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 Michael Collins’ response:
Richards paints a chilling image of the millennial generation: brainwashed, siloed and retreating from public life into individualist activism or — even worse — the ephemeral glow of distraction devices never more than an arm’s length away.
He ignores, however, the genuine contributions that he and other Occupy folks made that will far outlast experimental autonomous communities. Occupy Wall Street and its dizzying array of affiliates co-opted the national conversation from the same corporate forces Richards views as monolithic and all-powerful. Their media savvy — and horizontalist approach — shielded Occupy from some of the most brutal forms of state repression. There were no Fred Hampton-style assassinations. No mass shootings on college campuses. No aerial bombing like with MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985.
Where Richards sees a failure to overthrow capitalism, I see an energetic effort by mostly white, formerly middle-class college graduates to reassert their privilege in a crumbling economic system. As an American descendent of enslaved Africans, I watched Occupy Chicago with deep skepticism. Signs, speeches and protests offered a compelling critique of a financial sector out of control and an unresponsive Congress (a critique also offered by Tea Partiers). But what I found most dispiriting was the lack of an inclusive and compelling vision of the future.
Change-making requires a faith that people are strongest when they cooperate in broad coalition. I see the dispersal of Occupy into smaller local initiatives not as a failure but as an awakening to a new political reality. Citizens must build strong local coalitions in coordination with international efforts if we ever hope to constrain the power of state-less corporations and the new aristocrats who manage them.
I have no illusion that there is any single historical dialectic that “bends towards justice.” I imagine the future of social movements will be much like the past: led by young folk who awkwardly strike out in the stubborn belief that they can call into being a better and more just world.