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Ten Years After Occupy, We Have a Left That Matters

It’s still difficult organizing as a socialist in the United States. But in the last decade since Occupy Wall Street, there are signs more people are open to egalitarian politics.

Occupy Wall Street participants on September 30, 2011, near Zuccotti Park in New York City. (David Shankbone / Flickr)

Ten years after Occupy Wall Street took over a small park in downtown Manhattan, the new left that was birthed there continues to develop and grow. The occupation of Zuccotti Park — and the numerous other occupations that it inspired — was short-lived, but it transformed the political landscape in the United States and beyond. At Zuccotti, a tent city thrived with newspapers, a library, a kitchen, and dozens of working groups, and it buzzed with constant political discussion about a world in which 1 percent of the population enriches itself at the expense of the rest of us, the 99 percent. A decade later, writes Occupy participant, documentary filmmaker, and author Astra Taylor, the US political situation “remains far more promising than it was at the start of the last decade.”

In the years leading up to Occupy, Taylor recently commented, the Left was demoralized and fragmented. But Occupy inaugurated a “social movement renaissance,” and we “have not stopped talking about capitalism, we haven’t stopped talking about class, we haven’t stopped talking about debt” ever since.

In her latest book, Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions, Astra Taylor weighs in on the legacy of Occupy, the organizing capacity of debt resistance, and our prospects for achieving something resembling democracy. Taylor’s own path through Occupy Wall Street took her from a supportive observer — returning “day after day, unable to resist the bizarre and growing gathering of the discontented” — to an active organizer via an Occupy offshoot that began organizing around debt.

While it may be true that in the days of Occupy, discussion of debt was often unmoored from the broader political economy of its roots, this was just the beginning. The Occupy working group that Taylor was a part of developed into the Rolling Jubilee campaign and then the Debt Collective. That movement has already won significant debt relief and reflected and clarified a growing awareness that debt is a major nerve center in the anatomy of capitalism.

Bosses and lenders collude to keep us underpaid and financially dependent, while gutted social services have attached colossal price tags to our life necessities — creating a perfect storm of economic domination. As Taylor notes, for instance, “In countries with universal health care, individual medical debt is rare: in the United States, it is a leading cause of poverty and the main catalyst for bankruptcy.”

First, we are exploited at work. Then, our financial vulnerabilities are taken advantage of to further bind us to creditors. Debt therefore acts to entrench economic inequality. Student debt alone totals $1.6 trillion, and more than a million people have defaulted on their loans every year between 2015 and 2019. Total household debt is now nearing $15 trillion.

The cover of Remake the World, Astra Taylor’s latest book.

The economic consequences of mass insolvency, Taylor argues, suppresses demand, impedes homeownership, and stresses body and mind, “a tendency exacerbated by the fact that debtors tend to delay or avoid seeking medical care, fearful of the cost.” Though much has been made of growing household savings that Americans have accumulated throughout the pandemic due to government spending, this, too, has mostly reinforced inequality. The top 20 percent of income earners have accounted for 85 percent of the savings accrued, while the bottom 20 percent accounted for just 0.5 percent.

The racial wealth gap is exacerbated by debt as well. Consider, for instance, student debt. Historic economic inequality, undergirded by segregation, discrimination, and racist lending practices, has made it much more difficult for black families to pass down significant amounts of wealth to the next generation. With skyrocketing tuition rates and little inherited wealth to count on, black families are finding that higher education often crushes rather than advances economic mobility.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that “more than 84% of college-educated Black households in their 30s have student debt, up from 35% three decades ago . . . the younger generation owes a median of $44,000.” By comparison, 53 percent of their white counterparts have college debt, with a median debt of $35,000. This growing burden of debt contributes to a yawning chasm of racial wealth inequality. The median wealth of black households with a college degree ($8,000) barely inches above that of black households without a degree ($6,000). Significantly, whether black families do or don’t include someone with a college degree, their median household wealth is far below white households with no degree ($45,000), and eons away from white households with a degree ($138,000).

Debt, in other words, is a tool of an exploitative and oppressive system. In Taylor’s words, she came to see debt as “an effective means of social control.” Working people are too busy working to pay off their monthly obligations to have time and energy leftover to protest. The growth of debt as a means of social control developed alongside the neoliberal world order, but “the emergence of Occupy was a welcome sign that the control mechanism was breaking down.”

