This Changes Everything
Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement
Sarah van Gelder (ed.)
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California (USA), 2011 (2011)
84 pages

If there is something that never stops amazing me is the American ability to completely ignore whatever is going on in the rest of the world and consistently see themselves as the center of everything. This is what in Spain we call adanism (i.e., the idea that everything starts with and in ourselves). Yet, it should surprise no one. After all, it is a perfectly normal attitude for those who live in the metropolis of any historically known empire, and the United States are no exception. If anything, what I find amusing is the fact that even progressive people easily fall into that trap. Take, for example, the following paragraph from this short volume:

Months before the occupiers descended on Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, before the news trucks arrived and the unions endorsed, before Michael Bloomberg and Michael Moore and Kanye West made appearances, a group of artists, activists, writers, students, and organizers gathered on the fourth floor of 16 Beaver Street, an artists' space near Wall Street, to talk about changing the world. There were New Yorkers in the room, but also Egyptians, Spaniards, Japanese, and Greeks. Some had played a part in the Arab Spring uprising; others had been involved in the protests catching fire across Europe. But no one involved at 16 Beaver knew they were about to light the fuse on a protest movement that would sweep the United Stated and fuel similar uprisings around the world.

(Andy Kroll: How Occupy Wall Street Really Got Started, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 16)

In other words, months before the Occupy Wall Street protests even started, there was a meeting that included people who had participated in the protests in the Arab world and in Europe... and yet, somehow, these protests in New York that had not happen yet at this point would somehow "light the fuse" on a movement that would sweep both the US and the world (?!). Wouldn't it make more sense to think that it's precisely the opposite what happened? It seems clear to me that the protests started in the Arab world, then spread to some European countries and, finally, reached the US. Well, no, it cannot be like that, of course! Anything new that happens in the world has to be invented here! After all, we are the center of the empire. We are the center of the world. Strange things that one reads.

From the introduction, written by Sarah van Gelder:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not just demanding change. It is also transforming how we, the 99%, see ourselves. The shame many of us felt when we couldn't find a job, pay down our debts, or keep our home is being replaced by a political awakening. Millions now recognize that we are not to blame for a weak economy, fir a subprime mortgage meltdown, or for a tax system that favors the wealthy but bankrupts the government. The 99% are coming to see that we are collateral damage in an all-out effort by the super-rich to get even richer.

Now that we see the issue clearly —and now that we see how many others are in the same boat— we can envision a new role for ourselves. We will no longer be isolated and powerless. We can hold vigils all night when necessary and nonviolently face down police. We are the vast majority of the population and, once we get active, we cannot be ignored. Our leaders will not fix things for us: we'll have to do that ourselves. We'll have to make the decisions, too. And we'll have to take care of one another —provide the food, shelter, protection, and support needed to make it through long occupations, bad weather, and the hard work of finding consensus when we disagree.

(Sarah van Gelder (ed.): This Changes Everything, p. 2)

Critics of the movement say they oppose the redistribution of wealth on principle. But redistribution is exactly what has been happening for decades. Today's economy redistributes wealth from the poor and middle class to those at the top. The income of the top 1% grew 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, according to the Congressional Budget Office. For those in the bottom 20 percent, income grew just 18 percent during those twenty-eight years.

(Sarah van Gelder (ed.): This Changes Everything, p. 3)

The movement has also been criticized for its failure to issue a list of demands. In fact, it is easy to see what the movement is demanding: quite simply, a world that works for the 99%. The hand-lettered protest signs show the range of concerns: excessive student debt; banks that took taxpayer bailouts, then refused to help homeowners stay in their homes; cuts in government funding for essential services; Federal Reserve policies; the lack of jobs.

A list of specific demands would make it easier to manage, criticize, co-opt, and divide the movement. Instead, Occupy Wall Street is setting its own agenda on its own terms and developing consensus statements at its own pace. It's doing this in spaces that it controls —some in parks and other public spaces, others in union halls, libraries, churches, and community centers. On the Internet, the movement issues statements and calls to action through Twitter, Facebook, and its own Web sites. From the start it was clear that the movement would not rely on a mainstream media corrupted by corporate interest.

(Sarah van Gelder (ed.): This Changes Everything, pp. 6-7)

When political parties talk about building a base, they usually mean developing foot soldiers who will help candidates win election and then go home to let the elected officials make the decisions. The Occupy Wall Street movement turns that idea on its head. The ordinary people who have chosen to be part of this movement are the ones who debate the issues, determine strategies, and lead the work.

(Sarah van Gelder (ed.): This Changes Everything, p. 7)

...the movement has important strengths that add to its resilience. It is radically decentralized, so a disaster at any one occupation will not bring down the others; in fact, the others can take action in support. There is no single leader who could be co-opted or assassinated. Instead, leadership is broadly shared, and leadership skills are being taught and learned constantly.

