I Wrote this piece in May just after the #GeneralStrike on #MayDay that brought 10s of thousands of people into the streets of lower manhattan in an outcry against all forms social, political, and economic exploitation and repression of working class people all over the country and world. With the passing of the #S17 Anniversary demonstrations and the subsequent police repression, I have been reflecting alot on the beauty of the movement in acting as a social awakening for millions of Americans fed up with economic disparity.
The emergence of Occupy Wall Street is the product of a tradition of local organizing for social justice, an umbrella of social and economic grievances that have been unified by the idea of a 24/7 protest, and the historical inevitability of capitalism’s demise as the result of the self-destructive tendency that is inherent to the underlying profit motive that drives capitalism. The Occupy Movement is a historical global social awakening that began within the financial capital of the world, but its roots are drawn to years of growing discontent with increasing stratification of wealth, speculative profiteering, and rigged economic system that favors the rich and limits social mobility for the poor. In it’s essence the Occupy Movement has illustrated to the world that democracy and capitalism cannot co-exist.
Less than a year ago, a small group of political campers in New York’s financial district slowly drew worldwide attention, while sparking a global uprising that has shaken the wealthiest percentile of the world to it’s core. The official story is that a leftist publication issued a call to camp out on Wall Street, and a variety of activists answered the call; After rampant police misconduct was captured on tape, numbers swelled and the cause drew a worldwide following (Van Gelder, pp. 2). Yet underneath the official stories are many layers of community organizing, socio-economic issues, and systematic deficiencies that led to this apparently sudden explosion of populist resistance to the inequality that exists all over the world. The movement has emerged as the legitimate representation and spirit of all global social revolutions throughout history. It’s expression in the 21st century is reflective of the (post) industrial world where it has thrived; acting in fulfillment of the marxist concept of global proletarian revolution.
Most accounts of Occupy’s organizing origins are traced to the Spanish Indignados who slept overnight in plazas across the country or the Egyptian Revolutionaries who set up camp in Tahrir Square (Van Gelder, pp.17), but as a result of the global consequences of the movement, millions have forgotten to pay credence to the decades of underground organizing by New Yorkers who experience the stratification of capitalism on a daily basis in a city of projects and corporate headquarters, where monthly apartment rent ranges from $150 to over $5000 (Citizens,).
In the summer before Occupy, New Yorker’s created a two-week long camp known as “Bloombergville,” in order to protest city-wide budget cuts. Bloombergville had limited success and publicity, but it set the stage for Occupying New York City. But before Bloombergville, several major social movements acted as precursors for the occupation. Primarily the Anti-War Movement and the Anti-Police Brutality movement. in the years leading up to Occupy, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers had been taking to the streets regularly and with the occasional spurt of high frequency. With George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the NYPD killings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell; Massive demonstrations and coalitions mobilized and familiarized many New Yorkers who would later become Occupiers into the social justice struggle.
Historically, the city has been a focal point of dissent, but what made New York perfect for the original occupation was the amount of corporate functionaries that have made New York home at the expense of many low-income New Yorker’s homes. local issues of constant budget cuts, privatization, police brutality, and gentrification fueled massive outpouring of New Yorkers in support of the park when it was initially threatened with a “cleaning” (Van Gelder, pp. 32). It is crucial to note the roll of the New York public in supporting the mass actions of Occupy Wall Street, as urban workers and students in stratified cities across the U.S. were key in the succeful civil disobediences and subsequent spreading of the movement.
III. An Avalanche of Social and Economic Grievances
It was the fall of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck, but it still seems like yesterday that the world was watching for days as crowds of low-income, predominantly black, New Orleanians were left to starve in the Superdome. In the aftermath, neoliberal politicians and monied business interests swooped in and privatized the public school system while destroying entirely the public housing system. In place of these social services, grandoise schemes for luxury hotels, condos, and even casinos were thrown into the picture as a masquerade for a “smaller, safer city” (Klein, pp. 7). The issues in New Orleans are far from isolated, and in fact are just a small part of the social and economic plight of Americans which fomented into Occupy Wall Street.
The struggle of Americans in the twenty-first century is primarily against the systematic consequences of a neoliberal capitalist system. This struggle entails urban decay, a lack of affordable housing options/foreclosures, a lack of universal access to healthcare, rural and inner-city poverty, a crumbling public education system, rising costs of higher education/giant amounts of student debt, corporate dominated food supply, increasing stratification of wealth, austerity measures to social services/safety nets, privatizations, gentrification, environmental degradation, and a variety of other issues that are parralleled globally. In this context, conditions for a social revolution are ripe; the expression of a social movement within the modern police state coupled with the lack of common public space resulted in this new form of encampment protest.
IV. A Rotten System
When a 26 year-old Tunisian vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the police extortion of his wares to the extent that he could not feed his family, it was not an isolated incident (OR Books, pp. 5). It was the result of a decaying global capitalist system that encourages police repression, and tolerates widespread poverty. It was the single most defiant action of our time against the legacy of the Chicago Boys and Milton Friedman in perpetuating disaster capitalism throughout the world (Klein, pp. 158) While capitalism has led to many of the economic crises in America and globally, it has been the failure of the the corporate political system that really projected the Occupy Movement as an alternative to current system.
