The Naiveté of Nihilism

How Occupy challenged the way we think, speak and act upon resistance.

Marilyn Katz

'I love Occupy. I love the changes in thinking and analyzing it has wrought.' ( Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

For In These Times’ December 2013 cover feature, Generation Hopeless?”, the magazine asked a number of politically savvy people, younger and older, to respond to an essay by 22-year-old Occupy activist Matthew Richards in which he grapples with what the movement meant and whether Occupy’s unfulfilled promises are a lost cause or the seeds of the different world whose promise he glimpsed two years ago. Here is Marilyn Katz’s response: 

'What it did was wake up a somnambulant nation; illuminate the reality of a fundamental change in capitalism that for some reason had eluded all for many years.'

Now that I’ve already done my best to fix the world and it didn’t work, I am at peace with the fact that it is no longer my job and won’t be again for a few more generations to come. I have settled for acts of solitary resistance and disinvolvement, at every possible turn. It’s my religion now,” writes Matthew Richards, age 21.

If these words were written by Chicago civil rights activist Timuel Black who at the age of 90 is writing his biography and was thrilled to get a birthday greeting from President Obama, I would comment on how sad it was that a man who had done so much for and given so much to the world assessed his life that way. That it was written by a 21 year old strikes me not as sad, but short sighted, more than a bit narcissistic, if not absurd.

A Failure? Is he kidding? Occupy was far from a failure; rather it was a great success. No, it didn’t topple Wall Street — that was never going to happen as a result of a takeover (rightly) of what should be public space. What it did was wake up a somnambulant nation; illuminate the reality of a fundamental change in capitalism that for some reason had eluded all for many years. 1%? 99%? These terms no longer need explanation.

What Occupy did was change our fundamental vocabulary and reveal the paradigm of the current state of capitalism. Occupy changed our language. It changed our thinking. And, perhaps most important, while it could not sustain its tactic, as an agitprop event it spawned other movements with a broader base and trajectory.

While living in public space on donated food and porta-potties didn’t seem a sustainable path for many people, Occupy should in fact be given and take credit for the other movements it helped spawned — the living wage’ movement, the fight for $15, and perhaps even the resistance to war that led Obama to negotiate with Syria rather than bomb it into oblivion.

The fact is that while Occupy engaged a few thousand people, many more thousands are acting upon what they learned from and through Occupy to challenge the system in the ways that feel appropriate and sustainable to them.

No this youth cohort did not make the revolution. Nor did my youth cohort — the’60s generation — create the world we envisioned. If there is a difference between us, it is this: we had a sense of history, of where our struggles fit in to a whole series of battles — some won, some lost. And for the most part, we have lived our lives, not settling for solitary resistance and disinvolvement” but jumping in wherever we can to fan the flames and in the process creating great bonds of friendship and sometimes change. Frankly it’s a more interesting life.

I love Occupy. I love the changes in thinking and analyzing it has wrought. To young Matthew I would say, claim and savor your victories as well as your disappointments. If not, you’ll find yourself simply the victim of and complicit with the matrix that you purport to despise.

Marilyn Katz is a writer, consultant, public policy communications strategist and long-time political activist. She is president of MK Communications, a partner in Democracy Partners and a founder and co-chair of the newly formed Chicago Women Take Action.
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