From the Many, 99 Percent

From the Many, 99 Percent

The financial crisis and the ruin of recession are only a few years old, but we’ve been marching for forty years toward income inequality, a service-based economy (finance and fast food), and political rule by and for the rich. Where was the outrage all that time? Delayed, in some cases—by the slow and obscure way the changes took place, until it all came crashing down in 2008. Displaced, in others—recently, for example, onto unionized workers who still have pensions. Those of us on the left, however, have been outraged for a long time. Our ideas just didn’t have much reach. And then came Occupy Wall Street.

On September 17, I marched with perhaps a thousand others from Bowling Green at Manhattan’s southern tip to a grassless, undistinguished corporate park two blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. Some friends from Dissent and I listened in on a couple of the dozen or so miniature assemblies that broke out after we arrived at Zuccotti Park, but we didn’t participate. I overheard confident denunciations of an unaccountable and destructive system. It was inspiring and, to me, hopelessly naïve. Didn’t they know what we were up against? Didn’t they recognize our powerlessness?

Looking back, I blame my reticence less on the content of those discussions than on the cynicism that our deadening political culture had bred in me. But the air in Zuccotti Park was transfigurative. When my fellow Dissenters and I eventually found some other friends in the park and started talking with them about the society we envisioned and wanted to create, the conversation didn’t seem deluded, but normal. And when others joined in, innocent of the shibboleths of New York intellectualism, I wasn’t impatient, but intent on listening.

We owe the general assemblies of OWS to egalitarians of anarchist inflection, yet many people who don’t see the GA as a model for society have found inspiration in its radical inclusiveness. The assemblies became vehicles for any person (with time and patience to spare) to speak and be recognized as an equal among equals. And not just in New York City: across the country, all you had to do to take part was get out there, assemble, and declare yourself an occupier.

Occupying for what? Answers abound, which can make the voices of the 99 percent sound like a cacophony. Not everyone shows up for the same reasons, but through the dominant themes run the threads of capital. “No demands” may be a difficult sell to the skeptics, but the internal result has been remarkable. The Occupations have managed to draw together the pieces of a fragmented Left—sectarians and liberals, socialists and anarchists, union workers and greens—under a single banner, while allowing us to maintain our differences. Mayors around the country may have deployed their police forces to tear down encampments, including the one in Zuccotti Park, but official and unofficial OWS groups continue to meet an...