Category Archives: Occupy Movement

I started Occupy Wall Street. Russia tried to co-opt me

Micah White writes: I have sometimes been approached by persons that I suspected were either agents or assets of intelligence agencies during the 20 years that I have been a social activist. The tempo of these disconcerting encounters increased when I abruptly relocated to a remote town on the Oregon coast after the defeat of Occupy Wall Street, a movement I helped lead. My physical inaccessibility seemed to provoke a kind of desperation among these shadowy forces.

There was the man purporting to be an internet repair technician who arrived unsolicited at our rural home and then tinkered with our modem. Something felt odd and I was not surprised when CNN later reported that posing as internet repairmen is a known tactic of the FBI.

I’ve had other suspicious encounters. A couple seeking advice on starting a spiritual activist community, for example, but whose story made little sense. And a former Occupy activist who moved to my town to, I felt, undermine my activism and gather information about me.

Those few friends that I confided in dismissed my suspicions as mild paranoia. And perhaps it was. I stopped talking about it and instead became highly selective about the people I met, emails I responded to and invitations I accepted.

I hinted at the situation by adding a section to my book, The End of Protest, warning activists to beware of frontgroups. And, above all, I learned to trust my intuition – if someone gave me a tingly sense then I stayed away. That is why I almost ignored the interview request from Yan Big Davis. [Continue reading…]


An American in Istanbul: Molly Crabapple on art and activism

Pacific Standard: “To draw is to objectify, to go momentarily to a place where aesthetics mean more than morality,” Molly Crabapple writes in her memoir, Drawing Blood, an addictive volume that I devoured a few weeks ago during a flight from Rome to Istanbul, the city that stands at the center of Crabapple’s fascination with what was once called “the Orient.” With her artwork already placed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, her essays and illustrations published in venues like Vanity Fair and Vice, the 33-year-old artist is a curious composite of entrepreneur, revolutionary, and bohemian artist. The book is an account of Crabapple’s formation as an artist and political dissident, from her childhood in Long Island to teenage travels in Europe and the Middle East, to her mature return to New York in the heart of Occupy protests at Zuccotti Park.

Drawing Blood is designed as a notebook, where Crabapple sketches her life story in both words and lines — 30 short chapters featuring snappy episodes from the artist’s life crammed together with illustrations done in the style of a courtroom sketch. The book’s central characters and places, meanwhile — a group of intellectuals, artists, sex workers, refugees, dissidents, bookstores, and streets who have helped shape Crabapple’s conscience — come to life in the book’s sketches, wherein Crabapple seems to have painted each at the moment she first came into contact with them. [Continue reading…]


This is the age of dissent – and there’s much more to come

By David J. Bailey, University of Birmingham

The year 2011 is widely viewed as the peak of protest and dissent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity agenda that followed it. It was the year of the Arab Spring, Occupy, UK Uncut, indignados, urban riots and anti-austerity and tuition fee protests – and in which Time magazine famously named “The Protester” as its person of the year.

Yet in the UK, protests continue to occur at a rate rarely seen prior to the global economic crisis in 2008. Indeed, 2015 seems to have confirmed the suggestion, made at the beginning of the year, that 2011 was “really only just the beginning”.

In fact, we appear to be facing a longer-term age of contestation, perhaps prompted by the experience of low growth, and the hardening of attitudes by mainstream politicians despite growing popular demands.

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Occupy Democracy is not considered newsworthy. It should be

David Graeber writes: You can tell a lot about the moral quality of a society by what is, and is not, considered news.

From last Tuesday, Parliament Square was wrapped in wire mesh. In one of the more surreal scenes in recent British political history, officers with trained German shepherds stand sentinel each day, at calculated distances across the lawn, surrounded by a giant box of fences, three metres high – all to ensure that no citizen enters to illegally practice democracy. Yet few major news outlets feel this is much of a story.

