Sources of the Occupy Movement – Part Four – Socioeconomic conditions

This post looks at the social and economic conditions that fostered the emergence of the Occupy movement, as well as a timeline of events, books, and commentary that, in retrospect, offer significant precedents or stimulants to the form and energy of Occupy.




Why ‘Occupy Wall Street’?
By James Downie
September 26, 2011




Demonstrations are stronger when protesters are denouncing a target that directly affects them. In 1971, President Nixon’s decision to end student deferments sparked a new wave of antiwar protests on campuses around the country. Many believe the lack of a draft severely weakened protests against the Iraq war.
Similarly, these demonstrators are protesting not only for a cause but for themselves. Just as many young people in the ’60s and ’70s feared becoming cannon fodder in Southeast Asia, so, too, do many today fear for their futures.


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“What Did We Actually Do Right?” On the Unexpected Success and Spread of Occupy Wall Street
A look back at the beginnings of the Occupy Wall Street movement, how it has spread, and the lessons of its experiments in direct democracy.
by David Graeber




So the social scientist in me has to ask: Why? Why now? Why did it actually work?


Again, I think the answer is generational. In politics, too, as in education, we are looking at a generation of young people who played by the rules, and have seen their efforts prove absolutely fruitless. We must remember that in 2008, the youth vote went overwhelmingly to Barrack Obama and the Democrats. We also have to remember that Obama was running, then, as a candidate of “Change”, using a campaign language that drew liberally from that of radical social movements (“yes we can!”, “be the change!”), and that as a former community organizer, he was one of the few candidates in recent memory who could be said to have emerged from a social movement background rather than from smoke-filled rooms. This, combined with the fact that Obama was Black, gave young people a sense that they were experiencing a genuinely transformative moment in American politics….


How, then, do you expect a young American voter to feel, after casting a vote for a fundamental change to our political and economic system, on discovering that in fact, they have elected a man who twenty years ago would have been considered a moderate conservative?…. Almost all his greatest political efforts have been aimed in one way or another at preserving some institutional structure under threat of radical transformation: the banking system, the auto industry, even the health insurance industry….


…How could there have been a more perfect alignment of the stars than happened in 2008? That year saw a wave election that left Democrats in control of both houses of congress, a Democratic president elected on a platform of “Change” coming to power at a moment of economic crisis so profound that radical measures of some sort were unavoidable, and at a time when popular rage against the nation’s financial elites was so intense that most Americans would have supported almost anything. If it was not possible to enact any real progressive policies or legislation at such a moment, clearly, it would never be. Yet none were enacted. Instead Wall Street gained even greater control over the political process, and, since Republicans proved the only party willing to propose radical positions of any kind, the political center swung even further to the Right. Clearly, if progressive change was not possible through electoral means in 2008, it simply isn’t going to possible at all. And that is exactly what very large numbers of Americans appear to have concluded.


[NOTE ALSO that when people are unemployed, they are more likely to have time and motivation to participate in occupations and other activism than when they are employed full time. For example: “‘The government has only taken care of the banks and big corporations, but has forgotten the people,’ said Julie Baker, a 35-year-old woman that came to the [LA] park three weeks ago, after her boyfriend lost his job. She noted that many of the people occupying the lawns around City Hall had been in school or otherwise employed. ‘Now we have nothing. Not even hope,’ she said.” –]


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Published on Friday, November 11, 2011 by Rolling Stone
How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the OWS Protests
Much more than a movement against big banks, they’re a rejection of what our society has become.
by Matt Taibbi


We were all playing the Rorschach-test game with OWS, trying to squint at it and see what we wanted to see in the movement. Viewed through the prism of our desire to make near-term, within-the-system changes, it was hard to see how skirmishing with cops in New York would help foreclosed-upon middle-class families in Jacksonville and San Diego.


What both sides missed is that OWS is tired of all of this. They don’t care what we think they’re about, or should be about. They just want something different.


We’re all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire. Everything from our pop culture to our economy to our politics feels oppressive and unresponsive. We see 10 million commercials a day, and every day is the same life-killing chase for money, money and more money; the only thing that changes from minute to minute is that every tick of the clock brings with it another space-age vendor dreaming up some new way to try to sell you something or reach into your pocket. The relentless sameness of the two-party political system is beginning to feel like a Jacob’s Ladder nightmare with no end; we’re entering another turn on the four-year merry-go-round, and the thought of having to try to get excited about yet another minor quadrennial shift in the direction of one or the other pole of alienating corporate full-of-shitness is enough to make anyone want to smash his own hand flat with a hammer.


