10 Years Since Occupy Wall Street

The movement was a turning point in denouncing inequality.

We are currently marking the 10th anniversary of the moment when a small group of activists occupied Zuccotti Park, a small patch of paved land surrounded by tall buildings in lower Manhattan, next to Wall Street, the financial center of the world. It was the moment that the Occupy Wall Street movement was born. That movement, which progressively spread across a number of American cities, coincided with numerous protests in many parts of the world as it emerged from the height of the Great Recession. The main message of most of the protests was that the growing concentration of income and wealth at the core of societies posed a grave danger for democracy. The least common denominator of the rallies was the fact that redistribution of wealth resulting from the crisis was reversed – the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. There was feeling of being scammed.

Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs concluded then that Occupy Wall Street was a synecdoche: it not only concerned what happened in New York, but also concerned a wave of social protest in both developed and developing countries; although every country’s political and economic grievances differed, there were important similarities, and therefore, it would be reasonable to label what was happening as Occupy Global Capitalism. Back then, and throughout this decade, Occupy Wall Street has been criticized as being a nihilist protest of sorts, with no specific motive; in general, its cause and purpose would be to reform the political economy of capitalism.

However, Occupy Wall Street was a turning point in denouncing inequality. The Manhattan protests were not so much caused by the undeniably tough economic conditions of the most disadvantaged as by the disparate way in which specific segments of society were impacted after the 2008 financial crisis. This led to the fortuitous slogan, “We are the 99%!” attributed to the late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. Tensions between the 99% and the ultra-rich 1% then became a real class struggle.

It was about getting the majority to stop focusing on those below them (the lowest versus the second-to-lowest) and pay attention to those above them. That did not rule out all manner of division and distrust related to class, gender, race and culture at the heart of the 99%. Economist Nouriel Roubini, one of the people who correctly predicted the Great Recession, wrote that the concept of an oppressed and hopeless 99% and a thriving 1% at the top of society may have simplified a very complex situation. And yet, from then on, it reverberated as a very deep truth: the free and limitless markets, the continuous deregulation and existing globalization did not benefit everybody, and some of the harmful consequences had to do with massive job losses, mediocre wage growth and, above all, the rise in inequality.

The main ideas behind Occupy Wall Street have filtered into institutional politics, sometimes in the hands of characters like Sen. Bernie Sanders who took part in the protests, sometimes in the change of economic paradigm announced by Joe Biden. Some of these ideas have become obsolete over the years. At the time, the richest 1% was mostly made up of people from the financial world, who were eventually displaced by representatives from the tech sector: Silicon Valley, instead of Wall Street. Back then, the world was emerging from the Great Recession, and today, it is emerging at different speeds from the Great Lockdown. In both cases, there is a single reason why a sector of the population is outraged: economic progress that is geared toward the creation of private wealth and indifferent to ideas of collective well-being, social justice and environmental protection. That is the enduring message from Occupy Wall Street.

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