What's more, the autonomous groups within the movement that plan and carry out direct actions of all sorts are extremely difficult to contain. By choosing the targets of their actions wisely, they can further draw attention to institutions whose behavior calls into question their right to exist. When the legitimacy of large institutions crumbles, it is often just a matter of time before the support of government, stockholders, customers, and employees goes away, too. There is no institution that is "too big to fail." This is one way that nonviolent revolution happens.

(Sarah van Gelder (ed.): This Changes Everything, p. 10)

Whatever happens next, Occupy Wall Street has already accomplished something that changes everything. It has fundamentally altered the national conversation.

"A group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park, and all of a sudden the conversation started being about the right things," says The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "It's kind of a miracle."

(Sarah van Gelder (ed.): This Changes Everything, p. 11)

Around thirty people showed up for those first gatherings at 16 Beaver earlier this summer, recall several people who attended. Some of them hada just come from "Bloombergville," a weeks-long encampment outside New York City Hall to protest deep budget cuts to education and other public services, and now they itched for another occupation. As the group talked politics and the battered economic landscape in the United States and abroad, a question hang in the air: "What comes next?"

Begonia S.C. and Luis M.C., a Spanish couple who attended those 16 Beaver discussions, had an idea. (They asked that their full names not be used to avoid looking like publicity seekers.) In the spring, they had returned to Spain for the protests sweeping the country in reaction to staggering unemployment, a stagnant economy, and hapless politicians. On May 15, twenty-thousand indignados, "the outraged," had poured into Madrid's Puerta del Sol, transforming the grand plaza into their own version of Tahrir Square. Despite police bans against demonstrations, the plaza soon became the focal point of Spain's social media-fueled 15-M movement (named for May 15), which spread to hundreds of cities in Spain and Italy. When they returned to the United States, Begonia and Luis brought the lessons of 15-M with them. At 16 Beaver, they suggested replicating a core part of the movement in the United States: the general assembly.

(Andy Kroll: How Occupy Wall Street Really Got Started, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 17)

Three months later, hundreds of assemblies, big and small, now operate by consensus across America. Decisions are made democratically, without voting, by general assent. According to conventional wisdom this shouldn't be possible, but it is happening —in much the same way that other inexplicable phenomena like love, revolution, or life itself (from the perspective of, say, particule physics) happen.

The direct democratic process adopted by Occupy Wall Street has deep roots in American radical history. It was widely employed in the civil rights movement and by the Students for a Democratic Society. But its current form has developed from within movements like feminism and even spiritual traditions (both Quaker and Native American) as much as from within anarchism itself. The reason direct, consensus-based democracy has been so firmly embraced by and identified with anarchism is because it embodies what is perhaps anarchism's most fundamental principle: that in the same way human beings treated like children will tend to act like children, the way to encourage human beings to act like mature and responsible adults is to treat them as if they already are.

(David Graeber: Enacting the Impossible: Making Decisions by Consensus, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 22-23)

We may never be able to prove through logic that direct democracy, freedom, and a society based on principles of human solidarity are possible. We can only demonstrate it through action. In parks and squares across America, people have begun to witness it as they have started to participate. Americans grow up being taught that freedom and democracy are our ultimate values, and that our love of freedom and democracy is what defines us as people —even as, in subtle but constant ways, we're taught that genuine freedom and democracy can never truly exist.

(David Graeber: Enacting the Impossible: Making Decisions by Consensus, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 23)

Through a direct democratic process, we have come together as individuals and crafted these principles of solidarity, which are points of unity that include but are not limited to:

  • engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy;
  • exercising personal and collective responsibility;
  • recognizing individual's inherent privilege and the influence it has on all interactions;
  • empowering one another against all forms of oppression;
  • redefining how labor is valued;
  • the sanctity of individual privacy;
  • the belief that education is a human right; and
  • endeavoring to practice and support wide application of open source.

(The Occupy Wall Street General Assembly: Principles of Solidarity, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 25-26)

Can you now imagine this group having a democratic discussion? Imagine the people's mic, where people speak in short phrases and the group repeats them so all can hear. In the first week, up until tonight, the people's mic worked for a few hundred people —not ideally, but one can hear. With thousands, the people's mic has to be repeated not one time, not two times, but three. Each wave of sound representing another mass of people hearing the voice of the person speaking. Each wave of sound representing people actively listening by repeating. The facilitators (a team at this point) help remind the person speaking, by gently touching their arm, that they have to wait for each wave to finish before the next phrase is spoken.

Imagine the quiet of people listening, and the sound of the repetition of the words of the person speaking. Imagine the power of direct democracy moving through your body, along with thousands around you. I have chills writing this. I was moved beyond words this evening.

