When I hear someone say that the Occupy Movement didn’t accomplish anything, or amount to anything, I find it incredibly annoying and dismissive. But even worse, I find it ill-informed and/or willfully ignorant. Occupy played a useful role in creating the political environment we are in now, where minimum wage and other anti-poverty struggles are not just happening across the country, but they have become disruptive enough to business as usual that mainstream media and politicians are having a hard time ignoring them (even if they don’t speak of them with any amount of true analysis or depth). The issues of income inequality and corporate dominance have become unavoidable enough that even Republican/right-wingers have started talking about them, even if it’s in the guise of a faux populism that attacks big government, immigrants and others seen as threatening to white supremacist capitalism and not the systems and institutions that actually perpetuate these problems. Even if the narratives around these issues are being limited or manipulated, the fact they are being discussed at all is something. And however you feel about electoral politics or Bernie Sanders, I personally don’t think he’d be as popular as he is without Occupy having raised the profile of these issues. It’s not that they didn’t exist as problems; they just weren’t in the popular consciousness.
Occupy – despite its flaws and the attacks by media and political/state powers that be – played a crucial role in challenging the myths of social/class mobility and individualism in our society. Folks were more easily able to learn, think and understand how the economic system of the U.S. (and multinational capitalism, and white supremacy, and patriarchy) creates winners and losers, frequently along historically constructed and maintained lines of identity. It didn’t result in a full-fledged and realized revolution, but helped further an ongoing struggle towards dismantling that system and made more space for more folks to participate in that struggle. The fact that it didn’t take down capitalism doesn’t mean it failed (by that logic, the Civil Rights Movement, women’s movements, anti-colonial movements and others have all failed as well). Because ending oppression isn’t something that can be accomplished in a single day or month or year. These systems have taken centuries to solidify, and it’s unlikely we’ll destroy them completely without massive segments of society being willing to work towards something different. While we can certainly make revolutionary changes fairly quickly with such mass effort at the community level, getting folks to think critically about this system takes time and steady work. Basically, I think the idea that revolutions aren’t ongoing processes needs to be questioned, and thus, movements like Occupy should be seen as part of a journey towards a more liberated and equitable society.
If there is one additional item that needs to get more firmly injected into the discussions brought up by Occupy, however, it’s challenging how the “middle class” is defined by politicians and media. Politicians from both the major parties cast themselves as advocates for the “middle class”, while never really specifying who they mean exactly. It only seems to make sense to ask if the middle class is shrinking, what class are those being forced out of it becoming part of. And what of the folks who never made it into this class to begin with (such as most folks of color, folks with disabilities, etc.)? This lack of specificity is intentional, to obscure the fact that we actually do have a class hierarchy in the United States, and always have (intersecting with race, gender, ability, etc.), and that social/class mobility is much more exceptional than the rule. The refusal to use terms like “working class” and “working poor” and to distinguish the experience of working class/poor folks from those of other non-rich, but significantly better off folks, simply helps to keep that hierarchy going.
The “middle class” grew primarily as result of progressive (and yes, democratic socialist) policies in the middle of the last century (Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, Social Security, the GI bill, support for strong collective bargaining rights, progressive taxation which ensured the wealthy and corporations paid) which have been consistently rolled back and attacked since Reagan. The struggle from paycheck to paycheck is new for some folks, but anything but new for others. But in either case, acting as if their situation is the same as someone with more stable means – even if that person is also struggling temporarily – simply creates an illusion that the “middle class” encompasses everyone that isn’t relatively wealthy. John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” While I definitely disagree that not all poor folks recognize their common cause, I definitely think that the discussions of the “middle class” are framed by both right and left (at least the corporate/establishment left) to disappear working class/poor people — even within the minds and experiences of those folks themselves. This unfortunately sets up situations where poor folks (particularly poor whites) are convinced to support reactionary policies — corporate tax breaks, social service cuts, anti-immigrant laws and free trade agreements — that are sold as empowering them economically through promises of jobs and lower taxes, but end up strengthening and enriching political and corporate interests. Challenging this disappearance is what is needed to take the discussion of income inequality, corporate dominance, and many other economic injustices further (whether at the electoral politics or grassroots struggle level), so that it becomes clearer to draw out the lies behind such policies.
I definitely think class has to be discussed and understood intersectionally with race, gender, and other dimensions of oppression, but I believe that the Occupy movement has created an opening for such discussions and understandings to take place, in a way not seen for a while. And that dismissals of it as not amounting to anything significant simply feeds the myth that working class and working poor people are temporarily embarrassed middle class folks. Doing so hides the ways in which our system hasn’t just been failing those more solidly identifiable as middle class – an identity I myself am not entirely sure how to delineate – for the last 30-40 years, but has always failed the working class and working poor.