Occupy Wall Street: An idea whose time has come
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November 17th, 2011
06:12 PM ET

Occupy Wall Street: An idea whose time has come

Editor's Note: Dr. Heather Gautney is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, supporter of Occupy Wall Street and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era (Palgrave Macmillan). The views expressed in this article are solely those of Heather Gautney.

By Heather Gautney - Special to CNN

As Occupy camps around the country continue to face state violence and eviction, a new and important slogan has emerged: “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come!”

But what is this idea?  And what does it indicate about the future of the movement?

Occupy’s big idea is that today’s capitalist system has become utterly incompatible with the requisites of democratic freedom. Occupiers assert that the time has come for everyday people to repossess their common wealth and the grassroots forms of democracy that accompany it.

It’s undeniable that over the last thirty years, the neoliberal triumvirate of deregulation, financialization and privatization has dutifully enabled a gross maldistribution of wealth in our country. These forces have effectively steamrolled over rights to what should be collective resources, and appropriated middle and lower class property at a level of ferocity that would shock even the Grinch.  Nowhere have the nefarious forces of neoliberal dispossession more brazenly shown their bite than in our essential housing institutions. As private development and “mixed use” housing undercut citizen access to public assistance, those lucky enough to own a home fell victim to the chaotic, stranger-than-fiction world of subprime gaming - a racket so deep and so sordid  that a federal commission would go on to cite “dramatic breakdowns in corporate governance including too many financial firms acting recklessly and taking on too much risk.”

The mortgage scandal was just the tip of a gigantic iceberg, large enough to rock world markets and severely destabilize U.S political and economic structures.  The severity of the situation became increasingly apparent after the federal government issued a $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout to banks that were clearly guilty of accounting fraud, predatory lending, and credit default swapping at toxic levels of risk. Bailout recipients did more than raise eyebrows when they continued to shell out millions on bonuses and lavish seaside retreats. But it wasn’t until drastic spikes in unemployment and foreclosure, alongside localized programs of relatively severe fiscal austerity, that the rumblings of a political and corporate legitimation crisis could be heard.

The Occupy movement is an expression of a generalized and global outrage over corporate irresponsibility and lack of government oversight. Its primary concern regards the corrupt relationship between elected and corporate officials, and the ways in which “The 99 Percent” have been disenfranchised from the relations of power that shape their lives and life chances. If I were to guess at a common goal, it’d be a complete overhaul of our political and economic systems from the bottom up. Trust for our politicians has indeed waned, but even more so for the system itself, which is clearly marred by the unholy influence of money and personal gain.

Occupy’s uncertain future and lack of an official program does not, however, preclude reading its struggle and gleaning some important lessons from its tactics and activities. After all, if there’s one thing I do know about Occupy: The process is political.

More prominent tactics to date have included large, spectacular demonstrations and “global days of action” to draw attention to issues of social and political inequality and corporate greed. Some are more targeted than others, but these open, more populous events enable Occupy to communicate its power and anger more directly to powerholders than institutional forms of political participation allow.

Unlike protests organized by centralized movement organizations or political parties, in which placards and message tend to be standard, Occupy protests involve a broad diversity of groups, movements and messages, in keeping with its identity as a movement of "The 99 Percent." Such events are crucial to the continued visibility and spread of the movement, but only insofar as they remain contentious, and not riotous.

Occupy has also been fairly masterful at using the force of its large demonstrations to engage subgroups in acts of civil resistance. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, testing the doors of the Stock Exchange, occupying Chase Bank - all these symbolic acts of defiance remind political and corporate heads that this movement is deeply committed, ready for adversity, and will refuse attempts by police and local officials to dictate the terms of what’s essentially public space. "Whose streets? Our Streets!"

Perhaps the most crucial form of disobedience involves the long-term occupations themselves - the “Yes, We Camp.” Despite all the negative press regarding issues of public safety, the camps themselves were truly superlative instances of what I call social disobedience.

Tents aside, the occupation of Zuccotti was less about protesting an unjust law than creating countercultural practices and social relations that challenge the status quo. And it’s clear from the long list of people that flowed in and out of Occupy Wall Street that new kinds of space and social engagement are desperately needed. Some of that fluidity was indeed stymied by the tightness of the space when the tents went up. But nonetheless, the movement’s anti-corporate critique was realized in 'Do It Yourself'  fashion through the creation of non-commodified forms of sociality and community life. That achievement alone is cause for another try at occupation.

