Beyond the Ballot Box

Tim Barker

  • Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt by Sarah Jaffe
    Nation, 352 pp, £20.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 56858 536 9

Commenting on Occupy Wall Street in late 2011, Barney Frank, then a Democratic congressman for Massachusetts, voiced a common complaint: ‘I don’t understand why people think that simply being in a physical place does much.’ Nearly five years later, it isn’t easy to decide whether Frank was right. Part of the puzzle is that the Occupy movement had a strange double character, both tactic (something to be done) and discourse (something to talk about). The tactic involved illegal occupation of public space and abstention from electoral politics. ‘Occupy’ was a verb, and occupiers defied the restrictive policing that normally kept city centre areas clean for white-collar workers and tourists. Inside the space, people made decisions on a directly democratic basis, gathering in general assemblies where consensus was supposed to substitute for majority rule, and demands to existing authorities were explicitly forsworn. The occupiers confronted other people, on their small patch of land, without the mediations of market and parliament.

But the movement was also based on a set of grievances and slogans: collusion between finance and the state (‘Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!’), staggering income and wealth inequality (‘We are the 99 per cent’), a representative democracy that scarcely deserved the name (‘Get money out of politics’). Not only did these not depend on the tactic of occupation, but they often seemed aimed at engaging with and improving the existing system. There were frequent discussions of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case removing limits on corporate campaign donations, and of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking regulation whose repeal in 1999 is sometimes blamed for the 2008 crisis. If the poisoned fruit had been eaten so recently, maybe there was no need to start from scratch.

The tactic of occupation has left little trace. After protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district on 17 September 2011, there were further occupations in hundreds of other cities and towns. Always dependent on official forbearance, the encampments were evicted in a string of police raids between 25 October (Oakland) and 15 November (Manhattan). Even before the cops came, these societies in miniature had run up against internal limits, including the difficulty of accommodating a growing number of homeless residents. The attempt at direct democracy gave way to bitter arguments: some complained that a de facto leadership had emerged, while others argued for the necessity of delegating power. After the crackdown, many hoped the movement would live on in new forms of direct action, including Occupy Sandy – to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy – and the Occupy Homes movement to stop foreclosures and move homeless families into empty houses. But these proved short-lived, leaving the discourse of inequality, rather than the tactic of occupation, as the most visible legacy.

This influence is almost always referred to as ‘changing the conversation’, a locution suggesting a conception of politics as a cocktail party. But it is true that after Occupy, US politicians spoke somewhat less cautiously about the wealthy. Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign targeted Mitt Romney’s background in private equity, while Bill de Blasio came from behind to become the first Democratic mayor of New York in two decades running against the legacy of the three-term mayor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Thomas Piketty’s unexpected blockbuster made talk of class conflict safe for polite company, while trend pieces heralded ‘the new socialist wunderkinds of America’ gathered around magazines like the New Inquiry (several of its editors were arrested during the protests) and Jacobin (whose breakthrough moment, according to the New York Times, was sponsoring a well-attended public debate about Occupy’s tactics).

The greatest achievement of the post-Occupy conversation may be the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders. Running in a Democratic primary ran counter to the basic ideas of OWS, and at first Sanders wasn’t identified with the movement. By all accounts, he expected to run a protest campaign, a shoestring operation that would enable him to publicise a social democratic alternative to Clintonism during the televised debates. The extent of the support he drew – large enough that it could plausibly be called a movement – took him by surprise.

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