If you think of it this way, Occupy Wall Street takes on another meaning. There’s no better symbol of the gloom and psychological repression of modern America than the banking system, a huge heartless machine that attaches itself to you at an early age, and from which there is no escape. You fail to receive a few past-due notices about a $19 payment you missed on that TV you bought at Circuit City, and next thing you know a collector has filed a judgment against you for $3,000 in fees and interest. Or maybe you wake up one morning and your car is gone, legally repossessed by Vulture Inc., the debt-buying firm that bought your loan on the Internet from Chase for two cents on the dollar. This is why people hate Wall Street. They hate it because the banks have made life for ordinary people a vicious tightrope act; you slip anywhere along the way, it’s 10,000 feet down into a vat of razor blades that you can never climb out of.


That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don’t know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.


There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.


But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it’s at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned “democracy,” tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.


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How Elite Media Strategies Marginalize the Occupy Movement
by Jackie Smith


…[The “Battle of Seattle” WTO protests of 1999] marked the start of a continuing wave of mobilizations against the inequities of the globalized economy that has been building around the world for well over a decade through, for instance, the World Social Forums and their hundreds of national, regional, and local counterparts. The Occupy Wall Street protests should be seen as part of this mobilization against the policies that have fueled economic globalization. A closer look at participants in the Occupy Wall Street efforts would show extensive overlaps with individuals and organizations that have been informed by, if not active in, these earlier struggles….


The dismissal of previous protest movements and the failure to recognize how past organizing work has advanced the knowledge, skills, networks, and resources available to the Occupy Wall Street protests reinforces the mainstream story line that popular efforts to organize for social change are weak, sporadic, and ineffective. This cynical representation of movements plays into the hands of defenders of the status quo (a.k.a. “the 1%”) by dampening people’s sense that political engagement is potentially effective and therefore worthwhile.




(thanks to John Abbe for researching much of this)


ANCIENT ATHENS – encampment as liberated lifestyle


“The camp is the message. They’re not just protesting against authoritarian industrial capitalism: they’re living and showing the alternative. In this sense, they’re descendants of Diogenes the Cynic, the 4th century BC Greek philosopher who tried to ‘deface the currency’ of capitalism, and who lived in a barrel in the centre of the Athenian marketplace, to display how liberating such a lifestyle was.”


1982 / 2006 – the “V” mask


“The comic-book writer Alan Moore is not usually surprised when his creations find a life for themselves away from the printed page…. But Moore has been caught off-guard in recent years, and particularly in 2011, by the inescapable presence of a certain mask being worn at protests around the world. A sallow, smirking likeness of Guy Fawkes – created by Moore and the artist David Lloyd for their 1982 series V for Vendetta. It has a confused lineage, this mask: the plastic replica that thousands of demonstrators have been wearing is actually a bit of tie-in merchandise from the film version of V for Vendetta, a Joel Silver production made… in 2006.”
(for fuller background on V, see


1932 / 1968 – temporary protest cities in the US


The “Bonus Army” march and months-long encampment in DC of 1932 of thousands of depression-affected World War I veterans demanding early redemption of war service certificates. They were dispersed by the army.


“Resurrection City” was the biggest protest of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign which was underway when he was assassinated in Memphis. Several thousand people camped out in huts DC in May and June of 1968, during which time Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Demolished by federal bulldozers.


2000 / 2003 / 2004 / 2005 – tent occupations


“The ‘technology’ of tent occupations goes back to Serbia in 2000, where it was used by the Otpor youth movement to topple Slobodan Milosevic. It was then used during the Georgian Rose Revolution and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, before being picked up during the Arab Spring. The method was actually developed by a Boston academic called Gene Sharp, then taught by the CIA to student protestors in countries where the US wanted to peacefully depose the government. And now the technique has come home to roost. Talk about blowback… 



20 January – Iceland Kitchenware Revolution – Protesting the government’s handling of the financial crisis, thousands of citizens protest at parliament, resulting in the resignation of the government, new elections, and the ultimate rewriting of the constitution.


