As the Occupy Wall Street movement was taking off and gaining national attention last fall, I was in my penultimate semester as a college student and I had just left my job as editor of the student newspaper. Never a dull moment.
The circumstances of the leaving had been somewhat less than ideal but it was, in the end, a good thing. Much as I loved the job, it taught me one very important lesson: I was not cut out for supervising abominably-underpaid, twenty-something student journalists while simultaneously serving in student leadership and taking 18.5 credit hours. I would suspect few people are and I continue to be very proud of my successor’s leadership of the publication, whose own blog, I might add, can teach you everything you ever wanted to know and more about preparing tasty delectables for your consumption. And she didn’t even ask me for the plug.
Anyway, the sudden influx of free time into my life around the beginning of October last year allowed me to pay more attention to what was happening in the world. And, what was happening in the world? Occupation, police brutality, conservative befuddlement at a demandless movement, etc., etc. I was in a class called Argumentation and Persuasion at the time (shout out to Dr. Farmer) which had a strong current events element and I remember many of the students in the class categorically dismissing the movement like the good little Republicans they’d been raised to be. One in particular probably took notes during Bill O’Reilly’s broadcast the night before each class.
Anyway, a personal trait of mine for which I am very grateful is an unwillingness to wade into a debate until I know what I’m talking about. Among many reasons for that, the biggest one is that I positively hate having to eat crow. That’s the reason, for example, why I don’t often talk about really deep theological things, much as I’d like to. So, consequently, I held off passing judgment or even expressing much opinion about the movement until after it had had the time and opportunity to mature and until I had been able to really learn as much as I could–no easy task when we’re talking about something that is both leaderless and largely demandless. I nevertheless remained hopeful and really liked the little snippets I would hear from behind the filter of the media establishment (which, I should point out, is largely owned by the types of corporations OWS has beef with).
Anyway, I forget how I came across it, but I pre-ordered the book Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America, which provided the inside account I was really looking for. Obviously it’ll never substitute for actually living in Zuccotti Park, but it nonetheless affords a view of the movement as seen by the people who lived it.
The most interesting thing to me about OWS is that it really is a sort of ideological Rorschach test. Conservatives and tea party activists tended to look at it and see something sinister, like a socialist revolution. Or, they saw a bunch of irresponsible unemployed hooligans throwing stones at the institutions of democracy and accomplishing little in the way of actual change. By contrast, people with a more liberal progressive worldview saw the goings-on in Zuccotti, in Oakland, at UC Davis, and elsewhere and were probably thinking, in general, “Yes! It’s about fucking time!” In that sense, it was in some ways similar to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, in which he described himself as “the ultimate Rorschach test.” Indeed, some people looked at him and saw an agent of hope and change for a broken system while others saw–and still see, in a lot of cases–a radical foreign Kenyan Muslim Socialist. The latter is completely ridiculous of course, but neither is the former remotely true–that’s another topic for another day.
The greatest success of the Occupy movement, however, is the way in which it has fostered diversity within the collective concept of fairness, an idea which has for too long been suffocated by capitalistic, Randian ideology. Whether intentionally or not, Occupy has changed the nature of political discourse in the U.S., showing it’s okay to be incensed about the grotesque wealth inequality in the United States. That’s notwithstanding, of course, conservative red herrings about the wealth inequality between the U.S. and the world at large. It’s also helped destigmatize opposition to the developing plutocracy in America (a fact almost ironically demonstrated by the clash of wills between the occupiers at Zuccotti and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the quintessential plutocrat). Just listen to the national conversation now: “occupy,” “the one percent,” and “the 99 percent” have all become indispensable parts of the political lexicon and therein that lies the success of Occupy. While the tea party brand has become more of a stigma than a selling point, Occupy’s inclusive “99 percent” focus makes it a brand politicians froth at the mouth to associate with, particularly Democrats, for whom the ideological leap is at least a little shorter and easier to sell than for their brethren on the right.
A lot of people have criticized–and continue to criticize–the Occupy movement for various reasons but mostly because it is leaderless, diffuse, and has little or no specific demands on policy change common to everyone advocating under its banner. What these people fail to realize is that trait is the source of the movement’s strength. The most famous of the formal occupations may be over (many continue, however, even in my home state of Oklahoma), but I can’t help but think that something fundamental changed as a result of them. As economist Richard Wolff has highlighted, Occupy has brought to light a paradigm shift that has been underway for some time: namely, that the national discourse is no longer bound within the presumption that capitalism is the end all. It’s now okay to talk about alternatives and while we’re still a very long way away from any of those alternatives, people who have been thoroughly and repeatedly shafted by capitalism no longer so readily dismiss them as crazy talk.
The model that Occupy has adopted now (i.e., a focus on incremental change locally) may or may not be effective in the end. Regardless, the intellectual shift it has started ought to give pause to plutocrats. They may not realize it, but continuing to play the system to increase their own fortunes (monetarily and otherwise) at the expense of the overwhelming majority of society is not (decidedly not) in their long-term interests. Social stratification and the development of an entrenched upper ruling class has historically been a huge societal destabilizer and has culminated in revolutions–both peaceful and non-peaceful–more often than not. Don’t believe me? Ask Tsar Nicholas II, Louis XVI or, more recently, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali. Ultimately–and I’m only mildly exaggerating–dollar bills offer little protection from pitchforks.