Dissertation Abstracts

Claiming the Century: The Promise of Social Movements and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century

Author: Taylor, Dylan M, dylanmtaylor@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: University of Auckland, New Zealand
Supervisor: Colin Cremin
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Occupy , Social Movements , Marxism , Anarchism
Areas of Research: Political Sociology , Social Classes and Social Movements , Economy and Society


Occupy leaves an enigmatic legacy for those studying collective action. It challenged capital and sought to overcome the crisis of democracy, but was short lived. The inability of the movement to endure and enact substantive change highlights the impasse reached by today’s left. A critical appraisal of Occupy—of its strengths and weaknesses, of how it reflects the wider social situation of which it is a part—is desperately needed if the left is to overcome its current shortcomings. Unfortunately most studies of the movement offer only general observations, focus on particular issues and encampments, or overemphasize the role of social media. As yet no satisfactory answers have been offered as to what direction future action might take. The limited scope of most existing studies can be rectified by adopting a Marxist perspective. Occupy needs to be situated historically and seen as the latest iteration in a long arc of contestation. In addition, the restricted range of social movement studies can be expanded through considerations of political economy. Taking account of the dynamics of capital explains the structural factors driving contestation today. In addition, an appraisal of current left political theory provides strategic insights with which to assess movements’ actions. Analysis of all online material produced by four Occupy encampments (Wall Street, Oakland, Melbourne and London), supplemented by the voluminous body of literature produced on the movement, provides a view that is unique in its breadth. The hegemony of anarchism within the movement—with its emphasis on horizontal organizational structures and rejection of the state—undermined its capacity to persist. The adoption of the ‘99%’ moniker signaled the desire for a collective subject capable of challenging capital, but the slogan was too diffuse to anchor such an actor. The movement was primarily orientated toward physical space, not cyberspace, but the temporary nature of encampments limited Occupy’s capacity to re-imagine everyday life. A post-Occupy politics needs to recognize (as suggested by Nicos Poulantzas) the need to struggle both within and against the state. A rejuvenated class based communist party is needed; only then might social movements from below be able to claim the twenty-first century.