Economic Update: Occupy Wall Street: Analysis and Legacy

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This program is devoted to Occupy Wall Street (OWS) on its 10th anniversary. Prof. Wolff discusses OWS as a historic turning point, as legacy for the US left, and his personal experience. Wolff presents OWS's 4 basic causes, its anti-capitalist economics, and its lessons.

*This episode of Economic Update was developed as part of a collective effort to explore the legacy of Occupy, in light of this 10 year anniversary. Through this project you can also hear analysis on the impact of Occupy from The Dig & Upstream. The producing partners for this project are the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York office and The New School’s Milano program. We encourage you to learn more and listen to some of the other episodes by visiting RosaLux.NYC/Occupy

Transcript has been edited for clarity

Welcome friend, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives, jobs, debts, incomes—our own and those of our children. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

Today’s program is a bit special. It is designed to commemorate, to celebrate, to honor Occupy Wall Street, a remarkable movement that arose particularly in the latter half of 2011—ten years ago. It's important enough that we devote a show…as others are devoting themselves to understanding what an important moment of change Occupy Wall Street was in the history not only of the United States but—as I'll try to show you—of global capitalism itself.

But let's begin with Occupy Wall Street as a turning point in American history. Perhaps the most important way to explain this is to situate it in relationship to that history. About 100 years ago almost, capitalism crashed. In fact, it was the worst crash of capitalism in the United States or indeed in the world. It came to be known as the Great Depression because people understood how horrible it was. It lasted 11 years (1929-1940). At its worst moments in 1933, the official unemployment rate was 25 percent—five times what it is today…Staggering cutbacks in production, staggering decline of our economic reality, vast suffering.

To this day I still think that the greatest rendition of what it meant was John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. If you've never read it, take some time out, it will teach you about American history. But there was a heroic side to the suffering. The American people moved sharply and politically to the left. That’s very important in a country that has trouble recognizing its own left wing tendencies that run deep and that Occupy Wall Street brought right back up to the surface.

But, back for a moment to the 1930s—millions of people moved to the left politically. They joined unions on a scale we’ve never seen in American history—never before and never since. Millions of people joined unions to fight collectively against the employer class in this country. These were people who had never been in unions before. They were people whose parents had never been in unions before. Hundreds of thousands joined two socialist political parties and a communist party to give the left real depth (not only on the workplace but throughout society) and there was a powerful coalition—an alliance between the labor movement as one part of the left and the socialist and communist parties on the other side of the left. And together, they made huge changes.

Social Security was created in the 1930s—a vast program to give the working class a decent shot at a decent retirement. Unemployment compensation by the federal government…when you lose a job through no fault of your own…which capitalism does to us every four to seven years—the government will give you money every week to get you through the hardest part…A federal jobs program that hired millions of people…I could go on…The first minimum wage—amazing. But the price had to be paid. When the war was over (1945)…when the Great Depression (followed immediately by the Great War) was over…a backlash unleashed itself in this country that shaped our history.

The business community was horrified that they had to pay the taxes to pay for all of those progressive programs for the people. They didn't want that anymore. They wanted to undo what was called the New Deal by the Roosevelt government. The conservatives were horrified by the alliance of the United States with the Soviet Union during World War II. The religious community saw secularism as rising up—as people discovered that struggling in this life might make at least as much sense as being the good person for that future life. All of that came together in a vast reaction and—from 1945 up until Occupy Wall Street—you could see the effects…communist and socialist parties destroyed—by deporting their people, by arresting their leadership and by terrifying the American people about even being interested in what socialists had to say. No more of that was allowed. A taboo descended even when people fought for progressive goals [such as] an end to racism, an end to sexism…an [end to] the indecent approach to our natural environment. Whatever the issues were—they kept carefully away from a critique of capitalism because that was the center of the reactionary goals of that time…and the left was destroyed in the United States. Not a hundred percent but a lot and it got quiet and it got fearful and it didn't show up. And it [the left] cleaned its act up by making itself more and more acceptable. Nothing showed it more than the steady move of the Democratic party from the push it made under Roosevelt to the pale shadow it became in recent decades.