But even if Occupy Wall Street’s eviction stands, the diversity of activities, in New York and around the country, is testament to the ingenuity and staying power of this movement. They’re forming study groups, aiding community centers, helping families stave off foreclosure through occupation, and much more. Occupiers have waged very public critiques of privatization in education and healthcare at meetings of the Chamber of Commerce and Department of Education, not to mention the fabulous “mic-check” Governor Scott Walker received at the Chicago Union League Club for his assault on trade unions.

In all these cases, and more, this diverse, global movement has managed to remain contentious, independent and leaderless - all crucial for a movement poised to take on local police, politicians and the giants on Wall Street. And hopefully regain some of our lost democratic freedoms and common wealth.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Heather Gautney.

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Topics: Economy • Occupy Wall Street

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soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. kennspace

    President Obama said; "Failure is not an option". I agree with him – except he failed to complete that sentence, I say; Failure is not an option, failure is a given".

    Capitalize On This Occupation

    Too big to fail;

    Is failing.

    Too big to fail;

    Is not success.

    Too big to fail;

    is a failure literalized.


    November 17, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Changeisn'tcom'nitshere

      So many people look down on the Occupy Wall Street group, but they are just a representation of a much larger group who have come to an inexcapable conculsion..."It can't go on like this much longer" by that they mean, they are tired of working 2 or 3 jobs to come home and see which bills have to be paid first. That in a modern family both parents must work to make ends meet. That the cost of a so called "Normal Life" is outside there ability to have...........and getting education isn't an option due to the same lack of funds and time. Theses aren't lazy people, these aren't do nothings or homeless people.....these are what is left of the middle class....which is disappearing at an alarming rate. We see it all around us everyday.....manufacturing is going overseas, not because we aren't hard working, not because we aren't the most efficient workers on the planet...no...it is to make a widget 2 Cents cheaper in China or take your pick where. These people are then cast off like chaf. Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Sons, and Friends. Those who have a job worry how long they will have one. We bail out the banks and they in turn screwed us by not lending to small businesses who then had to close their doors. Businesses sent jobs south and east to make widgets cheap, because Americans could no longer afford more expensive items. Then there is the Government…our Government who’s politicians are like a cancer eating at our collective soul. Like all governments those in power want to stay in power and create rules in which those chosen few can flourish. Take for example Lobbyists, their only claim to life is that they can manipulate those who the ….cough cough people vote in…. influencing politicians with money and power…..if that is not a corruption of our basic principles then I do not know what is. …It is the “Good ol Boys Club” and all that that implies….a disgusting fraternity of promises, lies and maneuvering for power and wealth, but only for them. They have long since quit working for the “People”…………to be fair there are most likely a few who are not such scoundrels, but they are like a needle in a haystack of vermin.

      I love the United States, my father fought for it and I know yours did too. What Occupy Wall Street is saying to the Establishment is “If you don’t change for the better, we will force you too”….If someone would have asked me when I was younger if there were even a chance at a Civil war in the US of A I would have laughed my ass off……..if someone asked that same question today I would say it is unlikely, but I would not be laughing at the idea……….

      November 28, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Reply
    • paraempathetic

      As a first generation Iranian-American, and I wanted to express my admiration for your decision to visit Iran at a time of heightened tensions. Please do not allow anyone, especially those who claim to speak for Iranians or the Iranian diaspora, to smear your promotion of what is ultimately an academic exchange and an opportunity to broaden understanding. Any and all person-to-person dialogue between estranged peoples is a positive event, regardless of how people on either side may choose to exploit these exchanges to their own ends.

      April 27, 2012 at 2:15 am | Reply
  2. TruthSayer

    Well said Heather Gautney, well said.

    November 17, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes, she points out a new democratisation trend – a grassroots movement that works bottom-up. As a leaderless movement, broad consensus is needed, if decisions have to be made. Being contentious could be a disadvantage, as it takes time to reach a broad consensus. Being independent is good, but the size counts. It doesn't help if one is in the minority.

      November 18, 2011 at 6:31 am | Reply
  3. Rod Davis

    So the President says that we have been lazy and you want to make it appear that he issued a gaffe – fiddlesticks! We have been lazy – no more manufacturing, no more minimum wage jobs, investing overseas vice investing in America.