13 June – The “Green Revolution” demonstrations in Iran and around the world against the disputed election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notable for the use of social networking sites for organizing (though the government blocked websites, texting and cell phone transmissions). Demonstrations were suppressed by police and a paramilitary group, with several dozen people killed.


2010 – the rise of the Indignant and the Outraged!


27 May – Greece – anti-austerity demonstrations organized by the Indignant Citizens Movement
“Any wrong-doing politician should either be sent home or to jail.
When we, the people, start discussions without fear, fear grasps them, inside the parliament building.
This is not just the politician’s fault. Its all our faults, with our selfish attitudes.
Demonstrations should take place every evening at 6 pm and an assembly at 9 pm.
Their democracy guarantees neither Justice nor Equality.
The taxation system is not the same for the rich and the poor. Equal rights for everyone.”


Time for Outrage! (Indignez-vous! en Français) – a tract by Stéphane Hessel (French Resistance, concentration camp survivor, diplomat) 1.5 million sold in French. Available in many other languages.
.    The 93-year old author starts with a brief reference to his participation in the French Resistance at the end of the Second World War, pointing out that outrage was at its roots. He then outlines two somewhat contradictory views of history that have both influenced him, that of the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who was his teacher at the Ecole normale superieure in Paris and that
of the German writer Walter Benjamin, who was a collaborator with and a close friend of his father, Franz Hessel. The author asserts that indifference is the worst of attitudes. He speaks of his experience among the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and exhorts young people to look around for topics of indignation. He then presents his own principal indignation at present, the strife in Palestine, the Gaza strip and the West Bank. He ends the tract by calling for non-violent action and for a peaceful uprising against the powers of finance capitalism.


June 14 – Comparing the Tea Party on the Right and the ??? on the Left (excerpt)…
By George Monbiot
….Though most of what they claim is false, one of the accusations levelled by both the Freedom party and the Tea Party rings true: the left is effete. This highlights another contradiction in their philosophy: liberals are weak and spineless; liberals are ruthless and all-powerful. But never mind that – the left on both sides of the Atlantic has proved to be tongue-tied, embarrassed, unable to state simple economic truths, unable to name and confront the powers that oppress the working class. It has left the field wide open to rightwing demagogues.
.   The great progressive cringe is only part of the problem; we have also abandoned movement-building in favour of Facebook politics. We don’t want to pursue a common purpose any more, instead we want our own ideas and identity applauded. Where are the mass mobilisations in this country against the cuts, against the banks, BP, unemployment, the lack of social housing, the endless war in Afghanistan? In the US the radical right is swiftly acquiring ownership of the Republican party….
.    Bogus and misdirected as the Tea Party movement is, in one respect it has an authenticity that the left lacks: it is angry and it’s prepared to translate that anger into action. It is marching, recruiting, unseating, replacing. We talk, they act….


18 December – Arab Spring begins following Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest of police corruption and ill treatment.
.    “The Arab Spring, otherwise known as the Arab Awakening, is a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world that began on Saturday, 18 December 2010. To date, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; a civil war in Libya resulting in the fall of its government; civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, the latter resulting in the resignation of the Yemeni prime minister; major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman; and minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara. Clashes at the borders of Israel in May 2011 have also been inspired by the regional Arab Spring.
.   “The protests have shared techniques of civil resistance in sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, as well as the use of social media to organize, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and Internet censorship.
.     “Many demonstrations have met violent responses from authorities, as well as from pro-government militias and counter-demonstrators. A major slogan of the demonstrators in the Arab world has been “the people want to bring down the regime”.




15 May – 58 cities in Spain
“they share a strong rejection of unemployment, welfare cuts, Spanish politicians, the current two-party system in Spain … as well as the current political system, capitalism, banks and bankers, political corruption and firmly support what they call basic rights: home, work, culture, health and education.”


The idea behind the 99 percent catchphrase has its roots in a decade’s worth of reporting about the income gap between the richest Americans and the rest, and more directly in May in a Vanity Fair column by the liberal economist Joseph E. Stiglitz titled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” The slogan that resulted in September identified both a target, the “one percent,” and a theoretical constituency, everyone else.… (Stiglitz article)


17 September – Occupy Wall Street

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