(Marina Sitrin: The Chills of Popular Power: The First Month of Occupy Wall Street, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 30)

As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of theyr neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression overe equality, run our governments. We have peacebly assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

  • They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
  • They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give executives exorbitant bonuses.
  • They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one's skin, sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
  • They have poisoned the food supply through negligence and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
  • They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals and actively hide these practices.
  • They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
  • They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
  • They have continuously outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers' health care and pay.
  • They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
  • They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
  • They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
  • They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
  • They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
  • They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
  • They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
  • They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
  • They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people's lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
  • They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
  • They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
  • They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
  • They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
  • They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
  • They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.

(Declaration of the Occupation of New York City: In Their Own Words, Why Protesters are Occuplying Wall Street, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 36-38)

Those who extol nonviolent discipline might be disappointed to learn that Occupy Wall Street has officially embraced "diversity of tactis," a phrase that often serves as a byword for condoning acts of violence. However, the way that the Occupation movement has carried out this policy might lead us to think of this concept differently. For the occupiers, it is less a license for violence —which they have generally avoided— than a broader philosophy of coordinated, decentralized activism.

Since the early stages of the movement, those taking part have been in a deadlock on the question of nonviolence. At a planning meeting in Tompkins Square Park prior to September 17, I recall a young man in dark sunglasses saying, knowingly, "There is a danger of fetishizing nonviolence to the pooint that it becomes a dogma." In response, a woman added, quite astoundingly, that "nonviolence just means not initiating violence." The question of nonviolence was ultimately tabled that night and thereafter. "This discussion is a complete waste of time," someone concluded.

(Nathan Schneider: No Leaders, No Violence: What Diversity of Tactics Means For Occupy Wall Street, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 39)

My sense of the dynamics at play here is something like the following: The NYPD, as a hierarchical, highly structured organization, operates according to certain plans and procedures arranged in advance. Its commanders gain the best intelligence they can about what protesters intend to do and act accordingly. When the protesters act outside the plans police prepared for, or their plans aren't unified, the police feel they have no choice but to resort to a violent crackdown, which in turn highlights the protesters' own nonviolence in the media reports, and their movement grows. The net effect is that it almost seems as if the police are intentionally trying to help the movement, for that's what their every action seems to do.

(Nathan Schneider: No Leaders, No Violence: What Diversity of Tactics Means For Occupy Wall Street, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 41)

(...) For many years, people working in public health have looked for a link between poverty and social problems like mental illness, crime, and infant mortality. We thought that once you found the relationship between income and death rates, for example, you would be able to predict what a state's death rate would be. Actually, though, that doesn't produce a good prediction. It turns out that what matters aren't the incomes themselves, but how unequal they are. If you're a more unequal state, the same level of income produces a higher death rate.

(Brooke Jarvis: How Inequality Poisons Society and Equity Benefits Everyone: An Interview with Richard Wilkinson, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 52-53)

After Wall Street drove the nation into the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration enacted significant financial reforms. Those reforms put in place a system of money, banking, and investment based on community banks, mutual savings and loans, and credit unions. We had laws that prohibited one bank from owning another and severely limited the number of branches a bank could operate. These institutions provided loans to individuals and financial services to Main Street businesses that employed Americans to produce and trade real goods and services in response to community needs and opportunities. Corporate shares were held by individuals who knew the companies they owned.

The Main Street economy, which Wall Street interests now dismiss as quaint and antiquated, financed U.S. victory in World War II, the creation of a strong American middle class, an unprecendented period of economic stability and prosperity, and American world leadership in industry and technology. It also made the American dream of a secure and comfortable life in return for hard work and playing by the rules a reality for a substantial majority of Americans.

In the 1970s, Wall Street interests mobilized to use their financial and media power to re-establish control of the economy. It was class warfare, and Wall Street won.

Their primary targets were the regulations that limited the size and function of banks and other financial institutions. Step by step they transferred the power to create and allocate credit from locally owned, independent Main Street financial institutions —community banks, mutual savings and loans, and credit unions— to Wall Street institutions that had no particular interest in investments that create community wealth.

Wall Street institutions quickly developed a more profitable business model. The model has come to feature excessive fees and usurious interest rates for ordinary customers, financing speculation, luring unwary into mortgages they cannot afford, bundling the resulting junk mortgages into derivatives sold as triple-A securities, betting against the sure-to-fail derivative products so created, extracting subsidies and bailouts from government, laundering money from drug and arms traders, and off-shoring profits to avoid taxes. Much of what provides profits to Wall Street either is, or should be, illegal.

(David Korten: Six Ways to Liberate Main Street from Wall Street, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 56-57)

Here are six steps we can take to liberate Main Street from Wall Street and build a democratically accountable economy based on sound market principles.

