: to stop the war. The Woman’s Liberation Movement and the Squatters Movement also knew many small successes. But authorities were learning how to handle movements by using better-trained police, better publicity and by better anticipating what the movements could undertake. Leading activists did not change their methods. They forgot the advice of Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitz about how to combat a seemingly mighty opponent. The anti-nuclear movement (against bombs and nuclear plants) was hardly successful. More plants were built and more countries got atom bombs. After 1985 inspiring political movements virtually ceased to exist. The small revival with the anti-G8 actions soon sizzled out, not because of violent clashes with security forces but because of the lack of inspiring successes. There were no new action methods and the world did not become a better place. Wars, crises or continuing poverty did not seem to activate the 99 percent in rich Western countries.

Occupy started to wither away for the same reasons why there were hardly any movements after 1985: repetitions of obsolete action methods, failure to devise answers to the improved methods by authorities to cope with mass movements, failure to unite the 99 percent around one clear subject (taking power from the one percent), division of the masses by proposing targets and goals that only could be realized when the one percent had disappeared, and inability to inspire the 99 percent by a long series of small successes. In the 25 years before 1985, authorities found new methods to canalize dissatisfaction while protesters continued to use old methods. Successes became rare and the disappointed 99 percent refused to take part in new movements. The fat twenty-five years before 1985 were followed by the meager 25 years. The hope for a New Humane World seemed to have disappeared.

People’s Power: A New Start

The start of Occupy inspired the new generation. The next steps were not inspiring because the old action methods returned and fighting against the greedy rich was transformed into protesting about relatively small problems. Demonstrations, petitions, strikes, attention for the political powers, etc. have not brought much change. The one percent was neglected, and actions concentrated on the effects of what the highest power caused. Protests against sackings, foreclosures, lower wages, growing poverty, continuing wars are partial political demands that in a time of crisis do not know any success.

Trying to improve a bad situation can be laudable but partial political demands do not address the fundamental reasons for a bad situation. Actions should include attacks on the one percent who caused the bad situation and not be restricted to the effects of the cause. A movement without a long string of small successes whithers away. When the rich become richer and the poor poorer, why should the 99 percent take part in actions that do not challenge the rich. Even the lower echelons of power, politicians and higher civil servants, seem to be exempted from actions that propose to fight austerity.

You may wonder if 150 years of communist, socialist, anarchist or leftist actions have been successful. The power and wealth gap are still growing. The people have no direct power. A central question should be how to develop people’s power. Demonstrations give some power, but soon leaders recover and the old power relations return, as is happening in the Arab World. Occupy hardly developed a people’s power: another reason why the 99 percent became disappointed and withdrew.

While a century ago leftist movements had ample interest in capitalists, in our time the one percent seem to have been excluded from any action threat. In the French revolution (see Jean-Paul Marat) the highest class was attacked, but in the last century capitalists hardly felt any direct pressure. The left tried without much success to change the system and neglected to develop the means for the people to control leaders. Movements have clear goals and fighting for a vague new system does not attract the 99 percent. When the one percent lose their power because of actions of the 99 percent, the system will change anyhow. How the new system will look is the responsibility of the people who live in the future, our task is to create the possibility that a society without a one percent can come into being in which not money inspires all decisions but the idea that all people have the same status.

People’s power is a continuous process. Leaders who do wrong must be made aware that suddenly and unexpectedly they can come under fire. By creatively disturbing their private lives, by not giving them any respite, (a guerrilla principle) they will be made to realize that they can only avoid pressure by taking decisions in which people stand central and not money and the benefit of their own group. People’s power should put direct pressure on humans who belong to the one percent by methods that can be carried out by any member of the 99 percent. Actions should be small and surprising with only occasionally a great peaceful gathering. Each action should contribute to the idea that decisions must be dominated by the principle that all humans have the same status and the right to decent living, decent education, decent medical care, etc. Only with new ideas, new tactics, a unifying target and a long string of successes will we get a New Humane World. Without these basic conditions, any movement will be short-lived and power and the money will become yet more concentrated in the hands of the happy few: the one percent.


Editor’s Note:  Joost van Steenis is a veteran activist from The Netherlands who among other things took part in the Provo, Squatters and Anti-nuclear Movements. His books, including his latest “From Chaos to Change, Entering a New Era”, are freely downloadable from his site “Down with any elite”. Facebook Group: “Occupy the 1%”. All photographs by Glenn Halog.



9 Responses to What Went Wrong With Occupy?

  1. John Goss October 18, 2012 at 2:31 am

    It’s a thought-provoking article. If there is no leadership of the masses the masses disintegrate, it could be argued. Leadership encourages opportunist power-seekers, like Tony Blair for example, who get into positions of power, but who represent their own views and not those of the movement. Lack of funding is a problem because the poor have nothing left after the rich have robbed them to pay for their exuberant and lavish lifestyles, wars and power politics.
    The difficulty seems to be finding the right new ideas to deprive the super-rich of their super-profits. I’ve given it thought and confess it is beyond me. The nearest thing I can come up with is some kind of international ‘Public Ownership’ group, where essential services and utilities are owned on a non-profit-making basis. But that needs organisation. Most of us are trying to survive from day to day! It’s a tough one. For me violence is against my principles, even though I can see the need for major change.

    • Joost van Steenis October 19, 2012 at 2:32 am

      John Goss, Though life can become more friendly in some kind of “public ownership” group, it will not change the big outside world. The many communes that exist and have existed prove that. In the end the money-guided society intrudes in the humane groups and they are often disintegrating. I want a paradigm shift by which the idea that money rules all will be replaced by the idea that all people have the same status. Only then we get another kind of decsions. To achieve that we can become active in preventing that the super rich can spend their ill-gotten money. I advance for that the slogan “spending 200.000 euro in one year should be the limit”. It is as guide for actions against all those articles, services and places that are out of bounds for people who cannot spend more than 200.000 euro in one year (of course a arbitrary amount of money). Concerning the use of violence you have first to define what you mean by violence. Our society is drenched in violence – for example as workers are forced to get psycholigal help because of the violent pressure of employers. I am not in favour of killing people from the 1% but on increasing pressure on their life so they are forced to think and behave different – not in the least by preventing that their decsions are based on getting more money instead of improving the life of common citizens.

  2. Mike October 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

    “Occupy” was the wrong meme. It should have been “Witness”.

    Bearing clear-eyed, silent witness — like those who formed a gauntlet of mute witnesses at the Virginia statehouse, during the vaginal probe incident — would have been far more effective, would have been supported by a much broader portion of the populace, and would have been far more effective in shaming the oligarchs and calling attention to what they do.

    There is no defense to “Witnessing Wall Street”, but “Occupying Wall Street” justifies the powers that be to roll out the police.

  3. Eddie October 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Gilbert suggested I share my comments on this article with you! Blessings~
    Good article to get the conversation going. There is much about the writer’s approach/perspective that I differ with, though. Yes, Occupy has no unifying Focus, but that is not to say that it must. But rather I would suggest a clear and potent BASIS for action, a universal ethic, if you will, to guide all individually-driven actions toward our common goals.

    Whereas the author asserts that “A new movement should minimize mass actions and initiate small autonomous actions common people can carry out with the capabilities and possibilities they have”, I would suggest that large-scale movements need be a RESULT of the small autonomous actions, both spontaneous and authentic (intrinsically motivated)…. Where else will we find the passion and tenacity, the staying power of the individuals composing the 99%? Let the people do as they will, and we may find that each person will choose large-scale actions IF they are congruent with the spontaneous, leaderless organization that was the hallmark of the Occupy Movement itself.

    “Soon this unifying target was replaced by partial political demands that have never changed the world. Occupiers fell back on old action methods.”