Significantly, out of her experiences at Occupy, Taylor recognized a possibility to organize people around indebtedness. To do so is an economic necessity, a means to address inequality and social control. But resisting debt also provides an opportunity to “bridge the personal and political.” Debt binds “individuals to a broader set of economic circumstances, and as such presents a powerful opportunity to unite otherwise divided populations.” In one sense, as Taylor argues, organizing people around their indebtedness helps us to update the union model of organizing “for our current conditions of financialization and insecurity,” to build “fresh ties among stranded people who lack stable employment, let alone union membership.”

A Left Reborn

Remake the World highlights this and other organizing opportunities, offering coherence and clarity on the old organizing tools of “education, base-building, and coalition” versus an activism that relishes marginalization. Whereas social media has made many believe that a deluge of memes and commentary is activism, or worse, provides the illusion that scrolling is akin to listening, debtors’ assemblies described in Remake the World provide an example of the power of listening. Debtors’ assemblies bring people together to share stories of financial hardship, and in the process, they educate, empower, and connect the participants.

It’s an example that the US left should take to heart, particularly in this post–Bernie Sanders moment when the Left is less united and suffering from a crisis of political direction. As I’ve argued, “It’s a truism of organizing that when we suffer setbacks, we tend to blame comrades and assume subjective faults, rather than assess the structural challenges of building a socialist opposition within the belly of the beast.”

Taylor writes with humility about what we don’t know. In the age of social media snark and self-assured hot takes, it’s a relief to read the admission that “when it comes to changing the world, no one really knows what will work.” After all, what is the purpose of collective discussion if someone or some group already knows the answers?

But Remake the World is precise in delineating the difference between a radical politics that aims to transform the conditions of inequality from their roots and a liberal politics that provides guardrails against the “wayward passions of the masses.” A liberal consensus that fears social unrest and political instability, and that paints both the Left and the Right as equally dangerous “populists,” misunderstands what it will take to ensure the democratic principles that it purportedly stands for. Today’s socialist revival is not opposed to the rights and freedoms of liberal democracy. Rather, in Taylor’s words, it “seeks to create the conditions under which such principles might at last be fully enacted and ideally expanded.”

The Left has grown in both numbers and political experience over the past decade. In 2011, Taylor wrote that “the Occupy movement reflected the then-dominant tendency on the activist left — or at least the predominantly white and anarchist left — of rejecting any attempt to exercise or take power.” Open assemblies felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison to stilted, undemocratic processes of the existing order.

But many participants and observers complained that Occupy suffered from a tyranny of structurelessness and became mired in hours-long conversations that left too many unable to participate. Occupy resisted formal leadership, did not want to make demands of the system for fear of legitimizing the state, avoided electoral strategies, and made few inroads toward collaboration with labor.

Still, through their experiences, newly politicized people who were drawn into activity through Occupy Wall Street drew important lessons about the power of social movements. They went on to participate and lead the Debt Collective, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, the Democratic Socialists of America, and to canvass and organize for Bernie Sanders.

As Guido Girgenti, an Occupy participant, cofounder of the Sunrise Movement, and now media director for Justice Democrats, explained to Taylor and Jonathan Smucker for a recent New York magazine article about Occupy Wall Street’s legacy, Occupy was “a ‘bridge’ between the late-20th-century left, which was small, fragmented, and ineffectual, and a 21st-century left that aims to build a majoritarian, multiracial, class-conscious movement that operates both inside and outside the political system to materially improve people’s lives.”

Occupy was an entry point into a Left recently reborn, whose ideas and strategies were and are in flux. A political ethos that previously rejected electoralism and the state now contends for power within it. “Today,” as Taylor puts it, “a new generation is rejecting the old equation, long common in radical circles, holding that group discipline is a form of domination, that losing is a sign of political purity, and that change can only come from outside.”

Breathing Together

The book’s first chapter, “Breathing Together,” highlights how capitalist society encourages isolation. The United States registers endemic levels of loneliness among its population. Yet as humans, we inhale collective air, our bodies porous through our skin and breath. “We are permeable, interconnected beings subject to infection by ideas and viruses. We are connected across time and space: our beliefs shaped by past events, our bodies impacted by what happens on the other side of the planet.”

The last chapter fittingly returns to the subject of our interconnectedness, this time with a more urgent warning that, as a species, we are falling out of sync with one another and with the planet. Because of global warming, “leaves shoot early, encouraging insects to emerge to feast, but by the time migrating birds arrive to eat the insects, they are already gone.” Symbiotic partners are now “out of step to the detriment of both.”

A younger generation, leading climate strikes and rallies, understands the urgent need for radical transformation and a confrontational approach toward the energy companies and plutocrats to get there. The stakes are high, but the Left is growing. Remake the World is a useful companion for that Left as we organize, listen, and continue to grow.