Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with those affected by generations of structural violence. You can help »

The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues
OCT 2021 Issue
Field Notes

Occupied

People’s Library at Zuccotti Park on Wednesday, November 2, Day 47 of Occupy Wall Street. Photo: David Shankbone.
People’s Library at Zuccotti Park on Wednesday, November 2, Day 47 of Occupy Wall Street. Photo: David Shankbone.

Only 20-odd years ago a former girlfriend, a political opinion writer, amused herself and her readers by portraying me in her center-left publication column as a character she called “the Last Marxist.” Of course in reality academic Marxists and leftover sectarians never stopped grinding on in their minor way, but at the time the point was well-enough taken to raise a chuckle. How different things are today! Actual elected officials declare themselves “socialists,” and “Marxism” apparently runs rampant in American culture, castigated by Trumpian pundits as responsible for such disparate evils as modernist architecture and Critical Race Theory (CRT). In fact they have an (inadvertent) point: leaving aside its origins as a respectable law professor-originated doctrine, CRT has come to signify the recognition of structural racism basic to any serious Marxist (or other) understanding of contemporary society. Most generally, the renewed use of these terms is a symptom of a shift in American political discourse towards the frank expression of class interests—a transformation naturally in constant conflict with the existing system of political representation.

Both the transformation and the conflict are vividly visible in the media outpouring of commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Occupy movement of 2011. From the Financial Times’s query, “Did Occupy Wall Street Mean Anything at All?”—answered on the spot by the FT subscription come-on above that headline: “Another World Is Possible”—to In These Times’s “Occupy Wall Street Trained a Generation in Class War,” everyone seems to recognize the event’s importance. Even more, despite the variety of article titles, almost all the commentary shares a common view of the significance of Occupy, praised by the whole spectrum from “center” to “left” for its anarchic openness and energy but criticized for its lack of agenda, leadership, and most of all, organizational structure. Occupy’s most significant lasting effects, according to the general opinion, were the production of political awareness and energy that could be “harnessed,” to use the word of In These Times’s Arun Gupta, by political organizations like that promoting a 15 dollar minimum wage or the Bernie Sanders campaign for the presidency. According to Michael Levitin, author of a timely book, Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy (Counterpoint, 2021), “Occupy made protesting cool again. … In the words of Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, ‘Occupy shifted the political culture of the U.S.,’ birthing an era in which ‘liberals have been radicalized and radicals have been electoralized.’”1 Similarly, Micah Sifry, writing for The New Republic (TNR), writes that the spirit of cynicism about politicians, “which made [Occupy] so authentic, haunts everyone who wants to build progressive change in America,” because “cynicism is an ally of the status quo. Change is only made by people who believe change is possible”2—no doubt a point of commonality between TNR and Financial Times.

One would never know from these articles that the Sanders campaign went down to defeat at the hands of a Democratic Party firmly controlled by the usual suspects, and that the 15 dollar minimum, though imposed in a few localities, was roundly rejected on the national level, swept off the dinner table along with Medicare for All, an eviction moratorium, and continued unemployment relief. As columnist Helaine Olen observed in the Washington Post, “Occupy Wall Street contributed to a climate in which, say, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) could wear a dress with the words ‘Tax the Rich’ emblazoned on it to a 35,000-dollar-a-ticket gala. But expressing the sentiment can’t actually make it happen.” The wealthy, she observes “are doing better now than ever before”; during the recent pandemic period alone, “American billionaires increased their overall worth by 55 percent.”3

Still, the much ado occasioned by the anniversary of Occupy is hardly about nothing, though the opinion writers’ efforts to celebrate the event obscure rather than illuminate its significance. The writers speak, naturally, for their fellows, their own class fraction: writers, academics, and political professionals. For Jacobin’s Alex Press, what is important is that “Occupy Wall Street Made Me a Socialist,” which meant in practice, after pursuing “a PhD program to study inequality,” writing about left politics for various publications.4 If there is any monument to Occupy, however, it is not the revival of center-left Democratic politics in print and practice but the popular understanding of American society as divided between the 99% and the 1%, on the one hand, and of the need for direct—as opposed to political-representative—action, on the other.

