The importance of Occupy

By Felix Salmon
September 18, 2012

On September 7, Occupy the SEC followed up its fantastic comment letter of last February with an equally perspicacious and detailed update. At 15 pages, the new letter is much shorter than the 325-page original, but it still packs a heavy punch, and it arrives at exactly the right time: just as the SEC and other regulatory agencies are trying to work out how the Volcker Rule should look, especially in the wake of the JP Morgan London Whale fiasco. (All of which was, embarrassingly, entirely Volcker-compliant.)

Meanwhile, the Occupy Bank Working Group, which got a flurry of publicity back in March, is still going strong, working on something which has the potential to be much more far-reaching than any letter. It takes time to build a new kind of bank, which is their ultimate ambition, and they’re not there yet. But they’re moving in that direction, and if Andrew Ross Sorkin had talked to any of them before filing his column today, he might not have been so dismissive with respect to the legacy of Occupy. (“It will be an asterisk in the history books, if it gets a mention at all.”)

In fact, Occupy was hugely important: it provided an overarching frame, and context, which could then be applied in a myriad of different situations and geographies. When Mitt Romney dismisses 47% of America as “victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them”, it’s impossible not to think of Occupy, the self-described 99%, and the fact that it was emphatically not a call for government handouts. In reality, it was much closer to a call for a genuine equality of opportunity — something that Romney should be supporting, rather than opposing.

But Sorkin isn’t interested in the effects that Occupy has had on political discourse, or even on regulatory rule-making. He’s looking for some very narrow things indeed:

Has the debate over breaking up the banks that were too big to fail, save for a change of heart by the former chairman of Citigroup, Sanford I. Weill, really changed or picked up steam as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No. Have any new regulations for banks or businesses been enacted as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No. Has there been any new meaningful push to put Wall Street executives behind bars as a result of Occupy Wall Street? No.

And even on the issues of economic inequality and upward mobility — perhaps Occupy Wall Street’s strongest themes — has the movement changed the debate over executive compensation or education reform? It is not even a close call.

Actually, I think that Occupy the SEC did change the debate over breaking up the banks. Certainly its letter was very widely read in Washington, where Congressional staffers are constantly inundated with lobbyists’ position papers but see very little from, well, the 99%. But more generally, Occupy was clearly opposed to the entire Washington system, and so it’s rather silly to point to the fact that the Washington system hasn’t done much in the past year, and use that as evidence that Occupy was a dud.

Speaking personally, I find it impossible to read the unemployment numbers on the first Friday of every month without thinking about the protestors at Occupy; if nothing else, they did a fantastic job at putting a face on otherwise dry statistics.

But what Occupy has really given us is something much more important than that. It’s a new way of looking at the world we live in — a viewpoint characterized by equality and respect for all, combined with an unapologetic anger at where we’re at. That’s a viewpoint it’s pretty much impossible to find on Wall Street, or among Andrew Ross Sorkin’s sources. But it’s also a viewpoint held by millions of people around the country and the world. It’s probably too much to hope that Sorkin might start taking it seriously at some point.

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