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Echoes of Occupy Wall Street Are Reverberating Through the Iowa Caucus

Nearly a decade after Occupy Wall Street, more people than ever are naming capitalism as the enemy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters cheer during a campaign event on February 2, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

In the immediate run-up to the Iowa Caucus, CBS This Morning aired a segment highlighting wealth inequality in the United States. Correspondent Tony Dokoupil invited mall shoppers to estimate how wealth is distributed nationally by arranging pieces of a pumpkin pie across five plates, each representing a fifth of the wealth spectrum. Participants repeatedly — and incorrectly — estimated the middle or upper-middle fifth as owning far more than they actually do. This unscientific sample mirrors what previous studies have found — that most people have no idea how bad wealth inequality in this country is.

A decade after the emergence of Occupy Wall Street ­­– which put a spotlight on rising inequality in the U.S. and mounted a challenge against this country’s financial and political elites — it would be easy, but wrong, to see a news segment like CBS’s as Occupy’s most lasting achievement. In promoting the story on Twitter, CBS referenced the “1 percent,” adopting Occupy’s framing. And the tone of the segment was significantly more sympathetic to activists’ central critique than coverage of the movement was at the time.

Occupy “changed the conversation,” as the saying goes. For years after the movement was violently suppressed, that explanation seemed sufficient. Now, after a decade of some of the most vibrant and exciting social movements in a generation, it’s clear that the organized left is doing much more than changing the rhetoric used by mainstream news outlets.

The rallying cry in Zuccotti Park and in encampments around the country was “all our grievances are connected.” The movement was always committed to a structural critique — and ultimately a rejection — of capitalism. Occupy activists insisted that to talk about environmental justice, and workers’ rights, and universal health care was really to be talking about different aspects of the same thing. In order to address these problems, it was necessary, if not sufficient, to name capitalism as the system linking other forms of oppression and exploitation.

That critique has gone from the fringe to the mainstream. Young people especially feel negatively about capitalism and positively about socialism. Tireless organizing has continued to give teeth to the rhetoric, as the last decade also saw some of the most exciting social movements in a generation. From The Fight For 15, to the Movement for Black Lives, to efforts to decriminalize sex work, to MeToo, to Standing Rock, to the disability-activist-led fight to defeat the repeal of Obamacare, to environmental justice and the Women’s Marches, people have organized and taken to the street to demand dignity, equality and a future worth living. Each of these movements have lineages separate and distinct from Occupy, but they exist alongside each other in a mosaic of collective struggle.

These fights have been happening in the streets, but also in the arena of electoral politics. Liberals will often ask why people aren’t marching by the millions protesting against Trump. The question relies on a false premise — the idea that people haven’t taken to the streets in huge numbers over the last four years. In reality, the country is in the throes of a golden age of social movements. But to the extent that we haven’t seen mass levels of sustained direct action, the explanation has much more to do with the criminalization of dissent in this country than it does with apathy.

Even that explanation, though, fails to get at the dynamics of the last several years. Throughout the 1990s, for many left-wing activists, the rejection of electoral politics was taken as a given. A widespread leftist view held that the system was corrupt and unfixable, and the only answer was to be found in some kind of wholesale rejection of formal politics. Mass demonstrations were the primary mode of asserting power.

By the time Occupy arose, that mindset was still prevalent but starting to change. After the inability of the anti-war movement in 2003 to prevent the invasion of Iraq, many activists became more willing to at least consider the need to engage in electoral politics. With the resurgence of socialism as a guiding philosophy of the left, rather than the anti-consumerism and “conscious consumerism” that absorbed so much energy and attention in the ’90s, the left is no longer content to unilaterally withdraw from the halls of power. All that is to say the left hasn’t given up its outside game, but much of it is finally willing to play an inside game as well.

In 2016, many veterans of Occupy flocked to Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Here was a candidate who had fought for many of the same things as their movement. Although Sanders has faced critiques from the left, including from Black Lives Matter activists in 2015, and for his vote for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, his many supporters on the left say the senator and those around him are receptive to good faith criticisms. “Bernie’s criminal justice platform responds to the demands of a movement that has been in the streets for the last five years,” Philip Agnew, an activist with the Movement for Black Lives and a Sanders surrogate, said in a recent interview. “His criminal justice platform is an amazing example of a campaign that is responsive to a movement, in a way that Sanders rarely gets credit for.”

That’s one of the reasons many veterans of Occupy and other activists such as those energized by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the vision of the Green New Deal have celebrated Sanders’s rise, and his refusal to play the respectability game by distancing himself from the label of democratic socialist. He embraced that label, and his rise in 2016 — as well as the national trauma of the Trump campaign and ultimate victory — drove an explosion of leftist recruitment, primarily by the Democratic Socialists of America.

Now, Sanders is tied for front-runner status in the Democratic primary. Democratic socialists have won local, state and federal elections. And candidates promoted by left movements have scored major victories in hostile takeovers of district attorneys’ offices.

Still, none of this is to overstate the left’s power. Should Sanders win, he could struggle to staff the executive branch with allies who have both the ideological affinity for his project, and the bureaucratic skill needed to get policy enacted. That dynamic is especially true when it comes to foreign policy and handling the national security state.

It’s easy to look at the state of this country and fall into despair, but looking back over the last decade, and toward the next, there are reasons to hope that changes in the political landscape may lead toward a future in which the pie is distributed more equally.

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