Occupy Democracy, a new incarnation of Occupy London, has attempted to use the space for an experiment in democratic organising. The idea was to turn Parliament Square back to the purposes to which it was, by most accounts, originally created: a place for public meetings and discussions, with an eye to bringing all the issues ignored by politicians in Westminster back into public debate. Seminars and assemblies were planned, colourful bamboo towers and sound systems put in place, to be followed by a temporary library, kitchen and toilets.

There was no plan to turn this into a permanent tent city, which are now explicitly illegal. True, this law is very selectively enforced; Metropolitan police regularly react with a wink and a smile if citizens camp on the street while queuing overnight for the latest iPhone. But to do it in furtherance of democratic expression is absolutely forbidden. Try it, and you can expect to immediately see your tent torn down and if you try even the most passive resistance you’re likely to be arrested. So organisers settled on a symbolic 24-hour presence, even if it meant sleeping on the grass under cardboard boxes in the autumn rain.

The police response can only be described as hysterical. Tarpaulins used to sit on the grass were said to be illegal, and when activists tried to sit on them they were attacked by scores of officers. Activists say they had limbs twisted and officers stuck thumbs into nerve endings as “pain compliance”. Pizza boxes were declared illegal structures and confiscated and commanders even sent officers to stand over activists at night telling them it was illegal to close their eyes. [Continue reading…]


Occupy activist Cecily McMillan sentenced to three months in prison

The Guardian reports: An Occupy Wall Street activist has been sentenced to three months in prison for assaulting a police officer as he led her out of a protest.

Cecily McMillan, who had been facing a maximum sentence of seven years, was told on Monday morning by Judge Ronald Zweibel that she “must take responsibility for her conduct”.

“A civilised society must not allow an assault to be committed under the guise of civil disobedience,” said Zweibel at Manhattan criminal court. However, he added: “The court finds that a lengthy sentence would not serve the interests of justice in this case.”

McMillan, 25, received a three-month sentence to be followed by community service and five years of probation. Having been remanded at Riker’s Island jail for the past two weeks, she will receive credit for time served. [Continue reading…]


Occupy was right: Capitalism has failed the world

Andrew Hussey writes: The École d’économie de Paris (the Paris School of Economics) is actually situated in the most un-Parisian part of the city. It is on the boulevard Jourdan in the lower end of the 14th arrondissement, bordered on one side by the Parc Montsouris. Unlike most French parks, there is a distinct lack of Gallic order here; in fact, with lakes, open spaces, and its greedy and inquisitive ducks, you could very easily be in a park in any British city. The campus of the Paris School of Economics, however, looks unmistakably and reassuringly like nearly all French university campuses. That is to say, it is grey, dull and broken down, the corridors smelling vaguely of cabbage. This is where I have arranged an interview with Professor Thomas Piketty, a modest young Frenchman (he is in his early 40s), who has spent most of his career in archives and collecting data, but is just about to emerge as the most important thinker of his generation – as the Yale academic Jacob Hacker put it, a free thinker and a democrat who is no less than “an Alexis de Tocqueville for the 21st century”.

This is on account of his latest work, which is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This is a huge book, more than 700 pages long, dense with footnotes, graphs and mathematical formulae. At first sight it is unashamedly an academic tome and seems both daunting and incomprehensible. In recent weeks and months the book has however set off fierce debates in the United States about the dynamics of capitalism, and especially the apparently unstoppable rise of the tiny elite that controls more and more of the world’s wealth. In non-specialist blogs and websites across America, it has ignited arguments about power and money, questioning the myth at the very heart of American life – that capitalism improves the quality of life for everyone. This is just not so, says Piketty, and he makes his case in a clear and rigorous manner that debunks everything that capitalists believe about the ethical status of making money.

