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Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?

Historical amnesia is not only deeply embedded in American life; it is a fundamental function of the corporate media. Overlooking the continuities from the past, whether in the persistence of institutional racism or the resonances of political resistance, such amnesia short-circuits both historical consciousness and political imagination.

Even those cognizant of the amnesiac role of the corporate media may fall into a truncated view of present political expressions. In addition, especially among some on the left, the past is often used tendentiously as an ideological cudgel to flatten the dialectical content and possibilities of those political expressions. In particular, a lack of understanding the immediate historical context surrounding the Sanders campaign can reduce the responses to either ahistorical support or dogmatic criticism. For this reason, I want to highlight some of the main developments of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) that resonate in the Sanders agenda and his growing constituency.

Recall that while Occupy Wall Street emerged in the fall of 2011, it had deeper roots in the accumulating protests against the massive inequities of wealth and power spawned by neoliberal capitalism. While set in a global context of anti-authoritarianism in the Arab Spring and anti-austerity in the Spanish Summer, OWS defined its purpose as confronting the 1% that had profited from 40 years of income and wealth disparities aided by the governing class. Implicit in the OWS critique of the role of money in politics was a deeper disquiet with the failures of representative democracy and a turn to efforts of creating direct democracy, such as the people’s assemblies.

In many respects, the various messages of OWS seemed to transcend the constraints of politics-as-usual. On the other hand, some of the messages, such as “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” or the call for a student debt strike offered the possibility for populist representations. Indeed, the Bernie Sanders agenda is clearly informed by a translation of the more radical edge of OWS politics into populist policies.

So, for example, when Sanders calls for breaking up big banks or taxing the 1%, he is channeling, or more precisely, instrumentalizing OWS political expressions. His call for free public college tuition is, to some extent, a recognition of the unbearable trillion dollar debt afflicting college students. Furthermore, Sanders denunciation of the role of big money in politics, his demand to overturn Citizens United, and his refusal to take corporate donations speak to the OWS sense of corporate corruption of the political process.

On the other hand, where OWS sought to invent forms of direct democracy while eschewing getting involved in electoral politics, Sanders wants to revive representative democracy through what he calls a “political revolution.” Clearly, this political revolution is limited to electoral reforms, albeit necessary ones that redress racial and class inequities. Such reforms, from restoring the voting rights of former felons and guaranteeing voting rights to every citizen, would rejuvenate representative democracy, especially for black citizens who have been disenfranchised because of racial policies of the carceral state and reactionary political state legislatures. (It is estimated that close to 30% of black males in Florida are presently ineligible to vote.)

Among the blinkered perspective shared by OWS and the Sanders campaign is the lack of attention to the military-industrial complex and US imperialism. As a number of critics of the Sanders campaign have pointed out, he has either avoided confronting the military-industrial complex and its imperial implications or has offered tepid and even misguided criticism of the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. Where much of OWS neglect of foreign policy was a consequence of the immediacy of contesting economic injustices, Sanders avoidance could be seen as a prefigured capitulation to the soft imperialism of the dying US empire.

Nonetheless, the Sanders campaign does offer what so many critics of OWS saw as its primary problem, i.e., the resistance to instrumentalizing its political messages. Of course, narrowing the radical thrust of OWS to populist politics may result in a de-radicalization and mainstreaming of the popular discontent and dissent that animated OWS. When Sanders rails against the “billionaire class” and its control of politics, he both channels OWS in its criticism of the 1% and undermines its larger critique of neoliberal capitalism.

Finally, the Sanders campaign has tapped into a similar OWS constituency of mostly white college-educated young people. As with OWS, the Sanders message is motivating some of the more militant and grass roots labor activists to challenge, once more, the links between the labor establishment and corporate Democrats. Engaging with those attracted to the Sanders campaign offers the opportunity for expanding the OWS message to a larger audience while recognizing that the more radical practices of OWS require rejuvenation for the Sanders electoral constituency.

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Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.  

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