And the possibility of its return
It is doubtless unsurprising that I spend a lot of my small amount of spare time thinking about the past during these plague years we’re suffering through. All the days and weeks and months moving in a small orbit around home and work lend themselves to reflection, one supposes. And I know of few better ways to process whatever ideas happen to be bouncing around in my head than by watching some of my favorite films.
One of which is Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), very loosely based on the novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanisław Lem. I had just checked it out again a few weeks ago—as I have done at least once a year since I first saw it at NYC’s Film Forum in the 1990s. So when I decided to write about the 10th anniversary of the Occupy movement—which I covered as a sympathetic journalist for my former news outlet Open Media Boston—a scene from the sci fi masterpiece sprang immediately to mind.
As I shall recommend that readers do with Occupy itself, you all should take to your favorite search engine to study up on the movie. I don’t feel the need to add to the vast number of articles rehearsing the backstory of either thing at this juncture.
On the popular uprising of fall 2011, all you need to know for now (if you were too young, too busy surviving, or too obtuse to be aware of it at the time) is that it was a global manifestation against the many depredations of capitalism—a continuation of the Arab Spring revolt of earlier that year in many ways. Millions of people took to the streets in hundreds of cities in dozens of countries to protest a political economic system that was making the richest and most powerful 1% of humanity ever richer and more powerful … as the fortunes of all but the professional managerial class that helped the wealthy stay in power crashed to earth in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession.
And on the Tarkovsky masterpiece, I will just say that the five-minute scene that inspired this missive shows a minor character (a late-middle-aged man) being driven on the Shuto Expressway through a Tokyo that now looks simultaneously as futuristic as originally intended and anachronistic. A boy, possibly his son or possibly something far more powerful, bounces in the seat behind him. The car seems to accelerate as time goes by and the vast metropolis presses in on all sides. The character has nowhere to go but forward, but his destination is completely unclear. He has been beaten down by life. And the viewer doesn’t know whether he’s going to pick himself up and fight back against those who are trying to keep him down or not. At the end of the sequence, the focus moves away from the character and one doesn’t know what becomes of him.
Naturally, I read that character as myself. Many of you might read him as yourselves, should you watch Solaris, I don’t know. But here’s how it relates to my view of Occupy: For all the good and bad of the vast street protest movement, the best thing about it to me was that most of the people who made it happen were regular workers—mainly in their 20s and 30s—who had never participated in political activism before. They decided that they wanted a better world for themselves and the billions of fellow workers they called the 99% and were willing to put whatever comfort and security was left in their increasingly difficult lives on the line to get it.
They were defeated … by the giant multinational corporations that drew much of the fire of their protests, by the government leaders in the employ of said companies, by the police departments, military, and intelligence agencies those leaders jointly ordered to bring it down, by long bureaucratized and moribund community organizations and labor unions that thought (correctly) that the new movement threatened to supplant them, and by the foundations whose job is to spread enough ruling class money around to stop the working class from rising up angry.
Their struggle resulted in many developments in the subsequent decade—some positive for working people, some negative—but I think it is better that they tried and failed to make the world a better place, on the balance, than if they had never tried at all.
Like that character in Solaris—and like me, for that matter—it remains to be seen if millions of beaten-down people will organize a movement like Occupy again in our lifetimes. Or if it is just too late for humanity to stop our descent into whatever global-warming-driven hell almost certainly awaits us mere decades hence. No matter how many people protest the 1%. And no matter how successful they are.
The Black Lives Matter movement of the last several years has had many similarities to the Occupy movement and there were definitely connections between the two grassroots protest surges, but it was not the same thing. Actually, BLM was probably bigger than Occupy in the US at its height last year, but understandably smaller elsewhere in the world. It was focused on social justice, yes, but social justice for African-American people by defunding the police and dismantling the carceral state first and foremost. It, too, has been beaten back. However, it is just as likely that the BLM will surge to life again, broaden to encompass all working people, and turn into something better than the Occupy movement as it is that a new Occupy-style movement will arise again independently.
Still, although such a scenario might come to pass, we have no guarantee that it will.
But I sure hope it does.
Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact [email protected] for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2021 Jason Pramas.