By October 15, Day 29 of the occupation, rallies had spread to hundreds of cities around the world—Tokyo, Chicago, London, Manila—where violent confrontations with police in subsequent weeks, most famously in Oakland, would keep the movement in the news. In New York, the original encampment—now with tents, electricity, wireless Internet access, and a kitchen that offered free meals—continued to grow, but the amenities began to attract growing numbers of homeless people, drug users, and criminals. Protesters tried their best to keep the peace by increasing the number of security and sanitation volunteers.
It was nothing but tent. A third of those tents were homeless people. Some of those homeless people, or homeless families, were inspired and became part of the movement. Also, there were people with mental-health problems. The occupiers tried to feed them, clothe them, and educate them. But it ultimately proved to be a burden that was damaging because the media, like the New York Post, would take their erratic behavior or violent behavior and would assign that to the protest.
Democracy is always an unfinished project. Yet, in its current state in America, it appears to be in terminal decay. If a democratic struggle is to be successfully mobilized against the bankers, hedge fund managers, religious extremists and other members of the ruling and corporate elite, then a critical and democratic formative culture must be given life through the production of new ways of thinking and speaking, new social organizations and a new set of institutions that collectively stake a claim to democracy, if not hope itself.Â What is promising about the Occupy Wall Street protests is that young people and older Americans are delineating the contours, values, sensibilities and hidden politics of the mode of authoritarianism that now shapes the commanding institutions of power and everyday relations of the 99 percent, who are increasingly viewed as excess, disposable and unworthy of living a life of dignity, shared responsibility and hope. This task of delineation is not easy:Â the conditions of domination are layered, complex and deeply flexible. Yet while the forms of oppression are diverse, there is a promising tendency within the Occupy Wall Street movement to refocus these diverse struggles as part of a larger movement for social transformation.Â And there is more. Such protests also embody the desire for new forms of collective struggle and modes of solidarity built around social and shared, rather than individualized and competitive, values.
The amazing thing about the Occupy Wall Street movement is not that it started—America was full of fed-up people at the end of 2011—but that it worked. With a vague agenda, a nonexistent leadership structure (many of the protesters were anarchists and didn’t believe in leaders at all), and a minuscule budget (as of December, they’d raised roughly $650,000—one-eighth of Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign haul), the occupiers in Zuccotti Park nevertheless inspired similar protests in hundreds of cities around the country and the world. What they created was, depending on whom you asked, either the most important protest movement since 1968 or an aimless, unwashed, leftist version of the Tea Party.
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Occupy Wall Street quickly attracted intellectual celebrities—and, eventually, actual celebrities—but its founders were an unlikely assortment of stifled activists, part-time provocateurs, and people who simply had no place else to turn. There was Kalle Lasn, who ran an obscure Vancouver-based magazine called Adbusters with just 10 employees and an anti-consumerist agenda. Another key organizer, Vlad Teichberg, was a 39-year-old former derivatives trader who spent his weekends and evenings producing activist video art. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the University of London, quickly emerged as the movement’s intellectual force. If he was known at all, it was not for his anarchist theories or for his research into the nature of debt, but for being let go by Yale in 2005—in part, he believes, on account of his political leanings.
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Adorno keenly understood that education is at the center of any viable notion of democratic politics and that such education takes place in a variety of spheres both within and outside of schools. Freedom means being able to think critically and act courageously, even when confronted with the limits of one’s knowledge. Without such thinking, critical debate and dialogue degenerates into slogans, while politics, disassociated from the search for justice, becomes a power grab or simply hackneyed. What is partly evident in the Occupy Wall Street movement is not just a cry of collective indignation over economic and social injustice that pose threats to human kind, but a critical expression of how young people and others can use new technologies, social formations and forms of civil disobedience to reactivate both the collective imagination and develop a new language for addressing the interrelated modes of domination that have been poisoning democratic politics since the 1970s.Â At the same time, the movement is using the dominant media to focus on injustices through a theoretical and political lens that counters the legitimation of casino capitalism in the major cultural apparatuses. The rationality, values and power relations that inform hyper-capitalism are now recognized as a new and dangerous mode of authoritarianism.Â
The movement was becoming about taking care of people in a park rather than holding Wall Street accountable for crimes against our Constitution. My personal opinion was that we’d done the park. We occupied it and held it with class and dignity. It smelled fine. It was mellow. I never saw a rat. But at some point it had to transform into something else.
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The main government body responsible for dealing with the crisis, the Federal Reserve Board—removed from direct democracy and run rather mysteriously by academic economists—made an ideal target for populist rage. Fed policies benefitted the rich more than others: low interest rates were paired with “quantitative easing,” in which the Fed purchased the kinds of financial instruments that most people don’t have, like mortgage-backed securities and long-term bonds. Hedge-fund managers who played the rising markets with borrowed funds did well; people on salaries who saved a little money every month and put it in interest-bearing accounts did poorly. By 2010, the Tea Party had become a national movement, and dozens of its adherents were elected to Congress. The left generated a protest movement, too, with Occupy Wall Street, which revolted against the mainstream of the Democratic Party and led to the emergence of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as major Party figures.