Occupy Wall Street changed that. In the summer and autumn of 2011, a political movement rose up suddenly and it turned the clock around. It didn't hide the economic critique of capitalism—on the contrary—it put it right up front. The number one slogan was the One Percent versus the 99 Percent.” Brilliant. In one set of a few words the key point was made. “We are a movement of the Ninety-Nine and we’re against the One.” That’s what had been said in the 1930s and no one dared pick it up from 1945 until Occupy Wall Street. I shouldn't say no one dared, there were always a few and we're all grateful to them for keeping the criticisms alive but they were marginalized…they were quieted…they were on the bare edges.

Occupy Wall Street brought them back in…I can’t overstate this, in a matter of weeks, let's remember, 300 cities across the United States reproduced those encampments that were led by what happened in Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street neighborhood of New York City. It was a big moment for me personally and I would like to share it. The folks who took over Zuccotti Park invited people like me to come down and make presentations to the assembled Occupiers which I did on more than one occasion. I went to Zuccotti Park. I spoke to big crowds of people. I was one of many who did that. It was very moving. I remember knowing that this was a turning point already then because of this spirit, because of the fact that New Yorkers (who are a very skeptical crowd) were coming in large numbers to see and to join and I knew a big change had happened when my then single daughter brought her dates down there, at their request, because for young people like her this was the most interesting thing they could do. It beat out going to the movies or dinner or a bar…at least for a while. And, oh boy, did I understand something was being touched deep inside American culture. The solidarity was infectious and powerful.

Here’s what I took away from Zuccotti Park…from the immediacy of Occupy and I want to end the first half of today's show with that and then in the second half really analyze what the lessons and the legacy of Occupy Wall Street now are for us.

Here's what I saw though in Zuccotti Park and in those heady days and by the way I also spoke at other Occupy encampments. The one I remember most was in the Central Green of Bangor, Maine. The folks up there brought me up there to talk to their encampment and I did that a few times in other places. I loved the demand for democracy. Here was a real democracy—we're all equal here. Everybody has a right to speak. Nobody can use money to influence how we're going to say whatever we want during these meetings. Democracy was radicalized again. It became real instead of those empty forms that we've become used to and pay so little attention to…That was powerful.

It was applied to not just politics but to economics. We are the people—the economy should serve us— the majority—not some profit-driven minority. That could be spoken and that could be shared and that could be affirmed. The organizations that sprang up out of nowhere were amazing to see. Every time I spoke at Zuccotti Park, before I would talk, I would have a meeting with one of the young organizers—who were by the way, 100 percent women—who prepped me, who told me: “This is when you'll be standing there…This is the time you'll have…These are the issues we hope you'll focus on.” No control no censorship but a really well organized activity. The organization was stunning. Unfortunately it was not sustained. That was one of the lessons and I’ll come back to that.

Of course we can organize ourselves on the left. We did it—we moved this country across 350 cities in a matter of weeks. It took the President of the United States, a Barack Obama, to destroy those 300 encampments by a coordinated action on the same day in most of the major cities—coordinated from Washington. Let's be real clear. I recognized (as the people did) that Occupy was a big movement—hundreds of thousands, millions were involved. Perhaps the single most important lesson we all learned.

We’ve come to the end of the first part of today's show. Before we move on, this episode of Economic Update was developed as part of a collective effort to explore the legacy of Occupy Wall Street on this, its 10th anniversary. Other parts include the impact of Occupy by The Dig and Upstream. The partners producing this project are the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation of New York and the New School University’s Milano School. For more information visit: rosalux.nyc/occupy

Please stay with us—we will be right back.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update devoted to an understanding of the power and the legacy of Occupy Wall Street whose 10th anniversary we are in fact celebrating.

