How the Occupy movement may yet lead America

By Reihan Salam
September 14, 2012

This coming Monday, Sept. 17, is the first anniversary of the day when protesters gathered in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. The occupation was first dreamed up by Kalle Lasn and Micah White, the close collaborators behind Adbusters, a slickly produced, high-art magazine that uses the tools of commercial culture to make the case against capitalism. Having decided that America needed an uprising akin to those that had shattered authoritarian governments across North Africa, Lasn and White chose a date, created an arresting image emblazoned with the Occupy Wall Street slogan, reached out to potential collaborators and then watched as their creation seized the imagination of millions of Americans.

One year on, the encampments that had sprung up in Lower Manhattan and in cities, college campuses and foreclosed homes across the country have for the most part been abandoned. And so at least some observers are inclined to think, or to hope, that the Occupy movement has been of little consequence. That would be a mistake. Occupy’s enduring significance lies not in the fact that some small number of direct actions continue under its banner, or that activists have made plans to commemorate “S17” in a series of new protests. Rather, Occupy succeeded in expanding the boundaries of our political conversation, creating new possibilities for the American left.

As our slow-motion economic crisis grinds on, it is worth asking: How might these possibilities be realized? For some, Occupy was a liberating experience of collective effervescence and of being one with a crowd. As one friend put it, it was “the unspeakable joy of taking to the streets, taking spaces, exploring new relations and environments” that resonated most. For others, it created a new sense of cross-class solidarity. Jeremy Kessler, a legal historian who covered the Occupy movement for the leftist literary journal N + 1 and the New Republic, senses that it has already shaped the political consciousness of younger left-liberals. “There is more skepticism towards the elite liberal consensus,” and so, “for instance, there is more support for the Chicago teachers union and more wariness towards anti-union reformers.” Ideological battle lines have in this sense grown sharper. Yet it is still not clear where Occupy, and the left, will go next.

Perhaps the most politically fruitful path for the American left would be to go back to the future – to draw on the lessons of the Populists of the William Jennings Bryan era, who sought to unite farmers and industrial workers against the stranglehold of Eastern capital. Back then, the Populists failed, as the interests of industrial workers were more closely tied to their bosses than to those of highly indebted smallholders living in the prairies. Now, however, millions of middle-income households struggle under the burden of underwater mortgages.

In the latest issue of the Nation, David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist considered an intellectual leading light of the Occupy movement, argues that the “financialization” of the economy should be understood as “an enormous engine of debt extraction,” through which the 1 percent extracts wealth from the 99 percent. Rather than champion specific policies designed to reduce the burden of debt, Graeber calls for a campaign of mass resistance devoted to delegitimizing what he calls “Mafia capitalism.” While Graeber’s language is bracing, and it will undoubtedly appeal to at least some radicals who hope to keep the spirit of Occupy alive, it is not obvious that his idea of mass resistance can build a mass movement.

But might a softer version of Graeberism succeed? As the Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin argues in The Populist Persuasion, American populist movements have traditionally pitted the producing majority against a parasitic elite. That is one reason why “We Are the 99 Percent,” the slogan coined by Graeber and his allies, has proved so resonant: It invokes older American political traditions.

And the case for placing debt at the heart of our politics is stronger than you might think. As the heterodox economic thinkers J.W. Mason and Arjun Jayadev recently observed, household debt has climbed from 50 percent of GDP in 1980 to 100 percent just before the financial crisis. Yet according to Mason and Jayadev, this sharp increase does not primarily reflect an increase in borrowing. Had interest rates, growth and inflation remained the same in the three decades following 1980 as they had in the three decades preceding 1980, household debt levels would have actually decreased. One of the central problems, Mason and Jayadev argue, is that inflation levels decreased faster than households could decrease their borrowing levels. Back in 2009, Christopher Hayes, author of The Twilight of the Elites and host of MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, argued that a period of moderate, sustained inflation was essential to addressing America’s economic woes. While this argument seems very technocratic, it has the virtue of speaking directly to the challenge of household debt.

The latest Census data indicates that real median household income in the United States has fallen to levels last seen in 1995. Income inequality, meanwhile, has increased. It is easy to imagine that healthy gains in median household income would mitigate concerns about income inequality as such. But instead, sluggish wage and household income growth have fueled a great deal of anxiety and resentment. Millions of households that had hoped and expected to be climbing the ladder to middle-class prosperity instead find themselves burdened by debt. If the political right and center can’t find a way to revive economic growth and to create shared prosperity, the future might very well belong to Occupy.

PHOTO: Occupy Wall Street protesters relax on a tree at Marshall Park prior to the start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 3, 2012. REUTERS/John Adkisson

15 comments

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I don’t believe that Occupy will lead anything until they lead themselves first. That won’t happen. They had the barest chance at establishing a common cause at the very beginning but, having attracted every left wing nutter alive from here to there, they simultaneously grew, and disintegrated. Sorry but the 70s are dead and gone.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

Isn’t that kind of how these populist movements go? Ignored, denigrated, and pooh poohed by the entrenched elite, who believe everything is okay until it’s not?

Posted by josefski | Report as abusive

This blog reads like a travel agency ad for a vacation in Mexico.

Pure propaganda.

An anti-capitalist president has been running this country into the ground for the last 3+ years.

Central planner (socialist) meddling in healthcare and energy, and a dozen other major industries has driven the economy into the ground.

That is why income is down and jobs are scarce.

