This month marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Another significant milestone for September 2021, which should not be ignored, is the 10th anniversary of the movement that came to be called Occupy Wall Street. While scholars may debate its successes, it was the first time my generation started to critique Capitalism.
Many young readers of Mixed Mag may not fully realize it, but before Occupy, the “Left” in America was completely dead. There was no climate justice movement. No “Fight for $15.” No large-scale teacher strikes. There was no Black Lives Matter. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) only had a few thousand members. Bernie Sanders was just another face in the congressional crowd, and the “Squad” didn’t exist. If there was a prominent voice on the Left, it belonged to Dennis Kucinich, who barely made a dent when he ran for president in 2004 and 2008.
Toward the end of the first decade of the new millennium, most people who considered themselves part of “the left” got their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. If they went to a “protest,” it was the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity hosted by these two Comedy Central comedians. (Among the now-cringeworthy signs on display at that event were some that read, “Moderates like it both ways” and “Things are pretty okay.”) For many at the time, Obama’s centrist campaign in 2008 felt like it was the best we could do. And while the right-wing organized and swept the midterms that year (2010), neither the Left nor Stewart and Colbert made any genuine attempt to organize the working class to knock on doors or make calls for Democrats to keep the House. It looked like the end of progressive politics for the rest of the Obama years.
But then, on a fateful day in mid-September 2011, what was supposed to be a protest of just a few dozen lefties, ended up becoming a worldwide movement with hundreds of thousands of protestors in over 951 cities across 82 countries. With the simple slogan “We are the 99%,” the protest movement quickened the public’s consciousness. Those who may never have shown up to a protest before soon became organizers and participants in courageous acts of civil disobedience. Many on the left today credit the Occupy movement as the turning point in their life of political activism. Chants like “Show me what Democracy looks like. This is what Democracy looks like” or “Mic-check!” which are often heard at demonstrations today, were all popularized during Occupy.
Occupy was the most consequential revival of left-wing movements in the United States since perhaps the anti-Vietnam protests of the late 1960s and 70s. In the 40 years leading up to it, the country experienced Nixon’s Southern Strategy, The “Regan Revolution” (Or “Reaction”), the “Third Way” Neoliberal Democrats of Clinton, and G.W. Bush’s stunningly popular neoconservatism, which enjoyed a 90% approval rating in the wake of 9/11. All the while, wealth inequality increased, union membership dropped, and wages stagnated, despite growth in worker productivity.
From the 1990s and the fall of the Soviet Union, the consensus among economists and political scientists was that Capitalism had become an impregnable fortress. “There is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher notoriously put it. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama heralded the end of the Cold War as the triumph of liberal democracy and the end of the significant global conflict as we know it. “The End of History” is what he famously called it. With equal self-confidence in the supremacy of Capitalism, another political scientist, Samuel Huntington, predicted that all future international disputes would be “Clash[es] of Civilizations” contested on cultural rather than economic grounds, as had been the case during the Cold War. In their collective celebratory dance on the grave of the Soviet Union, it was anathema for anyone even to question Capitalism.
Inheriting the right-wing assumptions of Thatcherism and Reaganism and subscribing to the new faith in Capitalism’s triumph, both Tony Blair and Bill Clinton proceeded, in the 1990s, to transform their respective center-left parties into center-right parties. And so we saw Clinton running for president against George H.W. Bush with ads promising to “balance budgets” and to “end welfare as we know it.” Such ads would be inconceivable from more recent Democrats like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, but that’s where “liberal” politics were in the years before Occupy.
Indeed, our political elites are still neoliberals. But it has only been since Occupy that people have begun seriously to question the fundamental soundness of this ideology. Polls show that most millennials and Zoomers lean more toward Socialism than Capitalism. Ideas that once belonged to the far-left fringe now hold sway amongst a large swath of the Democratic base. When Dennis Kucinich proposed universal healthcare and tuition-free public college in the 2000s, people laughed at the absurdity. To get an idea of how much the sands have shifted since those times, we need only consider the mockery Kucinich received after suggesting that he might appoint a Transgender person to the Supreme Court. It was labeled “the craziest thing” by one respected voice – none other than Jon Stewart.