I want to make clear that Occupy Wall Street was a turning point—as I stressed in the first half. In my judgment, there could have been and would have been no Bernie Sanders effort in 2016 without the ground being prepared by Occupy Wall Street five years earlier. And the same goes for the 2020 election…and the same goes for the sudden emergence of young active socialists running for and getting elected for offices across the United States at the federal, state and local levels. These are outgrowths, developments building upon what Occupy Wall Street made possible. So let me turn a bit more analytically [to] what were the four causes I would point to for why Occupy Wall Street happened.

The first one. It was the crash of 2008-9. The importance of this also, in my judgment cannot be exaggerated. Capitalism collapsed in those four final months of the year 2008. We came this close to closing the US economy all together. I mean the kind of closing when you don't know whether there will be milk in the store when you run out—to replenish for your children—that kind of collapse. Everything went wrong—all of the tools that we had been told could manage this economy so we would never again have the Great Depression. Well, we had it again, all of the geniuses who promised we wouldn't were wrong. All of the presidents who told us “We will never again have the Great Depression. We’ve taken the steps and my administration”…or other BS…and we lived through it and we knew it. And it shocked the American people because it reminded them that you live in an economic system that can turn on you on a dime. No preparation, no planning, no nothing… you just have to go through it and it's cataclysmic…that sparked something…that led to Occupy Wall Street.

Then there were those long years—from 1945 right up until 2011—when we had all watched Republicans and unfortunately Democrats undo most of what had been done in the Great Depression and the New Deal. [They] made a joke out of Social Security because it wasn't enough to sustain people…watched the minimum wage drop in its value as prices rose and the minimum wage didn’t…Watched us go through the crash of 2008-9, never having either the president or the congress seriously debate a federal jobs program which could have solved unemployment overnight—the way it did in the 1930s. But this was now taboo—couldn’t do that—the business community didn't want it—so we didn't have it and that contributed to an anger that led to Occupy Wall Street.

Everything is being taken away from us as the economy shows how badly we need it. Then there was the vague feeling which has become of course stronger now (than it was 10 years ago). And this vague feeling was the empire is now shrinking. Yeah, at first it was just a Korean War…it didn't quite work out and then there was Vietnam…and clearly we got defeated there and now we've been defeated in Afghanistan. Excuse me, I shouldn't say defeat—we chose to withdraw. It does sound so much less troublesome, but the reality is very clear and Iraq is right behind what Afghanistan already showed us. So that also led to Occupy. What's all this activity costing trillions of dollars? Unspeakable amounts of of killed people and wounded people and soldiers coming back and committing suicide and all of it that we know. This is not working out—this system is busted and that too contributed to Occupy Wall Street.

Here's the fourth and final one—as the empire begins its downward trajectory in the early years of this new century, as the costs of undoing the New Deal come in and bite us where we live and work…We watched what? We didn't watch—the anger that had given us a progressive 1930s come back. No, what we saw was the Tea Party—we saw things going to the right. People becoming angry at conspiracies that they invented in the bad part of a rough night…QAnon and all the rest of it. What are we looking at here? (Those of us who know better) and that too contributed to Occupy Wall Street. We have to be, show and move in a different direction. Those folks who are upset on the right are right to be upset. We share that with them. But the solutions they're looking for?…those are paid for by the very corporations that are the problem. And we're not going that way.

I’m an economist so I want to focus a little bit on the economics of Occupy Wall Street. Here there was a confusion that I saw all around me and it's perfectly understandable. The confusion was…we know that the one percent [vs] 99 percent…We’re right about that. This is a system that works for a tiny minority at the top and not for the rest of us. We're clear on that. (and I agree with that a hundred percent)

But what exactly is the system that ends up that way? What is it that capitalism is, as a system, that produces this instability? These periodic crashes…this enormous inequality…this desperate empty attempt to hold an empire we can’t afford…and never should have undertaken.

