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.
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.