  1. Reverse the process of bank consolidation and rebuild a national system of community-based, community-accountable financial institutions devoted to building community wealth. Break up wht mega-banks into independent, locally owned financial institutions backed by tax and regulatory policies that favor community financial instituions.
  2. Implement appropriate regulatory and fiscal measures to secure the integrity of financial markets and the money and banking system. Such measures properly favor productive investment, limit banking institutions to basic banking functions, and render financial speculation and other unproductive financial games illegal and unprofitable.
  3. Create a state partnership bank, modeled on the state Bank of North Dakota, in each of the fifty states to serve as a depository for state financial assets. Such banks can use their funds to spur community investment by partnering with community financial institutions within the state on loans to local home buyers and locally owned enterprises engaged in construction, agriculture, industry, and commerce.
  4. Restructure the Federal Reserve to limit its responsibility to managing the money supply, subject it to federal oversight and public accountability, and require that all newly created funds be applied to funding green public infrastructure. Assign what is currently the Fed's responsibility for the regulation of banks and so-called "shadow banking" institutions to specialized regulatory agencies with clear public accountability.
  5. Create a Federal Recovery and Reconstruction Bank (FRRB) to finance critical green infrastructure projects designated by Congress. Fund this bank with the money that the Federal Reserve creates when it determines a need to expand the money supply. Rather than introducing the new money into the economy through Wall Street banks, as is currently the Fed's practice, introduce the money through the FRRB to fund projects that directly and immediately serve the common good. This reform makes funding available for critical projects without drawing on tax revenues.
  6. Rewrite international trade and investment rules to encourage national ownership, self-reliance, and self-determination. Bring international rules into alignment with the foundational assumptions of trade theory that the ownership of productive assets belongs to citizens of the country in which those assets are located and that trade between nations is balanced. Hold corporations that operate in multiple countries accountable for compliance with the laws of each country of operation.

(David Korten: Six Ways to Liberate Main Street from Wall Street, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 58-59)

The history of popular uprisings like Occupy Wall Street is far from reassuring. The last one to have any staying power was the populist farmers revolt of the 1800s, and it was aggressively dismantled by everyone from the two major political parties to the banks and railroad corporations of its day.

Most revolts are snuffed out well before their efforts affect the political scene —not because their ideas and issues aren't relevant, but because the major institutional players within the system-that-is attempt to snag the power and energy for their own. In the eyes of the Democratic Party or the national environmental groups, this revolt is merely an opportunity to assimilate newly emerging troops back into those groups' own ineffective organizing. Yet, if those institutional groups had actually been effective all of these years, why the need for a revolt at all?

(Thomas Linzey and Jeff Reifman: How to Put the Rights of People and Nature Over Corporate Rights, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, p. 70)

Instead of diluting themselves to meet the needs of already-institutionalized groups who aren't going anywhere, the Occupy folks must move in the opposite direction: deepen and strengthen their effort by demanding structural change. That means moving away from the mainstream progressive organizations and the institutional advocacy they promote (which has proven ineffective against the type of consolidated wealth that influences decisions about every aspect of our lives today) and towards a new form of advocacy and activism. Rather than negotiating the terms of our de-occupation, we can and must rewrite the very rules under which our system operates.

Mainstream progressive groups have failed by working within legal and regulatory systems purposefully structure to subordinate communities to corporate power. Transformative movements don't operate that way. Abolitionists never sought to regulate the slave trade; they sought freedom and rights for slaves. Suffragists didn't seek concessions but demanded the right for all women to vote.

(Thomas Linzey and Jeff Reifman: How to Put the Rights of People and Nature Over Corporate Rights, from Sarah van Gelder (ed.), This Changes Everything, pp. 71-72)

Unfortunately, in spite of the title of the book, the reality is that the occupy movement has not changed much. It wimpered away without much fanfare as soon as the winter approached and, while it may have helped introduce the issue of income inequality into the political debate (something that, to be fair, is no easy task in a country like the US where the topic has been ignored for quite sometime), it had little direct impact in the policies being carried out. If anything, perhaps its most clear impact has been assisting in the re-election of Barack Obama in the presidential elections by undermining the image of Mitt Romney as someone utterly incapable of dealing with the above mentioned issue of income inequality. However, even on this front, one would argue that the main problem the Romney campaign had to deal with was not so much the actual topic as the candidate's amazing ability to shoot himself on the foot, as well as his image as a wealthy corporate honcho from the Norhteast completely out of touch with the real life that most middle class and working class Americans have to live. Said that, is it safe to think that the movement has been defeated? Well, it all depends. It depends on how th economy does in the next year or so. Actually, I'd say the economic stimulus plan applied by the Obama Administration worked for the most part, also helping defuse this potential threat, at least for the time being. That is precisely the key difference between the protest movements in the US and Europe. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not Obama will manage to keep the economy more or less under control during his second mandate. There is little to no room for a new econoic stimulus package, and the public finances are definitely not in good shape.

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Intellectual Factor: 5/10