The groundbreaking status of the book was recognised by a recent long essay in the New Yorker in which Branko Milanovic, a former senior economist at the World Bank, was quoted as describing Piketty’s volume as “one of the watershed books in economic thinking”. In the same vein, a writer in the Economist reported that Piketty’s work fundamentally rewrote 200 years of economic thinking on inequality. In short, the arguments have centred on two poles: the first is a tradition that begins with Karl Marx, who believed that capitalism would self-destruct in the endless pursuit of diminishing profit returns. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the work of Simon Kuznets, who won a Nobel prize in 1971 and who made the case that the inequality gap inevitably grows smaller as economies develop and become sophisticated.

Piketty says that neither of these arguments stand up to the evidence he has accumulated. More to the point, he demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that capitalism can ever solve the problem of inequality, which he insists is getting worse rather than better. From the banking crisis of 2008 to the Occupy movement of 2011, this much has been intuited by ordinary people. The singular significance of his book is that it proves “scientifically” that this intuition is correct. This is why his book has crossed over into the mainstream – it says what many people have already been thinking. [Continue reading…]


FBI ordered to justify shielding of records sought about alleged sniper plot targeting ‘Occupy’ leaders

n13-iconThe Wall Street Journal reports: A federal judge has ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to give her a better explanation for its refusal to turn over information to a student researching an alleged plot to assassinate “Occupy” protest leaders in Houston.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student who is seeking records from the FBI related to a Houston spin-off of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests and an alleged sniper plot. The student claims that the heavily redacted responses he got back from the government violated the Freedom of Information Act.

Information about the alleged plot first surfaced in FBI documents — released through a prior FOIA request by a civil-rights legal organization in Washington – that referenced a “plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles,” according to court documents. It’s not known who was behind the alleged plot or whether the FBI investigated it.

In a ruling last week, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the FBI to explain with more detail why it claims that certain information requested by the student, Ryan Noah Shapiro, is exempted under FOIA.

The law governing the public’s access to records allows the FBI to shield “information compiled for law enforcement purposes” if disclosure would interfere with an investigation, endanger life or cause other types of harm.

That exemption was repeatedly cited by FBI FOIA chief David Hardy in a filing to the court in support of an FBI motion to dismiss Mr. Shapiro’s lawsuit. Some information was redacted, according to Mr. Hardy’s filing, because it involved information shared with local law enforcement agencies related to an investigation of “potential criminal activity by protestors involved with the ‘Occupy’ movement in Houston.” He stated that the potential crimes included “domestic terrorism” and “advocating overthrow of government.”

Judge Collyer said that justification wasn’t sufficient. [Continue reading…]


From Greece to Ukraine: welcome to the new age of resistance

f13-iconCostas Douzinas writes: Failure, defeat, persecution and the attendant paranoia are marks of the Left. The left has learned to be under attack, to fail, to lose and wallow in the defeat. An enduring masochism lurks in the best Leftist books: many are stories of failure and variable rationalisation. It is true that the Left has lost a lot: a united analysis and movement, the working class as political subject, the inexorable forward movement of history, planned economy as an alternative to capitalism.

It is also true that the falling masonry of the Berlin wall hit western socialists more than the old Stalinists. Using Freud’s terms, the necessary and liberating mourning for the love object of revolution has turned into permanent melancholy. In mourning, the libido finally withdraws from the lost object and is displaced on to another. In melancholy, it “withdraws into the ego”. This withdrawal serves to “establish an identification of the ego with the abandoned object”.

Walter Benjamin has called this “Left melancholy”: the attitude of the militant who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal – and to the failure of that ideal – than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present. For his part, Benjamin calls upon the left to grasp the “time of the now”, while for the melancholic, history is an “empty time” of repetition. Part of the Left is narcissistically fixed to its lost object with no obvious desire to abandon it. Left melancholy leads inexorably to the fetishism of small differences: politically, it appears in the interminable conflicts, splits and vituperation among erstwhile comrades. Attacks on the closest, the threatening double, are more vicious than those on the enemy. Theoretically, according to Benjamin, Left melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. In our contemporary setting, we have a return to a particular type of grand theory, which combines an obsession with the explanation of life, the universe and everything with the anxiety of influence. The shadows and ghosts of the previous generation of greats weigh down on the latest missionaries of the encyclopaedia.

