Whatever the effects of police repression and freezing weather, I believe that the men and women of the Occupations will still be making themselves heard when you read this. Something new and important has begun in American politics, and we won’t see the end of it soon: a political struggle against the growing inequalities of our common life. Since the inequalities are systemic, the struggle won’t be short or easy. I am not sure what the odds are on winning, but it is enormously heartening that so many people, mostly young people, have at last begun the fight.
Americans came late to this kind of populist protest—after the massive demonstrations of the Arab Spring and after the social justice movements in Spain and Israel. It’s worth looking back—these earlier protests suggest the difficulties of translating tent cities and street demonstrations into everyday politics. The early leaders of the Arab Spring, the “Facebook kids,” brought down tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt, but they are not the ones who will replace the tyrants. They turn out to be a thin layer of men and women—educated, secular, liberal, professional, often unemployed—who don’t have the popular following they seemed to have. They face a long struggle to legitimate their views and their sensibility in Arab politics.
The protesters in Spain and Israel are much closer to the mainstream of their societies; they didn’t have tyrants to bring down; they are working in functioning democracies. They confront an oligarchic drift, the political side of growing economic inequality. Against the oligarchs and the tycoons, they can plausibly claim to speak for the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens, Still, their successes have been small, and they haven’t yet established a presence on the actual ground of democratic politics—where parties are organized and elections fought.
The U.S. occupiers speak for the 99 percent against the 1 percent, but the truth is that only 1 percent of the 99 percent have, so far, joined the Occupations and the marches. The polls show extraordinary popular support for that activist 1 percent despite its often ragtag appearance. But we should distrust the polls and do everything we can to pull more and more people into some form of political action against inequality. It doesn’t have to be connected to tents and squares, but it does have to be inventive and inclusive in the same way that the Occupations have been. Whatever the odds, the aim is to win. What does that mean? Here, as in Spain and Israel, it means sustaining protest life on the streets and producing bigger and bigger marches—so as to force a political party to adopt the program of the protesters. That’s the way democratic politics works, when it’s working. It isn’t working right now; we are only at the beginning of the struggle to set that right.