By Reihan Salam
Sept 14 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
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.