Occupy Has Raised Class Consciousness: Now What?

The year 2011 will go down in history as the year in which citizens used their collective power to make economic justice part of the national conversation and force the media to focus on real issues rather than the manufactured deficit crisis. Last February, Wisconsinites began demonstrating and, eventually, occupying their state Capitol to stop attacks on public workers, collective bargaining and unions.

Since Occupy Wall Street kicked off on September 17, Occupy demonstrators across the country have raised awareness about the widening wealth gap, inequality, rising student debt, criminal activity on Wall Street, poverty and home foreclosures.

Politico's Dylan Byers did a quick search of the news via Lexis Nexis and found a significant rise in the use of the term “income inequality,” from less than 91 instances in the week before Occupy Wall Street started to almost 500 instances in November 2011.

“The Occupy movement is an extraordinary breakthrough,” says David Korten, co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, and author of “Agenda for a New Economy.”

“On the progressive side, we tend to focus on individual issues. The Occupy movement has given us an overall framing umbrella with a focus on inequality. It may be one of the most effective branding exercises in history.”

“They tapped into something that millions and million of Americans obviously felt,” adds Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and author of “America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy.”

“The response tells you far more about where most Americans are than we had known before. Those ideas touch something in the understanding of millions of people that something is profoundly wrong in America.”

We know what's wrong: 43 percent of Americans are “liquid assets poor,” meaning they lack the money to live for three months if their main source of income were lost, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development. More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty and on food stamps, the highest number ever. More than 17 million women lived in poverty in 2010; over 7.5 million women live on less than $6,000 a year, according to the National Women's Law Center.

Listen to Your Call discuss economic victories that can be won and how we can keep income inequality in the conversation during an election year.

Fourteen million people are unemployed. Another 8 million are working part-time but want full-time work. The unemployment rate is far higher for women and communities of color.

Over 50 million Americans are uninsured. Another 50 million are underinsured. A 2009 Harvard study shows that 45,000 people die every year because they don't have health insurance.

Meantime, corporate profits continue to rise and corporations are sitting on a record amount of cash. Thanks in large part to record-high oil prices, ExxonMobil's 2011 profits rose 35 percent, to a whopping $41.1 billion. That's nearly $5 million in profit every hour, or more than $1,300 every second, according to ThinkProgress. Exxon pays a lower effective tax rate than most Americans and refuses to pay $92 million in cleanup costs for the Valdez Alaskan oil spill, but it had no problem paying CEO Rex Tillerson $29 million last year.

Despite massive oil profits, last May, 45 Republicans and three Democrats refused to repeal $21 billion in tax breaks over the next ten years for Exxon, BP, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips. The final vote was 52-48.

The one percent owns approximately 40 percent of the nation's wealth and almost half of all investment capital. Five percent own 70 percent of all investment capital.

“Those are medieval numbers,” says Alperovitz. “That's the way medieval society was organized. We need systemic change. Who owns the wealth is the primary question people should be asking.”

So, what are the solutions? What's on the top of your demands list? And what are some real victories that can be won this year?

Korten sees it as a two-front agenda. First, we need to weaken the power of Wall Street with state banks, a more aggressive tax system that includes tax hikes on the rich, a financial transaction tax and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Korten is also a big advocate of moving your money from the “too big to fail” banks to a credit union or community bank.

Second, we need to focus on growing and strengthening Main Street with local food movements, local sustainable energy initiatives and worker-owned cooperatives.

Alperovitz says it's important to note that over 130 million Americans now participate in cooperatives and credit unions. More than 13 million people are worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned cooperatives.

“A different way of developing wealth is possible,” says Alperovitz. “There's a lot of power in that strategy, and it resonates with people who want to change the system and changes how community structures are built.”

Korten also says it's important to talk about the equal distribution of ownership because it gets to the systemic root of the issue. “That is what ultimately moves us toward a more equal distribution of income, which research shows is the foundation of almost every essential aspect of a healthy society.”

And despite what you hear from politicians on all sides, the United States is not broke. Alperovitz points out that even in its doldrums, the economy produces just under $200,000 for every family of four. “The economy is not poor,” he says. “The potential here is for a very rich society. The challenge is making it more equitable.”

“The solutions are not going to come from within the political system,” says Korten. “The real action and solutions are going to have to come from the bottom up, from people rebuilding their local economies.”