    Has it every occurred to you why we have two classes of people in America? America is weak financially and economically because of greedy and an all out effort to maximize profits with no overhead!

    Get it right the next time!

    November 17, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  4. gkap

    Professor Gautney this article is a bullseye. You have again hit the nail on the head. I have been following your work and I think you are one of the great minds of our time. Look up her work – read and learn.

    November 18, 2011 at 5:05 am | Reply
  5. james davidson

    Great article. Receating a totally new political and economic system is essential for fundamental change and freedom. Yet I look a thet present system and mindset....it is so monumental. From the President all the way down the status quo es entrenched. The powers that rule America will sit tight and wait until we get cold and tired and it will be business as usual. I'm excited at what I'm hearing from Occupy but as in Syria, the system will tear down all resistance only they wont need to use bullets to do so. Theyll bring back the old slogan, "America, love it or leave it" in some form as if America is synonymous with our ignorant, arrogant, tired existance

    November 18, 2011 at 7:54 am | Reply
  6. Napoli

    OWS Has very good points as well as very absurd points. The world will change, it has to. The question is when and of course, How? OWS And this article are very much on point. We can go on and on with plenty of examples on both sides of the Game. Hard work and core values have been replaced by short-cuts and loop holes. One day these values will return because skimming can only get you so far until Tony finds out and starts whacking! The "free" world was meant to be free for choice, not the price. It is getting "sold-out" rather quickly and OWS is proof. When more logical protest groups hit mainstream, watch out! Right now, OWS does not make sense, as a whole.

    November 18, 2011 at 8:18 am | Reply
  7. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    Just think. When the GOP regain power, they will start a war with Iran (totally unfunded of course). Then they will draft all the poor people to fight(die) in the war (just like the GOP wants) and give "no bid" contracts to the rich people. Killing two birds with one stone!!! Then we can use Iran's oil to pay for the war. And when the war is over, Iran will sell us cheap oil!!! Just like Iraq........Oh wait........Never mind.

    November 18, 2011 at 9:09 am | Reply
  8. mark o. david

    The best way to force a overhaul of the american political system is to elect the GOP.They are determined to solidify wealth among a very few/1% and to reduce the middle class to lower class.They will push the U.S. over the brink.Just do it.General strike June 1,2012

    November 18, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  9. Napoli

    The time has certainly arrived upon us. What is unclear is if this idea is the correct one. The US' founding fathers had this idea but modified it. OWS Says it over and over, consensus takes time. THis is fine when we have the luxury of time. As it sits now and as Congress is discovering, time is a perishable commodity. When it matters most, time and timing is everything. Democratic consensuses require large amounts of time, which is too precious.

    Two months or more...and we still have little idea what OWS is after, how they will get it, or even when we know when they get what they want! The voice is loud and not wrong but is it the right answer?

    November 18, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
  10. Napoli

    Occupy Wall Street needs an IPO.

    November 18, 2011 at 11:27 am | Reply
  11. SG

    'A total overhaul of the political and economic system,' eh? I major in history, and I can't think of a single time that either of those systems has been rapidly, drastically changed by a society without either the collapse of that society or the shedding of a lot of blood.

    So tell me, please, how the OWS plans on defying the historical lessons of the October Revolution, the Night of the Long Knives, the Sacking of Rome, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Chinese transition to communism. Revolution is inherently violent.

    November 18, 2011 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Napoli

      By committee. Perhaps you would like to share your ideas in person?

      November 18, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
      • Lalowa

        I would achieve my goals because when i grow up i could let my parents to be really happy and i really love them so much

        November 18, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  12. Lalowa

    I love OWS. Has very good points as well as very absurd points.

    November 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  13. Lalowa

    The time has certainly arrived upon us. What is unclear is if this idea is the correct one. The US' founding fathers had this idea but modified it. OWS Says it over and over, consensus takes time. THis is fine when we have the luxury of time. As it sits now and as Congress is discovering, time is a perishable commodity. When it matters most, time and timing is everything. Democratic consensuses require large amounts of time, which is too precious.

