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How Occupy is Transforming Our National Conversation

In just two months, the Occupy movement has begun to unseat an economic narrative that held sway for thirty years.

nurses DC by Janet Redman

Photo by Janet Redman

Shift your gaze for a moment from the lurid headlines of police shutting down Occupy sites in Oakland, New York and other cities to the scene on a sunny day in early November here in Washington, D.C. In front of the grandiose U.S. Treasury Department building, thousands of nurses dressed in red shirts gathered holding high large signs proclaiming: “Heal America: Tax Wall Street” and “Tax Timmy’s Friends” (as in U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner). They and their allies next marched to the Bank of America, then to the Occupy D.C. site, and onward to the corridors of Congress. Their rallying cry: a tax on the speculative trades that dominate Wall Street.

These nurses are one of many reminders of how far we have come since Occupy Wall Street pitched its first tents in Zucotti Park on September 17 and of how much the national conversation has shifted. They remind us how significant have been the successes of the Occupy movement, whatever happens to those tents

Occupy has already succeeded in challenging the old, faulty dominant story spread by the 1 percent and replacing it with another one that resonates with what most Americans know to be true.

For the thirty years until September 17, the dominant national narrative was framed by the overarching philosophy of free-marketers like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman. Starting around 1980, they successfully sold a story-line that government should step aside, eliminate regulations, and let the “free market” and its large corporations create prosperity for all of us. As for the resulting rise in inequality? Not to worry, their storyline argued, this was not a problem because everyone had a chance to get rich and anyone who did not – well, that was their own fault.

Across the world, for years, millions of people challenged this elite-driven and elite-benefiting “Washington Consensus.” In Brazil, for example, landless workers occupied farmland and ultimately helped elect a government of the 99 percent. Similar movements helped elect governments that challenged the 1 percent in Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, El Salvador, Venezuela, and elsewhere. 

Occupy Wall Street 1979 still
Occupy Wall Street, 1979

Before there were hashtags, 32 years ago, more than a thousand protesters were arrested for trying to shut Wall Street down for a day.

But, in the United States, the dominant story persisted for decades, drowning out the voices of victims and critics — leaving us with a callous national narrative that tolerated obscene wealth among the few, mounting poverty among the many, and an escalating gap between the two. 

Tolerated, that is, until Occupy Wall Street.

The signs and chants of “we are the 99%” have broken the spell, liberating the public imagination to unearth the true narrative of what has happened in this country and across the world during the past three decades. 

Pay no heed to what the self-serving mainstream pundits of the 1 percent say about the Occupy movement. The reality is this: Occupy has already succeeded. It has succeeded in shaking us as a society out of our hypnosis. Occupy has already succeeded in its role as a social movement in challenging the old, faulty dominant story spread by the 1 percent and replacing it with another one that resonates with what most Americans know to be true.

The truth: The policies and practices of giant corporations and the U.S. government over the past three decades have rigged the system to benefit the 1 percent. The truth: The resulting inequality has grown to grotesque levels not seen since the first “Gilded Age” 100 years ago. Inequality is crushing millions, while destroying our democracy.   

Ignore also what the pundits of the 1 percent are telling you about who is at Occupy. The Occupy sites are not filled with partying spoiled rich college kids. There are ordinary people, some who have lost jobs, some who have lost homes, some who cannot find jobs, most who had lost hope. People who are tired of being blamed, tired of feeling alone, and tired of not being heard.

Now, they are being heard and they are not feeling alone. 

ows nurses group by Janet Redman

Photo by Janet Redman

In choosing Wall Street as its main initial site, Occupy brilliantly changed the narrative to focus on the real villain: a Wall Street that gambled the hard-earned savings of ordinary Americans and precipitated the crash of 2008. A Wall Street that was then bailed out by the 1 percent in the U.S. Congress.

Pay no heed to those pundits who say that Occupy will fail unless it puts forward a specific list of specific demands. This is not the role of a social movement such as Occupy. Rather, if Occupy can keep the spotlight on this new narrative, this gives space, power, and voice to other groups to put forward specific demands on behalf of the 99 percent. Case in point: those nurses who marched with other Occupy supporters on that sunny day in early November to demand the tax on financial transactions of the 1 percent.

Indeed, as the nurses rallied in Washington, three of their leaders joined in a demonstration thousands of miles away in France, pressing leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies including President Obama to embrace this tax. Obama economic advisors had previously opposed the tax, even in other countries. But, as IPS fellow Sarah Anderson reported from France: “After the protests, Obama announced he supported the goal of making the financial sector pay for the crisis and wouldn’t stand in the way of other countries implementing a financial speculation tax.” 

In sum: Occupy is successfully shifting the national conversation and, in doing so, it is opening the door to a new realm of possibilities.


John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. 

Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first

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