Today, social-democratic policies have become more mainstream with Bernie Sanders and “The Squad.” In NYC, where Occupy was born, the Democratic Socialists of America have won election after election in the State Assembly, State Senate, and the New York City Council. In my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, we now have a socialist congresswoman, a socialist assembly member, an incoming socialist city-council member, and a progressive state senator who ousted a long-term conservative incumbent. A few years ago, people would have associated the same part of Queens with Archie Bunker and George Costanza’s parents from Seinfeld.
The landscape has changed, and Occupy has been the central catalyst, laying the groundwork for a new wave of socialist fervor. But while causing a revolutionary change in the public consciousness, I would argue that Occupy was not a complete political revolution. It bore many elements of a revolution, but, as I will describe, it fell short in one vital aspect.
According to people who study these things, three conditions need to be met for a revolution to succeed:
- An economic or political disaster that discredits the elites.
- An economic class of organizers.
- A coherent strategy to replace the ruling regime or force it to concede.
I would argue that Occupy had the first two elements, but not the third.
The prerequisite economic disaster is the easiest of these conditions to identify. The Occupy movement began just a few years after the 2008 financial crash. According to the World Economic Forum, the economic crisis wiped out 40% of the world’s wealth. From 2007 to 2013, 10 million Americans suffered foreclosures, many of which were illegal. Ten million is roughly the population of Sweden. Imagine if Norway had invaded Sweden and forced every Swede to be a refugee. It would be considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. And yet, that’s what happened in the world’s wealthiest country. Worse still, after the crisis had begun, Congress was unable or unwilling to impose a foreclosure moratorium that would have stanched the damage. At the same time, Wall Street executives at firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, who bear much of the responsibility for the crisis, rewarded themselves with hefty bonuses skimmed from the government bailout they received from the taxpayer. The rich got richer – but not before pulling up the ladder behind them.
Yet even without the 2008 financial crash, there was already plenty of evidence to show that the middle and working classes were struggling. Not only had wages stagnated and all the union jobs been offshored thanks to free trade deals engineered and signed by both political parties – the promised economic benefits of such policies proved to be a mirage. According to a Harvard study, for example, over 90% of jobs created from 2005 to 2015 were temporary positions. So even without the most significant economic disaster since the Great Depression, the angry crowds that gathered outside of Wall Street had every reason to express their hatred for the wealthiest few who had hoarded the benefits of Capitalism for themselves alone.
But, as mentioned, economic disaster is not enough to bring revolutionary change. Class consciousness and a desire for change arising from the working class are also required. According to Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin (the father of Anarchism), revolutions don’t happen just because people are oppressed or suffer from economic disaster. Slavery existed for centuries, but — except for the Haitian Revolution — slaves rarely revolted, while those who did were almost always crushed.
People rise in revolt when they are disappointed. History shows that people can bear even the worst forms of oppression if they are forced to believe it is their lot in life. Only after they have come to expect something more does their state of deprivation become an intolerable injustice. The most insidious and extreme forms of oppression often make such expectations impossible. Therefore, the role of revolutionary is most likely to fall to those who have had their high expectations thwarted by a dispossessing power.
For this reason, both Marx and Bakunin believed that revolutions would most likely be led by déclassé intellectuals: groups like students who studied hard and expected success as a prerogative. When the system reneges on the promise they believe has been made to them, they become disillusioned and organize for change. Marx and Bakunin did not think the “lumpenproletariat” would carry out revolutionary movements. The lumpenproletariat, or lower class, were always oppressed: they could not be disappointed with the results of adulthood if that’s what they had always expected from life. Liberty becomes almost inconceivable to the imagination.
History bears this out: French revolutionaries like Maximilien Robespierre and George Jacques Danton were lawyers, as were V.I. Lenin, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. Che Guevara was a doctor. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a Ph.D. All these revolutionaries had suffered oppression in one way or another, but they hardly belonged to the most oppressed members of society. They were individuals with some privilege who had naturally expected more from life and were later disappointed.
Activists like to fantasize about those at the bottom of the economic ladder rising up to overthrow those at the top. But the reality is that it takes some privilege in the first place to be in a position to make the challenge. This romanticized vision can even lead to misplaced condemnation of the people who stand in the vanguard. For example, I often hear claims against the legitimacy of socialist groups like DSA because its membership is regarded as being “too white.” But, as we have seen, successful revolutions are often led by privileged people and grow up expecting more from life. Their sense of entitlement, however irritating, is helpful in revolutions.
