The Occupy Movement in the United States
Revealing the failure of 21st Century US capitalism and stepping towards Participatory Socialism
Ed. note: The following article is the text of a talk Peter presented in Havana, Cuba in June 2012.
The Occupy movement in the United States is part of a global upsurge that began in Tunisia in late 2010, spread to Egypt and the Middle East, Wisconsin, Chile, Spain, Greece, Wall Street and the rest of the United States, and now Quebec. I focus on the United States, particularly the Pacific Northwest where I have been an active participant.
I would like to acknowledge the moment. So often, we are alienated, or apathetic to the economic and social injustices taking place. This is a hopeful period when resistance and uprising in one place have resonated and spread. In the United States, we are living in a period of obscene inequality of income and wealth, a broken economic and political system that needs to be transformed not patched up. The income of the top 1% today is 42 times the bottom 90%, three times greater than the already high income inequality of 1979. 50 million people do not have health insurance, 1 in 3 are poor or near poor. Millions have lost their homes. Over 2 million people are in prison, disproportionately Black and Latino.
Over 20 million are unemployed; the rate for Blacks is twice that of Whites. According to the New York Times of June 6th, 2012, of those who graduated from high school between 2009 and the present and who are not in college full time, one in six have full-time jobs. For recent college graduates it’s not as bad but there is an ongoing crisis of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployment rate for young adults in Egypt, Spain, Greece, and Portugal is even worse and has been an important factor in their uprisings. Whether we are living in a full-fledged global economic crisis is debatable, but the much higher than normal rates of unemployment is striking. The ongoing high unemployment rates and poor job prospects with high levels of student debt are an important factor in the participation and support for the Occupy Movement.
There was significant participation of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the physical occupation of public space, e.g., in Occupy Olympia. Most of the vets participating couldn’t find jobs and many were suffering from PTSD, often undiagnosed —another symptom of our imperialist system and poorly functioning health-care system. In Olympia, Seattle and Portland, the active participation by vets and other participants in these occupations peaked in October and early November 2011. They were closed down by various police forces over the next month.
The majority of the people who lived in tents at the Occupy Olympia site lacked access to health care, regular jobs, and housing. Many had felony convictions, a testament to the US having the highest prison rate in the world. Felons are openly discriminated against in getting jobs, housing, and higher education (see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.)
Those active in the Occupy Movement were motivated by unemployment and housing foreclosures, by the growing inequality of income and wealth, by the corporate domination of our daily lives, and corporate control of the government. There is a lot of anger at the decline in the social safety net, the bailout of banks and not people, and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
The Occupy Movement has forced public discussion and debate of these issues. Growing numbers, particularly young people, have begun to feel that they can and should act, that their actions matter. Through actions and media attention and by resonating with the lived experiences of the 99%, the Occupy Movement has brought the economic and political crisis out of the closet.
By economic crisis, I do not necessarily mean a full-blown economic crisis in the Marxist sense. Even if profits are up; the economy is not working for working people and the unemployed. By political crisis I do not mean we are in a possible revolutionary situation, such as Greece, but rather there is a rapid loss of legitimacy of the Democrats and Republicans, of the Supreme Court and a growing awareness of the ongoing destruction of democracy and the growing surveillance state.
Among activists in the Occupy Movement, a very popular ideology is anarchist, although increasingly an anarchism not hostile to Marxism. I agree with Grubajic and Lynd in Wobblies and Zapatistas, that we need to end the sectarianism and division between anarchists, Marxists, and participatory socialists. Although, I would not call the Occupy Movement as a whole, anti-capitalist, many of the participants identify that way. In Seattle, on May Day, 2012, there was an overtly anti-capitalist march, organized by Occupy Seattle, of 800 people.
A priority in the occupations has been meeting the needs of poor people for medical care, housing, food, security and safety, and community and political discussion and education. There was a serious effort by activists to provide these services on-site and to encourage the active participation of the residents of the occupation. These actions show the failure of the current capitalist system to provide for human needs; its discarding of poor people. We made visible the human costs of the US political economy.
A community and democratic structure, although somewhat chaotic and imperfect and with few resources, provided a place for people to live, to learn, and be secure. There has been the development of community in the Occupy Movement; meaningful discussions between people who usually don’t talk to each other, of people looking out for each other. There were problems of limited and difficult communication between activists, mainly students or college educated, with the homeless, but it’s a beginning.
There were fights and drug problems, and problems of male dominance and sexual violence. Nonetheless, I disagree with the commonly held point of view that the Occupy Movement has been weakened by the large participation of homeless people. They are “the canary in the coal mine.” Over time, many identified as protesters.
Although imperfect, this is a concrete demonstration on a small scale of key values of a participatory socialist system. The meeting of basic human needs was a priority of the occupations and was universally understood as a human right. There was discussion of how to move from a makeshift medical tent on-site to the development of a fully functioning and accessible free health clinic. There was sharing of tents and clothing and resources.
There has been an emphasis on direct democracy, encouraging all voices to be heard with consensus decision-making. While this sometimes led to the general assembly being unable to reach decisions, it reflected a key value of the occupiers, of participatory democracy, and horizontal and non-hierarchical decision-making. There was a rotation of tasks and facilitators at meetings. There was an emphasis on building an alternative community, ourselves. There was less emphasis on demanding resources from the state. Many participants believe in building a new society with a different economy, politics, culture, and interpersonal relationships—by having these alternative small communities spread until they became a new society.
By the time of the December, 2011 police raid, participation at Olympia Occupy had declined. The wet and cold weather was a major cause as was the large time commitment. Since then the Occupy Movement has not been able to regain its momentum. The lack of structure is a factor as is the lack of a clear strategic way to move forward. Should there be physical occupations of public or private space; or campaigns around specific demands, e.g., stopping housing foreclosures; or direct action and/or demonstration, such as mobilizations against the G-8 in Chicago in May, 2012, or at the upcoming Democratic and Republican Convention? None of these tactics have garnered much enthusiasm or active participation. The anger and awareness about the systemic failures of our system continue as does a growing anti-capitalist consciousness, but there is a lull in activism.
A major problem has been how to build a movement that unites the 99% while simultaneously making central the concerns of the most oppressed—by not having our only talking point be the excess wealth and power of the 1%. How do we build a movement that includes immigrant rights, environmental justice, racial justice, LGBT and reproductive/women rights, anti-war and global justice? Most participants in Occupy are sympathetic to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and against US wars; but these have not been principles nor put forth as demands. A major challenge of Occupy is how to be simultaneously broad, inclusive, and principled.
A common criticism has been there have been no demands, especially at a national level. Given the divergence of ideologies—many flavors of reformism and of left radicalism—making demands has been difficult and not desirable at this early stage of the movement. There is a need as this movement develops for demands for non-reformist reforms (see Gorz, Strategy for Labor) to emerge, that campaigns can be built around, where there is national coordination and excitement and passion. Full employment with living wage jobs is a possible demand.
In fall, 2011, the Occupy Movement in the US broke through feelings of powerlessness. Six months later, this movement is weaker although the movement against neoliberalism and austerity in Greece and Quebec is growing and powerful. New activists have learned organizing skills and have deepened their political understanding. Stay tuned for the next chapter.
Peter Bohmer, a member of The Evergreen State College faculty since 1987, teaches political economy.