The stand-in for class analysis expressed in the cry of the “99%” crystallized in the wake of the 2008 bailout of the financial system by the Obama regime, which left millions drowning in a sea of mortgage and other debt. While only a minority participated in the occupations, the very fact that they spread almost instantly from New York to 600 other cities and towns—unlike, for example, the earlier demonstrations against globalization in Seattle and elsewhere—suggests the degree to which Occupy captured something felt by tens of millions of people. And not just in the USA: it was obvious that the takeovers of public space as a tactic echoed the earlier European movement of the squares and the mass occupations of civic spaces of the Arab Spring.

Of course, the movement was doomed to rapid disappearance; all radical movements must either spread, in particular to the sites of social production and reproduction where actual social power is concentrated, be physically crushed, or disperse on their own. This one indeed, as the various commemorations of it testify, left residues in electoral politics and left-wing discussion. The leftward shift in American politics (like that visible elsewhere in such developments as the appearance of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, or—briefly—Momentum in Great Britain) was of course not produced so much by Occupy as by the social conditions that burst into sharp focus in that movement. By the same token, its more significant continuation is to be seen in the George Floyd Rebellion, in which for the first time “whites” joined Black people in a leaderless national protest against the endemic police violence that enforces white supremacy and social order more generally. By this time the lessons of socioeconomic inequality had been underlined by the differential effects of a pandemic allowed to rage by the incompetence and miserliness of the political ruling class.

The rebellion too dissipated quickly, the normal obstacles to continuation enhanced by a combination of fierce police and military repression and the almost immediate absorption of movement energies by politicians and self-appointed leaders of all sorts. (The rapidity of the move from the burning of the Minneapolis Third Precinct to local and national politicians’ call for defunding the police to their backtracking and the expansion of police budgets nationwide was dizzying.) On this occasion too, people have seen the degree to which the system will resist demands for the most modest changes, like restraining the cops’ readiness to injure and kill Black people (and working-class people generally).

At the same time, the political apparatus has come to see the necessity of providing some sort of safety net, however flimsy, together with maintaining police violence, as part of a strategy to inhibit uprisings in a period of mass immiseration. Now they are trying to figure out how this can be accomplished without unduly impinging on the wealth of the 1%, just as they are concerned to respond to the social and economic effects of climate change without denting an economy based on fossil fuels and environmental destruction. Such fundamental problems cannot, however, be mastered by representative democracy, anchored firmly in the control of social resources by a small class of capital-owners. This is more true than ever at a time when the normal progress of the economic system has led to such a degree of stagnation that it doesn’t seem capable even of renewing its existing infrastructure, much less of embarking on a new cycle of investment capable of satisfying the needs and wants of the world’s billions.

In the face of this situation, the lessons to be drawn from Occupy are different from those insisted on by the professional commentators: as with the George Floyd Rebellion, it is in rejecting representation by professionals, politicians or activists, in favor of taking whatever direct action circumstances demand, that hope for the future lies. Ultimately, it is in the direct confrontation with material realities—the need for food and shelter, the necessity of disarming the police and of asserting control over the social resources it is the vocation of the police to protect—that people will be able to find the forms of organization and action that will lead us out of a social system headed straight for hell.

In its most immediate form, this seems to have been understood by the millions of employees who have stopped showing up for the jobs they just can’t stand anymore; by the groups of workers of all sorts—teachers, factory workers, retail clerks, nurses, fast-food cooks, and servers—going on strikes large and small, week after week, all over the country. Like Occupy and the Rebellion, such actions also quickly meet their limits of effectiveness. But they show that the will for lives worth living that moved people to wide scale rebellion 10 years ago, and again last year, is alive and well.

  1. M. Levitin, “Occupy Wall Street Did More Than You Think,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/how-occupy-wall-street-reshaped-america/620064/.
  2. https://newrepublic.com/article/163680/occupy-wall-street-10-year-anniversary-lessons.
  3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/09/18/occupy-wall-street-won-future/.
  4. https://jacobinmag.com/2021/09/occupy-wall-street-anniversary-boston-dewey-square-99-percent.
close

The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues