The first real sign that the #occupy movement was getting serious traction was when people start trying to co-opt it or demonise it for their own purposes. The Democrats, from President Obama on down, began making sympathetic noises nearly a fortnight ago. There was subsequent talk of how the movement could fill the “enthusiasm gap” on the Left, or what masquerades badly as the Left in US mainstream politics. You can see the thinking there — people willing to sleep rough in Zuccotti Park might counterbalance all those angry Tea Party types.

Republicans, alternatively, began trying to frame the protests as “an attack on freedom”. This week right-wing media groups began trying to claim the whole movement was the puppet of some left-wing journalists (yes, left-wing journos as Svengalis). Crikey even ran a local version of the same phenomenon yesterday, with Tanja Kovac trying to argue the movement was merely the late 1990s “global justice movement”, represented in Australia by the 2000 S11 protests, rebadged.

Nice try, but the #occupy movement — non-partisan, and encompassing a huge variety of political inclinations — is being fuelled very specifically by the lingering consequences of the GFC in the US and its unfolding sequel across the Atlantic, being managed by the Europeans apparently with an intention of making the Bush administration’s efforts look best practice. The propellant is unemployment, and the incapacity or unwillingness of the political classes of either the US or Europe to address it.

US unemployment is more than 9%, before you consider underemployment or that country’s huge rates of incarceration. UK unemployment is over 8%, France 10%. And unemployment in Spain, where the Arab Spring-inspired direct model for #occupy began in May with the indignados movement, is a staggering 21%. As always, youth unemployment is much worse.

These are wasted generation levels of joblessness, condemning millions of people, particularly but not only the young, to years of low income and diminished prospects, often permanently reducing their skills, employment prospects and lifetime income. It’s a disaster at a personal and population-wide level as human capital goes begging. In the US, massive un- and underemployment are reinforced by a country-wide ongoing property foreclosure problem and the lack of even basic support through workplace protections or a universal healthcare system.

In one sense, despite the claims of  Kovac and movement’s critics of the Right, this is about the failure of capitalism to work properly, rather than an attack on capitalism itself. But the catalyst — for there have been similarly high and higher rates of unemployment before, of course — is the perception that in fact capitalism is now working exactly as it is intended to, that it is not broken but functioning effectively at serving the interests of a small élite at the expense of everyone else, including the middle class long seen as the socio-economic ballast of Western society.

The targets of the movement are thus not merely bankers, but conservative economists, mainstream politicians, the forces of law and order they have at their disposal and the mainstream media that reinforces a status quo now hugely tilted against everyone outside the golden circle of economic power.

The protests also share many of the characteristics of the internet from which they emerged (I have a sneaking feeling the internet is a community-forming technology that may reverse the long-term atomising effects of television, that’s a piece of wild speculation for another day). They are leaderless, educated, strongly — even painfully — democratic (the Zuccotti Park gathering has a daily, consensus-based planning meeting open to all comers), more middle class than working class, and lack a clear positive agenda.

In fact the biggest debate over the #occupy protests is now whether they need a positive agenda (or whether said need is a mainstream media tactic to undermine the movement) and what it should be if they do. This is the messy real-world outgrowth of communities that have developed online and have well-established online norms and cultures, and that reflexively use as protest tools mobile internet services, social media, collaborative blogs and mobile phone cameras to undermine the traditional state surveillance monopoly.

Attempts to shoehorn the movement into existing real-world frameworks — left-wing cats-paws, Tea Party counterweight, potential enthusiasm injection for the Obama ’12 campaign, the rekindled embers of a 1990s anti-globalisation movement, etc etc — therefore might succeed at a propaganda level, but are ultimately flawed analysis. Internet communities operate by different, far less structured rules than real-world communities.

They are anti-hierarchical, reflecting the technology underlying their creation, and as communities rather than ideological groupings they fit poorly within traditional political narratives (part of the reason they are struggling to articulate a positive program). Unlike the Tea Party, within which initially authentic outpourings of small-town economic angst have long since been overgrown by blades of astroturf funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, the #occupy movement will be almost impossible to co-opt, especially by a party as discredited in protesters’ eyes as the Democrats.

And there’s a lesson there for people who glibly suggest, as some in the Labor Party are suggesting at the moment, that mainstream political parties need to somehow acquire an online existence, as if one could be bolted on to create a workable whole. A virtual leg on a real-world body won’t work any more on a political party than a person.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey