A lot can change in two months. When intrepid activists descended on Zuccotti Park on 17 September 2011, few expected that they would spend the night. Within a month, their occupation had spread to dozens of other outposts across the land. A month later, most of the parks and squares had been cleared. Officially undaunted, the occupiers clamoured throughout 2012 to gain purchase in stormier, windswept fields. But it was no use: in a movement called ‘Occupy’, the struggle and the encampment were one.
Sooner or later, even great eulogies become historical footnotes. What, then, can be learned from Occupy now that its arc can be traced in a single meagre paragraph? According to Walter Benjamin, adopting a position downstream from an event's source could provide an analytic opportunity (1978b, 177). From such a position, he maintained, the critic might judge a current's force. Now that Zuccotti is a wasteland in a wasteland again (so sterile that even the office workers in adjoining towers won't eat lunch there), we can take stock of what we learned – and make lists of the questions that still demand answers.
Why, for instance, did the movement's renunciation of kleptocracy spread at such an epidemic rate, and how did a continent beset by tent cities in the autumn have little more to confront than a barricade's worth of hasty anthologies and slapdash monographs come spring? On the surface, the struggle to understand a movement's rise and fall seems to demand an analysis of the swirling vortices that guide the circulation of struggle. But while such an approach might help us to understand Occupy's degeneration from lighting rod to empty signifier, it's also true that it's likely to overlook the importance of foundational political concepts. However, once political concepts – and, indeed, the meaning of politics itself – are foregrounded, both the movement's contagious appeal and its rapid decomposition become instantly comprehensible.
Indeed, not since The Port Huron Statement has an American movement been so successful in revitalising our engagement with the conceptual bedrock of politics. Among these concepts, perhaps the most cherished was ‘democracy’ itself. Ringing out with People's Mic choirs, the movement's General Assemblies could not help but remind us of the church-basement enthusiasm that, for Tocqueville, was the very heart of Democracy in America.