History flies by our windows like the flickers who flash past my balcony overlooking a beautiful park filled with gorgeous west coast cedar and gnarly pine trees. For a moment, then, let’s remember the Occupy Movement that cracked through neo-liberalism’s carapace in the fall of 2011 before its memory recedes forever into the milky past.
Many of us in Canada and the US were taken by surprise that only three years after the credit crisis of 2008, Wall Street had consolidated its power. It made tons of money, says Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer, and it did not do this through financing any kind of economic recovery or outflow of lending and borrowing. During the crisis of 2008 (which raked our pensions of hard-earned savings) as one financial institution after another crumbled, a few diehards on the left thought that this was The Big Crisis needed to get the anti-capitalist movement rolling again.
What upset many people—and it fuelled the occupation movement in part—was the way the Obama government bailed out the very gang who brought on the crisis in the first place: unregulated investors who invented a scam system to get poor people mortgages. These people—in the millions—lost their homes. However, when you learn that Wall Street funnelled $5 billion in campaign funds to Washington, and have 3,000 paid lobbyists working the backrooms, one can see that Obama jumps as they play the tune.
Nobel prise winner (for economics) Joseph Stiglitz says that the top 1% control 40% of the wealth in America. It is the very, very rich—American oligarchs–who run the government and financial systems. They are the ones who decided on no tax increases to meet the gaping-wound needs of millions of unemployed (and underpaid employed) who have lost their houses and lack basic health care.
As several writers in the Toronto Globe and Mail (October 15, 2011) pointed out, our taxes pay for our teachers, fire fighters, our health-care workers, our roads, bridges and postal service. In his article, “We need a global army of tax collectors,” Doug Sanders reports that the Boston Consulting Group says “people and companies are stashing away $9 trillion in secret offshore banks in places such as Luxemburg, Singapore and the Virgin Islands. That’s $2 trillion more than all the banks in the US. Taxed at 11 per cent (a fraction of what’s actually owed on it), this would yield an instant trillion.”
But history is full of surprising moments when revolutionary possibility breaks through cement roadways and radical new directions are opened up: the Arab Spring in January 2011 and the Occupy Movement erupted into world attention months later in the fall.
The Occupy Movement through the learning lens
2011 may go down in history as the “year of occupations.” In May, Spaniards filled the square at Puerto de Sol in Madrid. Initiated by the Real Democracy Now organization, the indignados protested against their inegalitarian economic system, a democracy that no longer represented them and the evident “financial coup” that simply placed unelected men from the financial sector into important positions. The occupation of Puerto de Sol lasted a month.
Adult education in the form of general assemblies, discussions, and working groups attracted thousands of people. After the initial gatherings, the movement named itself 15-M. A nonpartisan social movement, 15-M catalyzed significant public debate through setting up assemblies in various neighbourhoods and presented a flood of proposals to engage the wider public in the Spanish election.
Influenced by the Arab Spring (if they can do it, why not us?), the 15-M movement in turn inspired the Chilean students to take to the streets to protest their government’s popular demonstrations since Chile returned to democracy. It spread to families and high schools and raised questions about inequalities and tax reform as well as representation in the political system (R. Kempf, “The year of occupation,” Le Monde Diplomatique 1205, May, 2012).
Kempf (2012) perceptive observes “that feeling of unease about a political system slipping from the control of citizens, and even more of wealth being monopolized by an oligarchy, provoked the launching of the Occupy Movement, with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York on 17 September.” Several hundred people gathered in Manhattan’s financial district and found themselves near Zucotti Park, a small square surrounded by towering skyscrapers, close to Ground Zero.
Someone suggested that a general assembly be held there—as in Greece and Spain. Rare for the United States, Americans began conversations about politics on the streets and in public spaces. The OWS movement grew—with more general assemblies and working groups—these ragged kinds of collective learning processes are difficult to assess. At the base of the occupation movements—participation by storm—is the powerful idea that actually occupying public space is the fundamental way to be heard. That was enough for some; others were pressed to think of other forms of action (particularly when the police used violence to rid Zucotti Park of its residents).
Kempf (2012) acknowledges the diversity of initiatives and ideas in OWS and documents other outcomes—such as “Occupy our homes,” a “US-wide event to reclaim empty houses that had been foreclosed by the banks. But he correctly claims that “inequalities and the crisis of representation in the political system” lay beneath these protests and that the OWS was a “movement of movements,” able to draw attention to other campaigns that would not have had as much impact without OWS support.”
The occupy movement spread to many cities in Canada, the United States and Europe: Occupy London, camped around St. Paul’s Cathedral, targeted the London Stock Exchange. Now Egyptian activists could text their American, European or Canadian comrades on their streets, developing new forms of cosmopolitan solidarity. But these forms of participation by storm drew out cranky right-wing responses from the press. The reprehensible Vancouver Province called the Vancouver occupation a “whine-in.” The journalist’s advice to the occupiers was to get real and live with astronomically high housing prices and lousy jobs. Life is tough. Face reality wild-salmon lovers.
Longing for a different society
What the world-wide occupations—from Tunisia to Bahrain to Wall Street—signify is a deep and profound yearning for a different form of society and way of doing business in this damaged world. The protestors tended to zero in on the financial system. They may not know its byzantine machinations. But they know something Very Big is Wrong with the Capitalist System. The occupied spaces were cries of unfulfilled longings for something other than what is on offer. Neo-liberal capitalism is morally and ethically bankrupt—and the teeming refugee camps, bombed out cities and hunger of millions of people attest to this.
What the world-wide occupations—from Tunisia to Tahir Square to Wall Street—signify is a deep and profound yearning for a different form of society and way of doing business in this damaged world. Globalization (in its neo-liberal form) and the endless humiliations of tyrannical dictatorships intersected, unleashing powerful energy from the subterranean depths—unleashing an intense social learning process that manifested in collective action in the public squares of the world.
These public occupations precipitated complex forms of consciousness-raising. A new imaginary broke into the world—revealing that human beings do have the capacity to “do the utterly unexpected” (Arendt’s phrase).
Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.