What is this capitalist system? We know we don't want it—we know we can’t tolerate it anymore. But what exactly is it? And there was confusion…

There's no surprise here—because we haven't taught our people how to think about an economic system—how to be critical about it at all. Being critical of capitalism was a taboo. I have said on this program before and let me make it very personal, I have been lucky, I have attended Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University—ten years of my life— that’s where I was educated—supposedly as good as it gets. My professors, twenty consecutive semesters of them, were afraid to talk about what's wrong with capitalism. All I got was cheerleading for capitalism and a very powerful message to me as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student, then as a young teacher of economics: You want to have your career go well? Don’t have anything to do with the criticism of capitalism. People won’t like it…people won't hire you…people won't publish what you do.

So of course, our people are confused—where would they have learned? There was no one to teach them—which meant that the graduates who would become politicians and journalists and teachers in their own right had no education. They couldn’t impart an understanding of a system because they didn't have it themselves. They could tell you how wonderful it was…they were effective cheerleaders. But how it worked? Nah.

So I concluded something and I want to share the conclusion with you. Occupy Wall Street showed us that the constituency for a left wing in America is huge and deep. It’s always been there—it was shut up for several decades by a concerted effort to shut it up—but it’s there and it erupted in Occupy. And then it erupted again in Bernie's first race—and now it's erupted again in Bernie’s second. Today we see all around us movements—new upsurges in labor organizing. It's all there but it needs a clearer vision—than it has so far produced—of where are we going—and how are we going to get there. And for me, my work and the work of Democracy at Work as an institution has been to intervene right there—to come up with something that embodies this enormous commitment to democracy that Occupy put back on the map—with a critique of capitalism as a system that has outrun its historic usefulness.

We’ve had it with that system whatever it did…and it did some important things. We need to preserve those…Understood. Just like capitalism had to preserve things achieved in feudalism, slavery and all of the previous history of the human race. We aren't stupid—we want to build on what was achieved but we also want to learn what we don't want to carry forward—and that's the inequality…and that's the instability…and that's the uncertainty that this system imposes on all of us. Occupy gave us the task—Democracy and the critique of capitalism.

And for us the solution then became becoming advocates for a radical transformation of the workplace—Because the workplace is the starkest example of no democracy I can think of…When you and I cross the threshold into our workplace, our office, our store, our factory (whatever the workplace happens to be)—we enter a realm from which democracy has been banished. A tiny group of people, the board of directors, the owner of the business, the CEO— it really doesn't matter—tells us what to do…go there…do this…work with this…work on that…do it in this way…do it at this pace. And then when you're done pouring your brains and muscles into these tasks you have been told to do—the output that you've helped to create belongs to this other person. Your job is to go home and get ready to do all that again tomorrow. You are a drone…not the romantic kind that flies in the sky…but more like that [worker] bee in the beehouse, you know.

What a strange arrangement—so powerful. Or do we make the people at the top that they can take the ultimate step and tell you to get lost. You don't have a job—which doesn't just condemn you to no income but it condemns your spouse, your children, your community, the stores that counted on you to buy milk and bread there. All of them can be shaken to their core by a group of people over whom they have no power at all. The CEO isn't elected—at least not by the workers over whom he rules. As I have said on this program in the past, we never really got rid of kings—they all were hidden from us. They left the palace and moved into the next most comfortable thing—the headquarters of the corporation where they got a new name—CEO—and there they sit, laughing at us when we think we overcame kingdoms.

Democracy is the issue and the democratization of the enterprise is the struggle that can take the democracy that Occupy Wall Street championed and sediment it… sink it with deep roots into the daily life of all American people. The country will never go back to what it was once it takes that step. We need the courage to believe it. We need the courage to act on it and Occupy Wall Street was that moment when this idea and that commitment began to be real in millions and millions of our fellow citizens. We just have to have the courage to carry that forward.

Thank you all for watching and listening to this program. Occupy Wall Street deserves no less.

I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


Transcript by Barbara Bartlett.

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