I recently came across a superb piece of photo-journalism in the New York Times entitled ‘Occupy Wall Street – Where are they now?’. Photographer Accra Shepp had shot in situ portraits of several ordinary New York citizens in Zuccotti Park in October 2011, among the several thousands gathered in the wake of the 2008 financial crash to protest against the impacts of de-regulated capitalism. Shepp had tracked down some of his original subjects because he wanted to know how the heady events of five years ago had changed them: the preppy-looking lawyer who became the leading figure pushing through same-sex equality legislation in New Jersey and is now working on penal reform; the undocumented Mixtec migrant – a young woman from Mexico – who now runs a popular restaurant which employs undocumented workers and serves as an advice hub for others.
However, not all stories are narratives of spectacular change and progressive protest. One of Shepp’s most striking images is of a mother and daughter. The mother had taken her daughter out of school that day believing that the events that were unfolding in Zuccotti Park would be more life-transforming than books and lessons. Five years later, Shepp asked the daughter if she had ever discussed these events at school. The answer was a simple no – there had been no acknowledgment of any of it.
And thereby hangs the conundrum of the whole Occupy phenomenon. Just what difference did it make? Hardened cynics and disappointed idealists will point to the overwhelming evidence that nothing has changed. The visceral hope for progressive social democracy of the Arab Spring has largely been replaced by deeper and further repression and violence – the Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter. Social trends in the UK, Europe and beyond show inexorable trends towards further inequality and social alienation. Recent financial scandals involving tax dodging and avoidance by multi-national companies (Starbucks, Apple, Google), rigging of market rates (Libor) and treating workers’ pensions savings as personal collateral (BHS) would suggest that despite the crash of 2008, very little has changed, and it is business as usual. What does a five-year perspective on Occupy offer us?
One useful framework for looking at this question is provided by Craig Calhoun, former Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science and now President of the Berggruen Institute (and a recent contributor to our Temple Tract series). He talks about the relationship between ‘moments’ and ‘movements’. It is important, he says, to distinguish between ‘specific protests and other relatively short-term manifestations from longer-term patterns of action seeking to produce major changes’. Movements are defined as ‘relatively long-term collective engagements in producing or guiding social change’ such as the civil rights movement in the 1960s or the moves towards women’s suffrage in the early 20th century. Writing reasonably soon after the event (roughly a year), Calhoun believes that Occupy was not a movement but an intense moment that lasted for six weeks: ‘It is no denigration of Occupy Wall Street (or the Occupy movement(s) more generally) to say it may not have a future as such.’
So on one hand he would seem to share something of a pessimist’s perspective on the long-term impacts of Occupy. However, he does go on to suggest that Occupy could be a moment which might be replicated later on in a different guise. In other words, we might argue that Occupy was a key spike, along with others, in shift towards what we might call an emerging post-neo-liberal consensus, the full contours and character of which have yet to emerge.
I am certainly very interested in this idea of an emerging post neo-liberal consensus, and whilst I share Craig Calhoun’s analysis, I think with the benefit of a five-year perspective, it is possible to argue for a greater claim to Occupy’s legacy.
Occupy crystallised in stark clarity a visceral and heartfelt rejection of globalisation and its inexorable unaccountability, instability, and amoral functionalism. Since then we have seen all over the world, a growing anti-globalisation sentiment that is now shaking the political and economic mainstream – based on the presumed neo-liberal consensus – to its core. Entities like Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, Momentum, Black Lives Matter; these are all over the place in terms of political vision. But they share one thing in common: a desire to reverse globalisation and restore a sense of identity and values back into the public sphere.
Of course political vision is hugely important. Much of Trumpism and ‘hard’ Brexiteering is based on the return to protectionism and narrow nationalism. However, the strong appeal of Corbyn and other ‘new left’ movements lies on their call for a return to progressive state interventionism as a way of restoring inclusive and solidaristic values back into public life. As Paul Mason recently remarked; like it or loathe it, Corbynism marks an inevitable trend to new political and economic reality that is unstoppable – history is now on their side’. An insider friend told me that at a recent conference of investment strategists, there was a widespread and relaxed acceptance of John McDonnell’s economic modelling and rise of Corbynism – because they recognised the current political system is both intellectually and instrumentally broken and will have to radically change. In other words, there are more risks associated with the toxic impacts of the current economic strategy than the ideas represented by, for example, Corbynism.
The key question is: What new politics will emerge out the ashes of the present death-throes of neo-liberalism? Will it be an open or closed-borders future – intellectually as well as geographically? It is all to play for.
The indispensable truth that Occupy bestowed however, is that human beings matter again – stories and experiences need to be valued and listened to, especially those at the bottom of the pile. Above all, and this is something that the Foundation believes with every fibre of its being, that we need to be reconnected to one another and to principles and values that transcend the short-term and the material. Occupy may not have had a coherent political message or policy at the time. But its simple cry that the 99% matter unleashed a new consciousness on the world; that human beings matter; that the earth matters; that the solution to the world’s problems will be based around a new ethical imagination, not a just a quick technical fix.
Chris Baker is Director of Research at the William Temple Foundation.
Religion, Government and the Public Good by Craig Calhoun is available to download – click here >>
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