In it’s early stages, Occupy camps across the nation became sites where an umbrella of social grievances were aired 24/7. Experiments of grassroots democracy and collective handling of resources like the kitchen and library provided for a glimpse of the new world within the old. After years of bank bailouts, school closures in New York, and with an election year coming up; Occupy seized the perfect moment to condemn a broken system.
In particular, the General Assembly embodied the spirit of grassroots, non-hierarchial, collectivist, direct democracy. The General Assembly is a collective gathering of the public on the steps of Zuccotti Park where decisions would be made through consensus based decisions. Proposals were modified so all in the group agree with the proposal, furthermore a progressive stack that gives an advantage to traditionally under-represented groups and a system that allowed people to signal their feelings without speaking helped created an open atmosphere (OR Books, pp. 25-30). The adaptation of the “people’s mic” technique of call-and-repeat in order amplify people’s voices and unify them added to the consensus building process and feeling of unity between participants (Ibid, pp. 25-26).
The success of the General Assembly highlighted the anachronistic and bankrupt nature of the bourgeois democratic system that the U.S. functions by. It provided a living critique of corporate lobbying, the citizen’s united court ruling, and elite monied interests in congress and the white house. At the same time, the General assembly provided a more democratic alternative to entire political structure through mass popular support.
On the global economic front for democracy, similar developments have been occurring in Latin America in the past decade embodied in the horizontalism movement of worker collectives taking over shuttered factories. Beginning with neighborhood assemblies that arose out of the IMF sponsored freeze on small personal bank accounts in Argentina during an economic crises, workers began organizing and taking over shuttered factories like Zanon and defending them in battles (Sitrin, pp. 19). These factory takeovers resulted in cooperative democratic workplaces where all workers ran the factories together without any sort of hierarchy, and were in response to the failure of governments and businesses in creating jobs, not to mention ones with living wages and pensions (Ibid, pp. 46). The worker cooperatives provided for an alternative to the top down structure that people have come to accept in the capitalist workplace; by taking control of the factories themselves, workers were not only owning their own labor but creating a more efficient and democratic system that drew state repression as it challenged the top down bureaucratic management of capitalism.
Aside from the grassroots popular alternatives to the current system, the principle forerunner to the Occupy movement and its 99% theme was the inequality of wealth. With over 80% of congress being part of the 1%, and the 1% controlling over 40% of the total wealth; a dire situation had been created in America. As a result of a neo-colonial corporate system, people’s frustrations with the system found release in a unique social movement that was able to miraculously thrive within in the belly of the financial beast
Occupy Wall Street was a rare breakthrough of human expression and resistance to a broken repressive social order. Its wildfire spread was due to the perfect conditions derived from one of the worst global economic recessions . Yet to understand what led to the movements sudden explosion, it is important to recognize the decades of local organizing, the increasing social and economic poverty and stratification, and the anti-democratic political bureaucracy that exists all over the globe. The central grievance of Occupy Wall Street came out of frustration with the bank bailouts, and the idea of an increasingly unequal society. But it is also a movement connected to history in that it is similar to all past historical insurrections and revolutions against repressive government and economic conditions. Yet what was different between the occupy movement, and the revolution that brought democracy to Haiti or socialism to the Soviet Union, was the reality that Occupy was a phenomenon that spread through largely developed countries and thrived in urban areas.
Occupy represented part of the gradual fulfillment of the marxist prophecy that only a revolution by workers in the industrial and post-industrial world will be able to truly bring down capitalism. During the American Autumn, it seemed like that was precisely so. Day-after-day, actions were occuring in the city that disrupted business as usual, and forced bankers and the 1% to see the consequences of their actions on a daily basis. When people look back at the Occupy movement as a part of history, they will see it’s significance in uniting social justice movements within the belly of the beast, and targetting instruments of the global capitalist system using popular support in a way never before accomplished in American history. Through the brutal police repression and complex economic critiques put forward by the movement, it became apparent that democracy cannot exist in corporate capitalism, and that in fact corporatism destroys democracy.
Popular resistance and support built by years of layoffs, outsourcing, foreclosures, austerity measures, war profiteering, and decaying infrastructure. Popular support that is growing and based of a myriad of loosely connected issues that critique the entire social and economic system down to it’s core. The Occupy experience was akin to the 1905 uprising in Russia in that it provided a living memory of a revolt against the system that paved the road for future liberation. How the occupy movement will be written into history all depends on the what future actions are taken to fulfill its legacy.
Klein, Naomi. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador/Pan Books. ISBN: 9780312427993.
Sitrin, Marina. (2006). Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina. AK Press. ISBN: 9781904859581.
Van Gelder, Sarah. (2011). This Changes Every Thing: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement. Yes! Magazine. Berret Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Franscisco. ISBN: 978160994587.
Writers for the 99%. (2011). Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. OR Books. ISBN: 9781935928683.