Newsletter #2: Occupy Paved the Way for Today’s Reborn Left

By Mia Schatz

It is hard today to remember the sense of desolation that plagued the American left a decade ago. Demoralized, disempowered, disorganized, the Left seemed to have no answer to the 2008 housing market crash and the Great Recession — until Occupy Wall Street.

Although the movement only lasted two months, Occupy left its mark on American politics, putting the potential for a meaningful left movement back on the map. In the years since, many participants have argued that Occupy failed: its horizontal structures didn’t work; it had no actionable demands; it was too white, too affluent, and unable to put a real dent in finance capital’s power. And yet, as Astra Taylor points out in this week’s episode of The Dig, Occupy reframed American political discourse around class, laying the groundwork for the highly effective messaging of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and compelled both veteran and budding organizers to rethink a problem the Left had struggled with for years: power.

As Occupy faded, hundreds of former occupiers from across the country joined or formed organizations focused on housing, debt, healthcare, and climate change. Today, there is a growing American left energized not only by organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter and stirrings in key parts of the labor movement, but also by left-aligned elected officials at national, state, and local levels who are challenging the power of capital.

Occupy offered critical lessons about how a political movement can build power without losing sight of its core principles. If, as Astra argues in this week’s interview, the Left of a decade ago was allergic to power and electoral politics, today’s Left has found the antidote in strong, well-organized institutions that are increasingly capable of holding its leaders accountable. These are essential questions that are still at the heart of left organizing today — and will only become more urgent as the post-Occupy left keeps growing.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Astra Taylor here.

Further Reading

Occupy’s recent tenth anniversary inspired a wave of reflections and analyses. During Occupy, media attention focused heavily on the demographic composition of occupiers. As Dan and Astra discuss, labor scholars Ruth Milkman, Penny Lewis, and Stephanie Luce interviewed occupiers on the ground at the New York occupation in Zuccotti Park. Sarah Jaffe, host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast, recently interviewed Ruth Milkman and Nastaran Mohit, an organizer and one of the study’s interviewers, about their reflections on the movement a decade on. For Jacobin, Doug Singsen reminds us of unions’ critical and often underplayed role in various OWS occupations across the country, while Ross Barkan argues the media was too quick to deem Occupy a failure. And questions still linger about Occupy’s most influential political currents. Former occupier and current Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval and Intercept columnist Natasha Lennard recently discussed whether Occupy was more socialist or anarchist in nature in The Nation.