    Yep. Conventional political activism is a dead end, has always been, a great place to squander our energies inside the box of common thought. And majority rules…

  4. Joost van Steenis October 24, 2012 at 3:33 am

    Mike, being “witness” can have some success in partial political demands but not on the 1%. The 1%, the real rulers of the world, live in a separate, extravagant world in which the “silence” and other mass protests hardly penetrate. That is also my answer to Eddie who states that “each person will choose large-scale actions”. I do not agree. In my vast experience in mass movements only a small percentage of The People are participating in mass actions and others sympathize, some give information to the street activists but most do not develop an own power against the rulers. That is prevented because most activist organizers tend to direct all activities on mass-actions and not on penetrating in the private living sphere (and the minds) of the 1%. The action (and the appearance in the media) is more important than the result of the actions. In the past mass actions have had some success (though the wealth gap did still increase) but the authorities have learned how to cope with this kind of actions and so we have to search for other kinds of actions that can be carried out without interference or blocking from above. I propose such actions and I reproach activist leaders to cling to old ways and thus deceiving people who want to become active. I repeat that most people though they are very much dissatisfied will not participate in mass actions. Occupy started to fight against a very high target, the 1%, but did not yet succeed because small successes were lacking and the unifying target disappeared. Society is rotten in the core so for change we should direct ourselves on repairing that core and not on the rotten places at the rind of the apple.

  5. Eddie October 25, 2012 at 3:04 am

    Actually, what I said was:

    “we may find that each person will choose large-scale actions IF they are congruent with the spontaneous, leaderless organization that was the hallmark of the Occupy Movement itself.”

    That is a big IF. You see, what I think critical–absolutely critical–is the realization that you spoke only glancingly about, Joost. The matter of autonomous action. It’s interesting how I frequently hear speak of autonomy and leaderless movements, and nearly in the same sentence I hear how we need to steer the movement into a particular action… as if the 99% were a monstrous bull that, if only we could harness it’s fearsome power and direct it at our target, would shatter the heinous enemy fortress and destroy the hidden hand… And so I can only shake my head at the misunderstanding.

    You see, the targets are multitudinal, and they are systemic. They are Not the 1%. I repeat–the 1% are not our targets… Viable targets are as numerous as there are creative tactics. Why? Because individuals have unique station and perspective in society, along with varying levels of access to the offending corporate complex. The issue is with the system itself, strutted and supported by the tacit agreement of all whom participate with it.. And where is the system?


    The 1% are not the target… that is the great misunderstanding from the resultant explosion of conversations that came from the Occupy Movement’s “We are the 99%” slogan. That’s why invariably those who sought a civilized means of correcting the perceived violation, lapsed into the seduction of legislative and political process. And those more radical and chaotic chose demonstrations of force, demanding in frustration the change that can never come. (For there was is no genie to fulfill the wish)

    No, it is not really about the 1%……… It is about US. Us–you, me and everyone else whom have permitted this to happen, including the 1%. It is about how we choose to live, and from whence all political power comes. It is about us. And what is possible.

    The Occupy Movement came as a sudden and miraculous surprise, stunning the world scene with it’s spontaneity, and baffling social and political experts. How could there possibly be a leaderless movement that was so responsive, so organized, and so effective? Well, at least that was the conversation in the beginning. For in the beginning, we were shown what was possible when there were no agendas, no attack plans, no organizers and no one to tell another person what they should be doing. Instead, individuals joined for their own wide-ranging reasons, compelled to help however they were inspired. And we were given a glimpse of a world where autonomous action was allowed to reign… and just how efficient and powerful the organizing force of the heart, our common spirit.

    The Key, my friends, is the heart. Awaken that within us, your human family, and you will have awakened our sovereign right to Create a new world free from the fearful need to comply.

  6. Joost van Steenis October 26, 2012 at 1:05 am

    Dear Eddie. A leaderless movement does not mean that individuals may not try to steer the movement in a certain direction by advancing arguments about tactics and targets. Leaders have to do with organisation in which leaders compel others to do what they want to do and block other points of view. I have been excluded from some Occupy sites because I proposed the use of some violence in actions while the blockers only wanted to use non-violent methods though they never entered in a discussion what it means to have a non-violent action, e.g. the problem that the target is not attacked violently but the attackers are violently treated by the police. I propose that actions must have minimal damage to the activists and create maximal pressure on the targets. That was not accepted by some non-violent leaders who prevent even a discussion about this subject.

