The United States is a country that allows its citizens full participation in politics – a place where the people determine the direction of the nation via their mass participation in elections. Such slogans as ‘land of the free’ and ‘anyone can be president’ come to mind. But, like many other similar political regimes it faces degenerating into a system that favours the rich. In the US today, the top one per cent of people are in receipt of 21 per cent of national income. Over time, this proportion has been changing for the worse. In the 1970s the top one per cent’s income share was ‘only’ about 10 per cent. The issue became acute following the 2008 financial crisis, which laid bare the degree of inequality in American society and the lack of influence over public policy felt by the majority of the population (see Picketty 2014). Two million Americans lost their homes in the so-called ‘sub-prime mortgage’ collapse, which then spiralled into a much bigger crisis affecting the entire financial system. The US government bailed out some large corporations and banks to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent the whole financial system from collapsing. This was accompanied by austerity measures that eroded benefits and public services as the government had less money available due to the economic crash. This general pattern was also seen in other liberal economies, including the United Kingdom. Hence, a picture emerged in some circles that the government had given money to the richest and taken money from the poorest. The Occupy movement was a diffuse and diverse reaction to this perception. It was a reaction against the ineffectiveness of the traditional tools of democratic politics and government such as political parties, elections and lobbying.
The Occupy movement protested against Wall Street, home of the US financial industry, as a symbol of ‘unearned’ privilege and wealth – even though it was politicians who were coming up with and implementing austerity cuts. The movement began in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street, on 17 September 2011. Critics noted the activists’ lack of a clear set of demands and their tendency to only highlight grievances. However, a clear set of values did emerge:
• Solidarity – society’s institutions should aim to maximise mutual benefits.
• Diversity – diverse solutions to pressing problems.
• Equity – in terms of solutions and distribution.
• Control – especially self-management, freedom and autonomy.
Following the emergence of the Occupy movement, there were hundreds of similar occupations all over the world – though mainly in the United States and Western Europe. Years later, it remains clear that the problems that prompted these protests have not gone away. However, much of the energy has dissipated from the movement. This is partly because the protesters could not develop and articulate a common platform that would enable a clear pathway to action to be advanced (which would have been the priority of a political party or revolutionary movement). Instead, they just produced a slogan, ‘We are the 99%’, highlighting the growth of inequality since the 1970s that disproportionately affects women, young people and minorities. The Occupy movement splintered following the decision of the mayor of New York to break up the protest in November 2011. Without leaders or specific demands, it turned into an unfocused protest against everything that was ‘wrong’ with the world.
While the Occupy movement’s social critique resonates with many people, the question remains whether it offers a practical and achievable means to accomplish goals. How best to mobilise people to alleviate poverty? Many would argue that action aimed at poverty alleviation – for example, building public housing projects or preventing cuts to food stamps – has to involve mainstream politics. Critics claim that the new generation of activists may have forgotten, abandoned or overlooked the progressive ideal of a reformminded government raising up the poor and mitigating discrimination. What is clear is that the Occupy movement has given voice to concerns about systemic divisions in the economic and social structure in the United States and other Western states. These concerns have touched a nerve that continues to resonate – much like the aftermath of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. And, also like Hong Kong, the adverse reaction of certain political leaders and senior police officers suggested to some the hypocrisy of those with power. Post-2008, it is now common for politicians seeking election in the United States to profess their support for ‘main street’ rather than Wall Street as a means of rallying popular support.