    November 18, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  14. ajgorm

    Yeah right the mortgage scandal was the tip of the iceberg and they blame GW alone for this. GW would read it but he did not sign it. Clinton the real estate expert and his lawyer wife that knew nothing signed it. Deregulation allowed our society to be packaged , turned into a derivitive and sold as a toxic loan to finance an illegal war. IRONY ! or tradgedy I can only imagine what..

    November 18, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • gkap

      This is why OWS is not in bed with any political party, Hello, give up the system as it stands.

      November 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Reply
  15. ajgorm

    More like bleeding heart liberal whinning about spread the wealth that caused it..

    November 18, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Reply
  16. chris

    This individual has taken the time to watch and really listen to a trend of discontent and made a fair opinion of factual events that have taken place over the course of 'time' to bring us to this situation. The lack of transparency and accountability amoungest all citizens when it comes to obtaining wealth, has led many down roads that should have not been built in the first place. If the human race is gonna have any chance of developing into a peaceful, caring society, where ethics are more important than swindling that almighty dollar to survive. The powers that we allowed to establish needs to be de-powered done.If I had it my way, anyone that recked so many lives would be imprisioned in a box without a window, forever. Thats not reasonable as we are trying to influence the major players that have co-operated with these 'figures' and turn the tide back to the proper track of EVERBODY LOVING EVERBODY. Peace 🙂 ELE

    November 19, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  17. rightospeak

    Excellent piece of work , Heather , thank you. We have so many nonsense articles that it is a pleasure to read a sensible one for a change. I do wish that a peaceful change would be in the works , hopefully, with participation of the unions. Our country needs drastic changes fast before it falls into chaos with bloodshed in the streets . The people in power are not going to give up their power that easily as it happened in the former Communist countries , and i fear that iviolence may occur. If the police increase their violence a Civil War II will break out with horrible destruction and misery. Maybe, if the police joins the protesters , a peaceful solution will come out.

    November 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  18. blindleading

    The mortgage issue (from my chair) was started from the government "deregulation"(ask yourself why this was done to begin with). Banks were pushed by the Government to get loans done. The banks, in order to comply with the Government pushing them to do loans (and to make as much money as possible too), had to get creative in order to give people (who would not normally qualify) loans. Well, the government sat back and collected fees, taxes, and revenue created by the loans. Americans bought into the ideas of -everyone should have a house, its an investment, and you can cash in your equity for buying other things. For me, the government, the banks, and Americans have themselves to blame for being short sighted.
    Something has changed in America. We want it all, we want it now. But we don't ask at what cost.
    We have it so good in America now. You can start with nothing and become anything, and you can have everything and lose it all. But it is how each person defines 'nothing, anything, and everything' that matters.

    November 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Reply
  19. gary

    It certainly does not help things with the way corporations act but PEOPLE want ,want ,want, new TV ,new car,new phone. It never ends people are never happy or content with what they have. We drive the markets by what we buy and want. How many phones have you owned in your life already just because its new and fashionable.Everyone have their new flat screen TV on. I'd love to see people even attempt to give up any of that. We are the ones supplying the greedy companies. How many malls do we need mostly filled with things that are a WANT not a NEED. We are the ones going there and buying all this useless crap. Its not the total answer but we can help by not being so greedy ourselves.
    It doesn't help that most products don't last more than a year or two.Throw away products throw away economy

    November 20, 2011 at 7:54 am | Reply
    • Sid

      Yes, and they want it cheap so businesses had to go overseas for labor as no one wanted to buy American Made products due to the cost. Even autos – really, most are "assembled here", but that is not the same as "made". Ford engine imported from Brazil. Why can't we make them here anymore? Oh yeah, cost too much. Who would buy it? Sad – we did this to ourselves and our politicians don't care and are making hand over fist in the market.

      November 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  20. Sherry

    Looking good. One Q: why call recent history leading up "NeoLiberalism?" Traditionally liberals have been anti privitization and anti deregulation.

    November 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  21. Ben

    I find it funny that a Bilderberg attendee is still trying to influence thought, when you look at the comments on any CNN story you can tell just how much people are sick of the same old same old, corporate, globalization propaganda.

    November 21, 2011 at 5:16 am | Reply
  22. Sid

    Yes, its time has come – right, pooping on cop cars.

    November 21, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  23. SlimJim

    Why does this article remind me of the ANC/Mandela necklace?

    April 21, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply

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