One-year on from its beginning, progressives owe Occupy Wall Street a debt of gratitude.
The movement’s clarion call "We are the 99 percent" has shifted the discourse on economic justice in the United States and around the world. Altered language is the first and essential step to political and policy change.
When this fundamental change might happen, no one knows. But almost everyone, except perhaps those in the 1 percent, understand that it’s coming.
This is in no small part to OWS’ ability, with a succinctly brilliant phrase, to highlight how and why things were so critically off course.
A Timely Arrival
OWS’ mantra came at the right time.
It surfaced at the end of last summer’s bitter dispute over depression-level unemployment in communities of color.
The wrong-headed values which caused that employment crisis, and prevented its resolution, we’re laid bare during the concurrent debate over the nation’s debt ceiling.
That debate, which ended in a debacle, left America’s economic discourse bereft and bankrupt. But with a changing mood in the White House and the September 17 takeover over of Zucotti Park, the conversation began to move and reanimate.
In response to a question on OWS one month after it began, Obama told ABC’s Jake Tapper that he wanted to let "people know that we understand their struggles…are on their side, and that we want to set up a system in which hard work, responsibility…(are) rewarded."
Economic populism even crept into the Republican primary. Newt Gingrich, in an early challenge to Mitt Romney, surged to victory in the South Carolina primary by riding a wave of working-class economic frustration in that state.
It Met A Need
Beyond politics, OWS’ words and actions served as a badly needed rallying point for the broader economic justice community.
Progressive economists leapt on OWS’ language bandwagon to underscore econometric arguments for change that they’d been making for years. Both Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman wrote best-selling books "The Price of Inequality" and "End This Depression Now" respectively over the last year, which amplify OWS themes.
OWS also helped to spotlight attention on alternative ways to organize our economy. Free Money Day, which takes place in 60 countries and began in 2011, is an effort by the non-profit Post Growth Institute to spark new thinking about "how we can have new types of economic activity." This year’s Free Money Day took place on September 15 in the run-up to today’s anniversary.
Moreover, OWS energized citizens from unexpected quarters to its cause. Inspired by what they saw, financial sector employees left their jobs to come alongside the OWS effort. The group they formed, Occupy the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), has committed itself to the fight for change in the corridors of power. With their technical heft, Occupy the SEC is going toe-to-toe with its former employers to rewrite the rules of Wall Street.
Despite the activity of the past year, the systemic economic inequity which OWS brought to the fore is unaltered. Change takes time, more than twelve months. Successful American movements often take a generation to complete themselves.
OWS’ initial strength has also diminished since last September, weakened by its decentralized, ad-hoc structure and governmental efforts to undermine it. Successful American movements have to be built to last.
As OWS has ebbed, many in the media and political class have dismissed it as an insignificant Cassandra; the Greek legend who spoke loudly but had no impact. But, according to the myth, Cassandra was right. Had the young woman’s warnings been heeded, Cassandra’s people would have avoided catastrophe.
Perhaps, like Cassandra, OWS’ marginalization says less about its own veracity and more about our society’s collective inability to embrace a broader set of tough truths.