Control freak socialists have choked the life out of our once (mostly) free market economy.

Posted by Parker1227 | Report as abusive

This blog reads like a travel agency ad for a vacation in Mexico.

Pure propaganda.

An anti-capitalist president has been running this country into the ground for the last 3+ years.

Central planner (socialist) meddling in healthcare and energy, and a dozen other major industries has driven the economy into the ground.

That is why income is down and jobs are scarce.

Control freak socialists have choked the life out of our once (mostly) free market economy.

Posted by Parker1227 | Report as abusive

If organizations like Reuters keep supporting and playing apologist for deranged Marxists (like OWS fanatics) and bigoted Islamists – then Western civilization really is doomed.

Guess that’s what Reuters wants.

Posted by Parker1227 | Report as abusive

It is amazing how one can become lost in liberal pseudo-intellectualism. One lofty concept begets another and minds join in the nexus of hope and change. The reality is that if all those nice kids actually succeeded in bringing about anarchy, hope and change would not be the result. Society would simply devolve into a myriad small armed camps where passivist liberals would be at the mercy or non-passive thugs who despise their weakness.
soon other agressive nations would move in to “restore order.” If an economic system is crashed, people suffer far worse than they are now. Successful people are successful because work hard and take risks. Thinking a group of spoiled, entitled, children who understand nothing about how an economy really works is pure fantasy. This article wasted time I could have spent reading ideas about how to improve the current system which provided those protesters the means for their little vacation from not working.

Posted by mpragmatist | Report as abusive

You and Hayes have a falling out?

Posted by zebra69 | Report as abusive

OWS has NO “enduring significance”. It’s DEAD. The “boundaries of our political conversation” already includes all “possibilities for the American left”. “We, the people” can easily see that the “American left” is quite well served at the highest levels of the White House and the U.S. Senate.

The “…liberating experience of collective effervescence and of being one with a crowd…the unspeakable joy of taking to the streets, taking spaces, exploring new relations and environments” undoubtedly resonates in the hearts and minds of those radical Marxist anarchists “…who hope in vain to breathe life back into “Occupy” (anything). They know they have NO prospect, ever, of attracting even 1/2 of 1% of Americans to their “cause”, but hope springs eternal.

Which is why Graeber and other “elite intellectual leading lights” intentionally spread their tent wide so as to include lazy, bored students, the homeless, and the most incompetent or unskilled of the hopelessly unemployed. There’s no news coverage without numbers!

The “parasitic elite” that threatens the economic viability of these United States is NOT the individuals at the top of our economic pyramid. It is the over 50% of Americans that today pay NO income tax. The debt “at the heart of our politics” is the debt our government incurs without our permission, that which necessitates regular and “routine” increases in America’s “debt limit”.

“Household debt”, the debt arising from imprudent use or abuse of consumer credit or the destruction of prime American crop land by covering it with ever more unsellable McMansions is but a rounding error when compared to the dollars “our” federal government shovels out day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. No one knows where the “OFF” switch is, or, at least if they do, they’re not telling.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Unfortunately if Occupy came back before the election my guess would be the Repos would us it as an example of lawlessness and unrest among the lefties, possibly pushing enough voters toward Romney to turn the election.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

While there is some heady and counter-intuitive stuff here, I generally agree. However, fail to see the connection being made between the debt burden of the middle class and any sympathy with the occupy movement. Even though logically they are aligned, I don’t think the average voter chooses to identify with this dystopian band of renegades.

It was interesting to learn that Ad Busters folks instigated this whole thing. If somehow they could take their slick marketing skills and class up the disheveled campers just a bit, then maybe their message might be heard by more than just a few reporters looking for a story.

As compelling and logical their message, the inability of normal people to identify with the protesters makes hearing what they have to say a bit problematic.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

Household debt has climbed? Perhaps they learned that from a government borrowing 40% of everything it spends. Nomination for Oxymoron of the Year: “intellectual leading light of the Occupy Movement”.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

THere is corruption in our capitalist system but it is mostly where the money is – government and Wall Street. SO these people only had it half right. The insider trading and crony corporate boards – sling money around to those who can play. But government feeds off the private sector – through our tax dollars and spending kickbacks from private companies who are recipients of either – a waiver, a tax loop hole, a contract, an incentive — get my drift. All this while lying to us that they are going to fix our social safety net. Instead they figure out if they could take over healthcare and run that then they would have more private monies to play with — sick I know…….

Posted by xit007 | Report as abusive

I feel that only the energy that the Tea Party brought to America can save Romney’s
election.
The difference between the two is…Ideology versUS common differential
indifference. The tea party was not divided they had a central goal. Occupy is every small and large protest group .

Posted by MontyMoose | Report as abusive

@Parker 1227

“Control freak socialists have choked the life out of our once (mostly) free market economy.”

How did we the people benefit of late from that free market (Globalized, laisez faire, supply side-) economy?

Posted by Beobachter | Report as abusive

@Parker 1227
“then Western civilization really is doomed.”

Western CIVILIZATION?

…Legalised greed and the sole right of the strongest….

What we had in the way of civilization has been evaporating rather rapidly because of too free (financial-) market and neo-conservative power politics.

Why should people look up at us?, there is hardly any soft power left (Curiosity -Mars- is one of the few things that really is impressive in what we do), it seems as if it is only the religion of weaponry that seems to keep us on top.

Posted by Beobachter | Report as abusive