Occupy, One Year Later

Today is the nominal anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On September 17 of last year protestors took control of Zuccotti Park, a private park not far from Wall Street in New York. The undercurrents and indeed the planning can be traced farther back, but September 17 was the day the world took notice. The protestors stayed at the park, their numbers ebbing and flowing, until finally forced out on November 15, 2011. The movement did of course spread well beyond Zuccotti Park; indeed the protest was mirrored in towns and cities across the US, and indeed across the world. But Zuccotti, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, remains the spiritual home base for the Occupy movement.

The aims of the movement were diffuse, though not as vague as critics sometimes claimed they were. The protestors were concerned most specifically with income inequality, with the sense that those who hold the reins of the various great steam horses of capitalism were hoarding for themselves a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. This led naturally to a concern with capitalism itself, with the tendency of major corporations to behave badly, and with the government’s tendency (according to protestors) to let corporations get away with it. As a result, the movement’s name came to be used as a virtual synonym for concern with corporate ethics.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the goals of the movement, or at least with the passion of those most centrally involved. We can question the precision of their targeting, and the efficacy of the sit-in as method of producing social change, but only the shallow and the oblivious could fail to see that there was something to the protestors’ complaints. The financial collapse of 2008-2009 did enormous damage to millions of lives, and left a great many people with a deep sadness, a feeling of alienation, a deep and persistent sense of injustice and that the system is somehow rigged.

But motives aside, a year later, the question on every commentator’s mind is “What did they accomplish? Certainly Occupy succeeded in putting income inequality on the map, so to speak. As others have pointed out, Occupy is the central reason that presidential candidates this time around must comment on inequality. Not that that hasn’t been a topic of discussion in previous elections, but this time it’s utterly unavoidable. Consciousness of the topic has been raised, though it remains to be seen whether that consciousness will matter at the polling booth.

But really, the movement’s impact has been more cultural than economic. It spawned a number of memes — occupy-this-or-that, and the 99%-vs-1% thing. As a meme, “occupy” has been a victim of its own success. Had it been slightly less catchy, it might actually have been a useful rallying cry. But no sooner had the slogan been uttered in earnest than a thousand copycats, earnest or mocking or simply silly, sprouted on Facebook and Twitter. Occupy the dean’s office! Occupy the Death Star! Occupy my couch! Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a good way to devalue a currency.

Alas, concrete examples of change that could plausibly be traced to the Occupy movement are hard to come by. No new grassroots movement doing anything beyond sit-ins and marches. No significant new activist organization with the organizational capacity to take effective action toward promote real change according to a clear agenda. Nor has Occupy made any noticeable moves in the realm of electoral politics; and however cynical you want to be about that system, it is still a crucial part of getting things done. The point is not to occupy Wall Street, but to change it.

In retrospect, perhaps all we can say at this point is that while the Occupy movement struck a nerve, and perhaps fostered conversation, what it has failed to do is inspire change. Whether real change is in the offing, and whether important change will ever be attributable to the sparks that originated in Zuccotti park remains to be seen.

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