At its simplest, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement hopes to change American discourse on economic policy. (Published in The Hindu)
Nearly three years ago, Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election on the back of incredible popular mobilisation. In a country often bogged down in plodding party politics, there seemed to be something transcendent and epochal about his rise. Observers suggested that Mr. Obama did more than inspire voters; he energised a generational movement. This sense was no doubt aided by Mr. Obama’s charisma and the messianic rhetoric of his campaign. He called for “the audacity of hope” and promised that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
After three years of disillusionment, a more organic movement has taken root in the United States. The “Occupy Wall Street” protests began innocuously one month ago, but now claim public space and public attention. They reached new heights of spectacle on Saturday when thousands flooded Times Square in New York City as part of a wider “global day of rage” against the West’s stuttering economic systems.
The American protesters come from many of the groups who rallied to Mr. Obama in 2008: young people, students, urban middle classes, union members, the working poor, the underemployed, and the unemployed. Yet this time they are not hitched to the ascendance of one man. They denounce the growth of stark inequality and the erosion of social mobility in America. They decry what they see as the collusion of the state with corporate and financial interests. And they tap into the widely-shared belief that the bankers, speculators, and traders responsible for the economic recession have escaped it unscathed while leaving behind a vast hinterland of despair and struggle.
Mr. Obama’s campaign hyperbole returned to life in an unexpected way. Among the many striking signs I’ve seen around these protests, one placard at Zuccotti Park (the square in downtown Manhattan “occupied” by activists for the past month) reprised his old line: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It was a rebuke to the President, not a pledge of fealty. For the newly galvanised left, those heady days of Obama-euphoria in 2008 seem terribly remote. The President and his party are not even auxiliary to the burgeoning movement. Its impetus doesn’t spring from the imperatives of electoral politics, but from a much more inchoate and deeper well of feeling in American society.
We can trace this anger to the hardships that descended on many Americans following the 2008 economic collapse. The ranks of the unemployed have swollen; jobs are harder to come by for both the under- and over-educated; students graduate with unpayable debts; once free-flowing credit has dried up; prudent savers have seen their pensions vanish into thin air; government austerity measures threaten public sector jobs and what remains of America’s social safety net. Protesters can summon an army of statistics to show how inequality in America has spiralled after three decades of intensifying deregulation (for instance, according to the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, average incomes between 1979 and 2008 in the U.S. grew by over $10,000, but all that growth went to the richest 10 per cent of the country, while the incomes of the remaining 90 per cent effectively declined). Some activists replace the traditional slogans on their placards with economic charts, cluttering demonstrations with arrows and figures. It is perhaps fitting that the identity of this movement has coalesced around a number. Calling themselves the “99%,” the protesters assail a hypothetical “1%,” the rich elite that holds a country and its government in thrall.
The rawness and generality of this sentiment — aimed at financial institutions, corporations, the wealthy, and a supposedly complicit government — has convinced many critics that the protesters lack a coherent agenda: “What do these people want?” In fairness, it’s difficult to summarise the movement. I’ve heard suggestions that the U.S. is in the midst of its own “Anna Hazare moment,” but the comparison doesn’t hold water. “Occupy Wall Street” has no figurehead and only the faintest tracing of a leadership structure. Where Anna’s followers demanded concrete legislative action in the Jan Lokpal bill, “Occupy Wall Street” activists maintain a long, pious list of causes, from the reform of the financial system to stopping house foreclosures to ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This series of grievances in the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City” (the closest thing to a manifesto yet to emerge from the movement) can seem exhaustively idealistic or, worse, vague and impractical. But its role is not to serve as some blueprint for actual legislative reform. Instead, it allows the movement to remain open and inclusive to its growing number of sympathisers. While they frustrate the media and resist easy definition, the “Occupy Wall Street” protests continue to hit a nerve in an uncertain and depressed nation.
At its simplest level, “Occupy Wall Street” hopes to change American discourse. The demonstrations seek to re-centre American politics after they were wrenched off-kilter by the right-wing Tea Party movement, its Republican supporters, and by a pliant and weak Democratic party. This is a battle to be waged as much in front of cameras as it is in the finer points of political debates. Events in New York’s Times Square on Saturday made for triumphant spectacle. The protesters — all critics of the current economic order — conquered the city’s most garish and iconic plaza, its every edifice smothered in flickering neon advertisements. The rally confirmed the swelling appeal of the movement. I shuffled about a packed Times Square, in awe at the size, diversity, and remarkably good humour of the crowd.
The day before, I was an observer at another victory of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Thousands arrived in the small hours of Friday morning to successfully prevent the New York Police Department from evicting the encampment at Zuccotti Park. As people in the park celebrated, several politicians from the Democratic party — mostly local councilmen — spoke to the crowd. Already, segments of the Democratic party have taken notice of the movement and try to exploit its momentum. Buoyed by recent successes, the protesters are here to stay. When asked for his own opinion about “Occupy Wall Street,” Mr. Obama has equivocated, stopping short of offering a full endorsement. One suspects that the longer the protests last, the more Mr. Obama will have to consider bending to its sentiments. In Zuccotti Park, I watched one Democratic party official struggle to make himself heard. His speech was swallowed in the din of a movement committed to going forward, with or without him.
(Kanishk Tharoor is a writer based in New York City.)