The Occupy movement was generally diverse but, in keeping with this formula for successful revolutions, mainly led by young whites, piqued by a sense of disappointment and not by those who were genuinely oppressed. Its members grew up in the 1990s with the understanding that Capitalism could do no wrong and that their success was guaranteed by the previous generation so long as they worked hard. They went to college. They did their homework. But then they found themselves saddled with an excessive amount of student debt with degrees that were proving to be of meager worth. They epitomized the déclassé intellectuals understood by Marx and Bakunin as the bedrock of a revolutionary movement.
In 2011, it was not just the recent financial crash that had dashed their hopes and dreams. The déclassé intellectuals had also voted for Barack Obama and were subsequently shattered by disillusionment in the unfulfilled promises of “Hope and Change.” Obama did not prosecute the Wall Street executives responsible for rigging the economy and causing the financial crash. He did not provide financial relief or a moratorium on foreclosures. Candidate Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA and pass the Employee Free Choice Act to boost union membership. None of that happened. Instead, President Obama proposed cutting social security through the “Chained CPI” and signed an executive order extending the Hyde Amendment when controlling the House and the Senate. He could have cut tuition debt, added a public option to the Affordable Care Act, and allowed the Patriot Act and Bush Tax Cuts to expire. But he didn’t. For every progressive who didn’t succumb to the cult of personality, Obama turned out to be an utter disappointment – just the kind of disappointment needed for class consciousness to take root.
If the president wasn’t going to prosecute the Wall Street crooks that had ruined the lives of so many people, then the members of the Occupy movement could at least disrupt the lives and activities of Wall Street financiers. If the government did not set a moratorium on foreclosures, they would physically inhabit those foreclosed houses through the Occupy Our Homes movement. If college students were denied relief from the burden of student debt, they would stage campus sit-ins. If the media were going to continue ignoring the climate crisis, then the Occupy Sandy movement would provide mutual aid to those suffering its effects. Occupy was about taking a stand when their elected leaders did not.
However, Occupy did not become a true revolution because it lacked the crucial third component: a coherent strategy to replace the regime or force it to concede. The movement did not have a leader (or leaders) to develop such a strategy.
Unlike the Tea Party movement on the right, which succeeded in taking over the Republican Party, the Occupy movement had no strategy for things like participating in the Democratic primaries or building a working-class voting bloc. There was no legislative or electoral element to the Occupy movement to force concessions from the government. Organizers would remedy this mistake years later with Bernie Sanders and the “Squad”. But the disillusionment of the Occupy movement left them with little faith in the electoral process. They boldly yet naively believed that they could carry out a campaign through direct action alone.
But direct action and civil disobedience have their limits. They must have a demand and an end goal to get those they are trying to target to concede. Occupy Wall Street reminded the public who the enemy was. But as Kwame Ture noted, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” Wall Street itself has no conscience, and the sight of working-class individuals occupying Zuccotti Park wasn’t going to melt their hearts. Ultimately, the Occupy movement needed to develop a legislative strategy and take it to the Capital, not with a costume party of insurrectionists, but with elected officials committed to the progressive agenda.
Paradoxically, one of the hallmarks of the Occupy movement is also emblematic of its most significant flaw. “We Are the 99%” was a good slogan, creating an identity and perhaps a sense of solidarity, but it did not represent a vision. The leaders of the American Revolution had it right with “No Taxation Without Representation,” as did the Bolsheviks with “Bread, Peace, and Land” – a rousing slogan that also lays out a simple, easily understood goal. Yes, we knew the Occupiers were “the 99%.” But what did they want? What was their success going to mean, tangibly? Of course, those closely involved in the movement had answers to these questions. But they failed to communicate their aims to the broader public. They needed a leader to come up with something better.
Occupy Wall Street fell short of a complete revolutionary movement because it lacked this vital component. Still, it was the closest my generation came to a revolution. It remains a pivotal moment in American politics. It deserves to be remembered as the first anti-capitalist movement since the Cold War and the first time since the Vietnam war era when an American protest became international.
We should, therefore, commemorate the 10th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street with fondness and pride. It changed the public’s consciousness and made Socialism more attractive to an entire generation. It reminded us of the meaning and importance of the word solidarity. Finally, calling out the 1% helped us identify the cause of the inequality and injustice that afflict today’s world. Many political scientists, including those who were wrong about the “End of History” or “The Clash of Civilizations,” may dismiss Occupy Wall Street as another defeat for those who would champion the causes of the working class. But Occupy Wall Street was just the first battle. In the end, its heirs will win the class war.
James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.