Occupy the Imagination

Occupy the Imagination

Occupy is the base upon which to build a mass left radical movement, one that challenges the system itself.


The fact that several opinion polls over the past four years have indicated that about 30 percent of the population is open to alternatives to capitalism seemed to have gone almost unnoticed, at least until the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thirty percent is about 90 million people, but it is also roughly the proportion of the colonial population that supported the Revolutionary War. This 30 percent is far from a monolith. By alternatives to capitalism, people clearly mean myriad possibilities. That said, 30 percent is a significant figure, and it constitutes much of the soil in which the OWS movement has been planted. It is also the base for something I would identify as an emerging mass left radical politics.

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Mass left radicalism refers not to a particular ideology but to a current of thought and action that goes beyond progressive reform politics. Mass left radicalism challenges the system itself. Within this emergent mass left radicalism are some well-defined ideological tendencies, though for the most part we are talking about unformed or semiformed frameworks.

In discussing OWS it is important to start with the identification of mass left radicalism in order to understand that OWS is part of something much larger. What Occupy evolves into—if anything—is secondary to whether and how the 90 million people who are seeking alternatives to capitalism become self-aware as a bloc. Occupy is part of the process of helping this 30 percent reach collective awareness—but only part. The rise of Occupy as a movement focused on physical space has historical roots in the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City, as well as the Hoovervilles of the early 1930s. These and similar movements exist as a reminder of and protest against gross injustices like poverty, unemployment and lack of housing, or the corruptions of an unjust system (e.g., Tahrir Square in Egypt).

The importance of the Occupy movement, however, goes beyond the matter of “space.” It is really about imagination—that is, identifying injustice and conceiving of another world. Occupy actualized the slogan of the World Social Forum movement, “Another world is possible.” Rather than existing as an event, an organization or a set of actions, the movement is a rallying cry of the dispossessed, the redundant and the marginalized. If conceived in that way, the Occupy movement can help to catalyze and reinforce significant initiatives. For example:

A movement of the unemployed: Let’s hope that Occupy will inspire organized labor to partner with community-based organizations to build a real movement of unemployed workers. The issue of unemployment was implicit in Occupy, but what must materialize is a movement of unemployed workers who are prepared to engage in a struggle for jobs, against foreclosures, for just taxation and for progressive alternative economic development, beginning at the state and local levels. Such a movement must be far more than a lobbying effort; it must be an audacious, grassroots effort that puts a face on the faceless.

Right to the city: An alliance exists with that name, but the matter of the “right to the city” goes beyond any one organization. It is a fight of urban people to reverse the class and racial cleansings of our cities. It is a fight not only to make them livable but to redesign them so that they are oriented toward the needs of working people and are constructed in ways that are environmentally friendly.

Democracy in all fields, including elections: Elsewhere I have suggested that the Occupy movement can help to energize progressive electoral campaigns. I reiterate that point, but go further. The erosion of democracy at all levels, including electoral, moves us toward a neoliberal authoritarian state. The Occupy movement has raised a challenge, but those inspired by it must push for consistent democracy, including taking a stand against voter suppression, money in elections, the Electoral College and ultimately advancing into other facets of life.

Inspire new left theory: Occupy not only energized resistance; it has also inspired thousands to study the workings of capitalism. Yet this is not enough. We need additional theoretical work precisely on the matter of alternatives to the nightmare in which we live.

Think and act globally and locally: A striking feature of Occupy was that it globalized. Having been inspired by Arab democratic uprisings, the Occupy movement spread and became an expression of a vast movement against neoliberal globalization and all that it represents, and for something that is at least implicitly left and radical. This feature cannot be lost, including in our need to remain vigilant in the fight against further imperial wars.

Occupy, understood broadly, should not be seen as something that is translated into a particular organization but as a point from which organizations are energized, new ones emerge, creative tactics are conceived and audacious strategies materialize for gaining power for the 99 percent.


Richard Kim: “The Occupy Spring?
Michael Moore: “The Purpose of Occupy Wall Street Is to Occupy Wall Street
Ilyse Hogue: “Occupy Is Dead! Long Live Occupy!
Marina Sitrin: “Occupy: This Is What Democracy Looks Like
Todd Gitlin: “More Than a Protest Movement
Frances Fox Piven: “Occupy! and Make Them Do It
Stephen Lerner: “Horizontal Meets Vertical; Occupy Meets Establishment
Jeremy Brecher:Occupy Climate Change
Jonathan Schell: “If Vaclav Havel Met Occupy’s Human Mic…
Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett: “Occupying the Unexpected

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