Since its appearance on September 17, 2011 Occupy Wall Street has transformed the surface of political discourse in America. Few can argue that its all-too-telling slogans, dramatizing the contradiction between the interests of the 99%, and those of the 1%, have given an essentially rudderless president the overall approach likely to lead him to an important victory in 2012. The pertinence of class division, an idea essentially banished from American thought since the 1970s, has returned to a central place. The union movement has breathed new life, and a host of original issues, such as student loans, have moved to the center of our consciousness.
Police dismantle the Occupy encampment in downtown D.C. on February 4, 2012. With so many encampments broken up, what should be the movement's next steps? Credit: Creative Commons/thisisbossi.
So welcome has Occupy Wall Street been that some now argue that its task is complete, the message has been heard, and that it is time to return to the norms of everyday electoral politics. In fact, this would be a drastic error. What now needs to happen is that Occupy Wall Street has to mutate into a permanent, radical presence in American life. It needs a long-term perspective, not centered on the next election, nor on the economic crisis alone, but on turning the country in a new and progressive direction.
It is not often recognized that the country had similar movements from the time of the revolution until the 1970s. While such an independent left, radical, or progressive presence has sometimes been marginal to everyday politics, and has often been stigmatized in states of emergency, it has made its crucial contribution during long-term crises when the country needs to move in a genuinely new direction. There have been three such crises: the slavery crisis, the crisis over industrialization and the present crisis, which began in the 1960s. And in each case the country produced a vibrant left — the abolitionists, the socialists and communists, and the New Left, without which the country could never have successfully addressed its problems. These three lefts constitute a tradition, and Occupy Wall Street is the reawakening of that tradition. With that view in mind, I would propose two immediate steps for Occupy Wall Street and its supporters. In both, I build on the idea that we need to continue to occupy not just physical spaces like parks and public areas, but political and cultural spaces as well.