#99Percent: Occupy Wall Street and Modern Populism

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series #Occupy

It has been nearly a month since the first group of protestors started camping out in Zuccotti Park, which they renamed Liberty Square. Since then, they have built a veritable community of liberal populists. The Right has responded with We are the 53%, celebrities have come out in support (some more at home than others), and, according to a Daily Kos/SEIU Weekly Poll, amongst those making more than $100,000, 44% have a favorable opinion of the protests while only 31% have an unfavorable opinion (15% are neutral, and 9% hadn’t heard of the movement). So the Occupy movements have the support of both celebrities and the middle class’ upper echelon, and, just as tellingly, they have the attention of the opposition. But what has made this movement so popular so quickly?

Occupy Wall Street’s brilliance – its true populist spark – cannot be found in its demands, its tactics, its triumphs, or its tragedies. Instead, authentic, vibrant modern populism shines through the movement’s motto: “We are the 99%.”

The catchphrase, condensed to #99percent, embodies the protestors’ populist discontent, a sense of disillusionment with political and economic systems that have widened the gaps between the rich and the poor, granted corporations the same rights afforded to citizens, and summarily failed in their mandate to help society as a whole. They seek to eliminate the systemic structures that perpetuate uneven distributions of wealth, power, rights, agency, and identity. The Guardian’s David Graeber examines the movement’s relationship to turn-of-the-century anti-globalization protests:

Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park (image courtesy of capitalnewyork.com)

The form of resistance that has emerged looks remarkably similar to the old global justice movement … What’s different is largely the target [of the protestors’ discontent]: where in 2000, it was directed at the power of unprecedented new planetary bureaucracies (the WTO, IMF, World Bank, Nafta), institutions with no democratic accountability, which existed only to serve the interests of transnational capital; now, it is at the entire political classes of countries like Greece, Spain and, now, the US – for exactly the same reason. This is why protesters are often hesitant even to issue formal demands, since that might imply recognising the legitimacy of the politicians against whom they are ranged.

This distrust of the political process, and of government in general calls for comparison with another example of modern populism: the Tea Party.

Such a comparison is by no means unique, yet its implications nevertheless merit consideration. Both movements have lashed out at economic and political systems they perceive as ineffectual, and both have influenced Washington to some extent. While the Tea Party undeniably affected the 2010 midterm elections and the right’s political discourse, Occupy Wall Street has seemingly reinvigorated populist politics on Capitol Hill. And in many ways, the Tea Party played a key role in creating the conditions that led to Occupy Wall Street, which has seemingly emerged as a Newtonian reaction to the Tea Party’s popularity and vigor.

Yet while the Tea Party has adopted mainstream conservative media as its mouthpiece, Occupy Wall Street’s mouthpiece is the online masses: Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, alternative journalism – it’s political activism, crowd-sourced. Citizens of the Web and Liberty Square, lacking jobs, political power, and money, have turned to the last resource they have left: human capital. By rejecting institutional mechanisms for effecting change, Occupy Wall Street has indicated that theirs is a movement by and for persons reduced to their minimum, bare life.

An American Autumn?

What, exactly, will be the product of the protestors’ discontent? Before the protests began, some suggested the possibility of an American Tahrir Moment – the sort of revolutionary spark that would bring about sweeping, significant institutional change. Yet despite their momentum and ardor, such an outcome is unlikely. The protestors’ demands are too wide-ranged and the Occupation is too late to capture the widespread discontent that immediately followed the 2008 bank bailouts. More importantly, the vast majority of Americans exhibit their dissatisfaction through disapproval ratings, using polls to indicate their displeasure with incumbent politicians, rather than taking to the streets.

Yet is this seeming ineffectiveness such a bad thing? While Occupy Wall Street will not lead to a bill being passed or a bank CEO being prosecuted, the movement has awakened a new generation of American liberals – a post-Obama Left as Slate’s David Weigel suggests. Again, David Graeber provides essential insight:

We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.

Occupy Wall Street, like similar anti-corporate protests in Spain and Greece, shows the West’s leaders that liberal populists have reawakened. Their demands may not be clear, but they certainly demand attention.

Tim Reynolds is the Port Side's Editor-in-Chief and Web Editor Emeritus. A junior English major at Pomona College, Tim can be found working with students in Pomona's Writing Center. Email him at editor@claremontportside.com




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