How the Occupy movement may yet lead America

Reihan Salam writes: Occupy succeeded in expanding the boundaries of our political conversation, creating new possibilities for the American left.

As our slow-motion economic crisis grinds on, it is worth asking: How might these possibilities be realized? For some, Occupy was a liberating experience of collective effervescence and of being one with a crowd. As one friend put it, it was “the unspeakable joy of taking to the streets, taking spaces, exploring new relations and environments” that resonated most. For others, it created a new sense of cross-class solidarity. Jeremy Kessler, a legal historian who covered the Occupy movement for the leftist literary journal N + 1 and the New Republic, senses that it has already shaped the political consciousness of younger left-liberals. “There is more skepticism towards the elite liberal consensus,” and so, “for instance, there is more support for the Chicago teachers union and more wariness towards anti-union reformers.” Ideological battle lines have in this sense grown sharper. Yet it is still not clear where Occupy, and the left, will go next.

Perhaps the most politically fruitful path for the American left would be to go back to the future – to draw on the lessons of the Populists of the William Jennings Bryan era, who sought to unite farmers and industrial workers against the stranglehold of Eastern capital. Back then, the Populists failed, as the interests of industrial workers were more closely tied to their bosses than to those of highly indebted smallholders living in the prairies. Now, however, millions of middle-income households struggle under the burden of underwater mortgages.

In the latest issue of the Nation, David Graeber, the anarchist anthropologist considered an intellectual leading light of the Occupy movement, argues that the “financialization” of the economy should be understood as “an enormous engine of debt extraction,” through which the 1 percent extracts wealth from the 99 percent. Rather than champion specific policies designed to reduce the burden of debt, Graeber calls for a campaign of mass resistance devoted to delegitimizing what he calls “Mafia capitalism.” While Graeber’s language is bracing, and it will undoubtedly appeal to at least some radicals who hope to keep the spirit of Occupy alive, it is not obvious that his idea of mass resistance can build a mass movement.

But might a softer version of Graeberism succeed? As the Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin argues in The Populist Persuasion, American populist movements have traditionally pitted the producing majority against a parasitic elite. That is one reason why “We Are the 99 Percent,” the slogan coined by Graeber and his allies, has proved so resonant: It invokes older American political traditions. [Continue reading…]

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