Taking Stock of the Occupy Movement
VJ Prashad: With the 99% slogan, the Occupy movement raises the issue of
inequality in a profound way
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
With the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement having taken place, many people involved are reflecting, thinking about what’s next, what the movement has accomplished.
One of those people joins us now, Vijay Prashad. He’s a professor of international studies at Trinity College. He’s the author of the recent book Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. And he also has the lead or first article in a new book about the Occupy movement titled We Are Many. Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD, PROF. INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, TRINITY COLLEGE: This is my pleasure. Yes.
JAY: So let’s talk a bit aboutâ€”first of all, you’ve been involved forâ€”I guess from near the beginning. What has Occupy accomplished? And then we’ll talk about what’s next.
PRASHAD: Yes. I was in New York at the BRIC Forum on SeptemberÂ 17,Â 2011 doing a day-long workshop on empire, and we heard that the Occupy had begun. Initially, I felt that, well, you know, this is not going to last long. Firstly, how many people like to sleep outside? You know, we thought this would not catch on. But, of course, it did catch on, not just in New York City, but it went across the country to small towns, to other big cities, major cities. Different kinds of things happened at each Occupy site. You know, I then traveled around for CounterPunch and covered the Occupy at places like Chicago, I went to Philadelphia, to Boston, and was able to understand how local struggles had manifest themselves into public space, you know, so that in Boston the debt question, student debt question was paramount, in New Haven the question of homelessness was very important. And these things, these issues were now in the public domain, and that was very important.
So the most important, maybe, if I was to say, two or three things that Occupy accomplished, one, it brought to the fore issues that activists and organizers, those who build power in communities, have been working on for years. You know. So no longer could, you know, maybe, localities deny the existence of certain issues in a very pronounced way.
Secondly, by using that very simple slogan of the 1Â percent and the 99Â percent, the Occupy dynamic was able to raise questions of inequality. You know, in the United States, or actually around the world, the question that is often put before people is issues of poverty. Poverty is quite different than inequality. When you talk about poverty, the reaction could be charity. You know, one feels bad for the poor, you want to have some soup kitchens, etc. But inequality doesn’t really always give you the sense that the answer is charity, because inequality tells you that whether some people are getting fabulously wealthy, others are getting poorer and poorer or are being left behind, and inequality then is the relationship between rich and poor. So it was to Occupy’s credit that rather than just raise the standard of there is poverty in America, they raised the standard of there is inequality in America and the gap between the 1Â percent and the 99Â percent is grotesque.
The third, I think, important thing that Occupy raised for many, many people who participated in it was that people had become, I think, in a sense frustrated, but also inured to the idea that we lead serial lives, parallel lives. You know, we wake up in our houses, we watch a little bit of TV, get into our cars, go to work, sit in cubicles or sit in, you know, offices, eat lunch at the office, perhaps, then return in the car to our homes, three or four hours of television, you know, again, a private kind of leisure activity. So our lives have become increasingly privatized, increasingly serial.
And I think what Occupy allowed many young people, older people as well, to really enjoy was the sense of community, was the sense of the general assemblies, of putting things together, you know, putting maybe a housing development together, you know, planning the Occupy site together, figuring out food. This community activity, I think, was quite profound for a lot of people, particularly these secular people who have begun to lead very serial lives. So for year one of Occupy, I think these are some pretty significant advances.
JAY: Now, I thought Occupy achieved something that was important, which was this idea that you could actually talk about something being wrong with the system, you could use the words capitalist system, wanting another system, that this had not been in any kind of popular discourse, and even the mainstream media had to talk about it. And Occupy also got involved increasingly and more recently in the kind of issues you’re talking about, you know, getting involved in stopping foreclosures and trying to link up what they were doing with day-to-day, real, urgent problems facing ordinary people, you know, getting out of the occupied squares, which they either got out of ’cause they got thrown out or because they chose to. But as a strategy, they started moving into the communities. But in terms of where this movement goes, unlike, you know, somewhat similar movements in Latin America and to some extent Europe, at some point and maybe early on there always was some kind of electoral strategy; at some point, it was about trying to achieve some power; and I don’t hear any of that in the Occupy movement. And I wonder what your view is on that in terms of where Occupy goes.
PRASHAD: Well, I mean, you know, it’s a long road. The first thing one needs to build again is a cultural, as it were, sense, that one can act in the world, one can have political power. And I think this isn’tâ€”you know, for the United States, where there’s been an eviscerated political landscape, this is a major advance.
You know, Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, has just released a report through the auspices of the United Nations called Deepening Democracy, and he’s very sharply critical of the United States on two counts. One is voter suppression, mainly of African-American voters, and secondly, the use of money in politics, and, if I may put it this way, the kind of, you know, loosened fabric of political life, where people don’t feel that their vote is meaningful, that their vote necessarily counts. You know, when we consider that only 50Â percent of the population votes in a presidential election, when we consider that it only takes the votes in two or three states, you know, to actually make a difference at the presidential level, this creates a great sense of powerlessness, cynicism as well.
So what Occupy has to do is to build a cultural basis for people to feel like their political energy is going to actually manifest itself and make a difference. And I think if that is the case, we have to be patient with the Occupy dynamic, because culture is the most complicated place, you know, to intervene.
And, also, this is an election year, and the American left has the same boring conversation every four years around the status of the Democratic Party, how one should approach it, what should be, you know, the kind of voting position of progressives. I mean, I think this is a dulling, a mind-numbing debate, because the fact of the matter is that as the right goes madder and the Democrats become more effective at pushing an austerity strategy, there’s hardly any space there for a genuine progressive to say, yes, I willingly want to deliver my votes into the presidential election.
So it should make us think, you know, that finally we should stop having the conversation every four years with this Occupy dynamic. We need to have a serious conversation about the move from these manifestations in public, from the protests around foreclosure, the protests around hunger. We need to seriously think of how maybe in localities we can try to build up confidence in the, you know, existing political structure and how we can imagine a different kind of politics in the future. We need to have a much longer timeframe for this conversation and not let it be bound by, you know, the fabled November.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.
PRASHAD: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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