Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of the official birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On Sept. 17, 2011, a small band of activists took over Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and made it their own, until Mayor Michael Bloomberg (founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, which publishes this magazine) cleared them out two raucous months later. In contrast to the thousands who packed the park in 2011, Tuesday’’s anniversary at Zuccotti Park was small—around 100 people showed up. There were scattered gatherings elsewhere. It was tempting to conclude that the movement is well and truly defunct—something people were already saying on its first birthday). In a conversation last month, one of the movement’s earliest organizers, David Graeber, told me he was “taking a little time off” from the movement.
In light of Occupy’s ostensible demise, what are we to make of the events of the past week and a half? In New York, Bill de Blasio, echoing Occupy’s themes of income inequality, fat cat impunity, and police overreach, trounced the more centrist Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson in the Democratic primary for mayor. Liberal Democrats in the Senate helped to torpedo the candidacy of Larry Summers for chairman of the Federal Reserve after Summers was tagged, fairly or not, as too friendly to Wall Street. Similar concerns helped drive Bill Daley, President Obama’s former chief of staff and himself a former investment banker, to drop out of the Illinois Democratic gubernatorial primary, despite the deep unpopularity of the incumbent, Pat Quinn.
Several commentators have described this populist surge as the wakening of a newly assertive liberal wing of the party. Might it also be the legacy of the Occupy movement? Michael Kazin, a leading historian of the American Left and a champion of it—he’s a professor at Georgetown and co-editor of Dissent Magazine—says, “Occupy has stayed in the language. I think that there’s what you might call an ideological penumbra which continues after the Occupy Planet stopped shining.” He was talking on his cell phone while walking his dog, and warned me he might have to stop to clean up after the animal. “If you did a content analysis of MSNBC, the rhetoric of MSNBC, it’s gotten much more hard-edged economic populist in the last few years.”
But to give Occupy too much credit for this, he argues, is to confuse cause and effect. Occupy, he argues, was a tactic, not a movement. “It was a long demonstration. I think it’s premature to see it as a movement, as opposed to one episode in a larger economic populist movement that is somewhat inchoate. A lot of things that Occupy people were saying have been said by people in unions and pro-union think tanks for years.”
It’s not just a semantic difference. Understanding something like Occupy as a piece of a bigger movement can prevent us from being blindsided by history when it happens. Take the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s, after a few successes, Kazin points out, the movement was on the defensive—“segregationists were passing all these laws to stop desegregation, pro-Klan politicians were winning office in Alabama.” Plenty of people argued that the movement was dead. But then in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the activists hit on the tactic of the sit-in—in ice cream parlors and lunch counters—to galvanize national attention and the movement once again caught fire. Zuccotti Park may come back to life or not, but the discontent that drove it is still there, and it’s still combustible.