    I can agree with your last sentence to create a world free of …. but you do not advance any argument why the 1% should not be targeted. You speak about the system but any system is man-made – in fact the same argument why a movement to reach another world should be leaderless. The People are consciously forced to adapt the ideas of leaders who use their power to benefit themselves at the cost of the followers. The organisation and the leadership becomes more important than the well-being of the members of the organisation, a trend that is already a hundred years ago described by Roberto Michels in regard to trade-unions., in his “The iron law of oligarchy”. The communist and fascist revolutions have always tried to change systems but in vain, the system in which a small leadership rises above the masses always has returned after an initial enthusiasm of the 99% because a change seemed to occur. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred in the first place because a new 1% had taken power and not because of some machinations of outside (American) forces. You underestimate the role of the 1%, the separate world in which they live and a world they wish to maintain. G. William Domhoff has described this world quite well. And also the personal efforts of leaders of this world to maintain that situation. The autonomy of the 99% can only be achieved when the 1% disappears. That is the target and that caused the enthusiasm of the 99% for the new movement Occupy. But alas, old ideas forced on activists by self-appointed leaders blocked the movement and the enthusiasm disappeared – and thus the movement. The only way to a new world is to start taking the money and the power away from the 1% we do not need anymore in that new humane world.

  7. Eddie October 27, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I understand your perspective, Joost, certainly a valid one. And I honor your wish to see an end to what appears as blatant and outstanding tyranny imposed from an elite few… YET I am not interested in ‘advancing argument’ or ‘steering movement’. Rather, I will offer my perspective… My view has come about through an evolution of understanding–from that of perceived enemies, to one where I consider even the small number of individuals, categorized as the 1%, just as much subject to the condition in which they find themselves as any of the 99%… In my humanity, in my heart, I know that it serves no one to ‘target’ them, as tempting and desirable as it may be to finger the blame.

    You see, I have been acquainted with those considered perhaps numbering the 1%. They are human beings just like you and me. They wish to enhance and improve their lives and further their objectives, not unlike so many who live within this capitalistic society. And they are as much influenced by the cultural collective as any.. They just so happen to have most of the stuff. 😉 They are not the ones who don the helmet and padded suit of riot police, who beat and subdue activists that do not comply. They do not sign themselves into military service as sacrificial fodder for the exploits of the military-industrial complex. They are not the millions of Americans who, day in and day out, conform to societal norms and consume the ready-made products of corrupt industry and big business. THEY (them), simply further the formula of success as outlined by our collective agreement.

    The 1%, like most people, are simply afraid.

    In a world where accumulation of material wealth is exalted, there will always be winners and losers. This is a fact. Our competitive socio-economic model makes certain of this. That is until we decide that we have had enough. And that, my friend, comes about through the ripening of consciousness, that results from the painful folly and consequences made stark by foolish choices. Quite simply, the 1% are FULFILLING the much needed elaboration of circumstances that we beckon for, in order for us all to truly understand what is important..

    In other words–we created the 1%.

    It’s high time that WE begin taking responsibility and stop pointing the finger. Where does the power lie after all? The people, right? .. And where is Society? WHO is society? …

    The revolution toward our common peace and mutual prosperity, inevitable, will come when we lay down our guns, contracts and instruments of violence. It will have arrived, when we return to the reality of our situation. Know that when you do battle with your human family, you can only hurt yourself.

    Again, I tell you, the problem is systemic. Look at what we have created. Learn from it. Then, together, we can step forward in a new fashion never before seen on this planet. Let that humble spirit, the mutual respect and honoring of individuals as the unique gifts that they are, elevate us to unimaginable creative heights, when we allow every ONE to likewise settle into the foundation of what they really are. The heart.

  8. Eddie October 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    You may require greater clarification, Joost, so feel free to continue prodding me. I can only write so much at a time. 😉 Blessings~

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