Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Horizontalism and the Occupy Movement

          As the Occupy movement stretches across the nation, the United States is experiencing yet another episode of protest sparked by the ongoing economic recession and its effect on the widening wealth gap between the nation’s economic classes. In a decentralized outpouring of frustration, individuals are assembling to make their voices heard – although the voices lack a unified ring.
          At this point, the movement’s concrete goals seem unclear. While some localities have developed specific calls for action (e.g. Chicago, which issued a list of twelve demands on Sunday, October 16), the movement still lacks an overarching mission statement apart from the vision of decreasing wealth disparity. Various scholars point to the movement’s potential power from this disunity – one that is giving “time for activists to find each other, for them to identify common grievances and goals, even to identify their political opponents and how to attack the problem” (per Michelle Nickerson, Assistant professor of history at Loyola University).
          As we examine the movement in light of this disunity, its efficacy may hinge upon the strength of its organizational strategy and process. While Obama’s 2008 campaign and the Tea Party’s rise are recent examples of successful public assembly to achieve political ends, the Occupy movement may not fit within this policitized framework.
          Organizer, lawyer, and postdoctoral fellow at the Committee on Globalization and Social change Marina Sitrin argues that the movement fits better into “horizontal” framework – one that recognizes the need for individuals to come together and make change outside of the government. She cites Argentina after the 2001 economic recession as a protypical example of such a movement,  gaining strength from its “from the people, by the people” approach outside of a traditional political context. She hopes that this is the beginning of a societal shift, in which people begin to form participatory units outside of the traditional political context to create change within their own communities.
          Does this movement have the power to give back Americans the strength of their social capital, which Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone argues has disappeared as we become more socially disconnected in the internet age? Whether widespread and decentralized organization can spring from the Occupy movement is yet to be seen. However,  in examining the movement’s efficacy, we must look less to its political accomplishments and focus on the ways it expands our strength in achieving ends in workplaces, schools, and towns across the United States.

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