The Anti-Economist — From the March 2013 issue

The Fall and Rise of Occupy Wall Street

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It’s important to remember the real cause of Occupy’s decline, because the widespread misapprehension that the movement was done in by its own fecklessness obscures two important points. First, Occupy achieved more than its critics allow. True, the movement failed to realize specific legislative victories, but it did achieve its broader purpose: to raise awareness of the injustice of inequality in this nation. “We are the 99 percent” will remain with us as a political slogan every bit as galvanizing for the moment as “Hell no, we won’t go” was for the draft protesters of the 1960s. Regarding financial regulatory reform — which Sorkin insists that OWS did not much affect — the Bank of England’s executive director for financial stability said: “Occupy’s voice has been both loud and persuasive . . . [P]olicymakers have listened and are acting.” Meanwhile, offspring of Occupy remain active in many areas — challenging foreclosures, protesting the Citizens United decision, calling for the mitigation of student debt, and providing aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy. This wide range of activities is exactly what such an “anarchic” organization is designed to do: produce localized, motivated, and independent action.

This leads me to the second truth ignored in the effort to dismiss Occupy for its lack of focus: similarly “unfocused” protests in past decades have had a profound effect on American history. “The great emancipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institutional procedures,” writes Yale political scientist James C. Scott in Two Cheers for Anarchism, “but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below.” America was born of protest, and protest has remained at the heart of progressive change throughout the nation’s history. This fact gets lost, Scott writes, when “the condensation of history [and] our desire for clean narratives . . . conspire to convey a false image of historical causation.”

Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have shown how crucial labor protests were to the passage of New Deal programs. Those on the left who disparage Occupy may forget how the incipient civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements of the 1950s and 1960s were treated at the time. Martin Luther King Jr. was the subject of constant FBI surveillance, and the early Vietnam War protesters were regarded with open disdain by mainstream America. Scott argues that all of these movements were most successful when they were “at their most disruptive, most confrontational, least organized, and least hierarchical.” This has been no less true abroad. In a 2011 report, a United Nations representative wrote that, throughout history, “protests and demonstrations have been the engines of change” in society, and that the outcries of “human rights defenders all over the world have been the high-water marks.” Social progress does not always arrive by way of the democratic ballot. The free labor market will not end gender and racial discrimination, as some right-wing economists have absurdly claimed. These changes come about when citizens take to the streets to demand them.

The lack of serious outcry against police brutality in New York and in other occupations — Berkeley, Oakland, Seattle — reflects how little most Americans appreciate the place of protest as a catalyst of social and economic reform in our own history and throughout the world. If I were a mayor or police chief who didn’t want major social change, I, too, would have tried hard to stymie OWS.

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