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.