The most important reason why radical theory has been unable to fully comprehend recent resistances is perhaps the “anxiety of the grand narrative”. A previous generation of radical intellectuals – such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Edward Thompson and Louis Althusser – had close links with the movements of their time. Contemporary radical philosophers are found more often in lecture rooms than street corners.

The wider “academisation” of radical theory and its close proximity with “interdisciplinary” and cultural studies departments has changed its character. These academic fields have been developed as a result of university funding priorities. They happily welcome the appeal of radical philosophers contributing to their celebrity value. But this weakening of the link between practice and theory has an adverse effect on theory construction. The desire for a “radical theory of everything” caused by the “anxiety of influence” created by the previous generation of philosophical greats does not help overcome the limitations of disembodied abstraction.

It is no surprise that many European Leftists are happy to celebrate the late Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa and to carry out radical politics by proxy, while ready to dismiss what happens in our part of the world as irrelevant or misguided. It may feel better to lose gloriously than to win, even with a few compromises.

Repeated defeats do not help the millions whose lives have been devastated by neoliberal capitalism and post-democratic governance. What the Left needs is not a new model party or an all-encompassing brilliant theory. It needs to learn from the popular resistances that broke out without leaders, parties or common ideology and to build on the energy, imagination and novel institutions created. The Left needs a few successes after a long interval of failures.

Greece is perhaps the best chance for the European Left. The persistent and militant resistances sank two austerity governments and currently Syriza, the radical left coalition, is likely to be the first elected radical government in Europe. The historical chance has been created not by party or theory but by ordinary people who are well ahead of both and adopted this small protest party as the vehicle that would complement in parliament the fights in the streets. The political and intellectual responsibility of radical intellectuals everywhere is to stand in solidarity with the Greek Left. [Continue reading…]


Cecily McMillan’s Occupy trial is a huge test of U.S. civil liberties. Will they survive?

o13-iconChase Madar writes: The US constitution’s Bill of Rights is envied by much of the English-speaking world, even by people otherwise not enthralled by The American Way Of Life. Its fundamental liberties – freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom from warrantless search – are a mighty bulwark against overweening state power, to be sure.

But what are these rights actually worth in the United States these days?

Ask Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old student and activist who was arrested two years ago during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan. Seized by police, she was beaten black and blue on her ribs and arms until she went into a seizure. When she felt her right breast grabbed from behind, McMillan instinctively threw an elbow, catching a cop under the eye, and that is why she is being prosecuted for assaulting a police officer, a class D felony with a possible seven-year prison term. Her trial began this week.

McMillan is one of over 700 protestors arrested in the course of Occupy Wall Street’s mass mobilization, which began with hopes of radical change and ended in an orgy of police misconduct. According to a scrupulously detailed report (pdf) issued by the NYU School of Law and Fordham Law School, the NYPD routinely wielded excessive force with batons, pepper spray, scooters and horses to crush the nascent movement. And then there were the arrests, often arbitrary, gratuitous and illegal, with most charges later dismissed. McMillan’s is the last Occupy case to be tried, and how the court rules will provide a clear window into whether public assembly stays a basic right or becomes a criminal activity. [Continue reading…]


FBI investigated ‘Occupy’ as possible ‘terrorism’ threat, internal documents show

Huffington Post reports: According to internal documents newly released by the FBI, the agency spearheaded a nationwide law enforcement effort to investigate and monitor the Occupy Wall Street movement. In certain documents, divisions of the FBI refer to the Occupy Wall Street protests as a “criminal activity” or even “domestic terrorism.”

The internal papers were obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice fund via a Freedom of Information Act Request. The fund, a legal nonprofit that focuses on civil rights, says it believes the 112 pages of documents, available for public viewing on its website, are only “the tip of the iceberg.”

“This production … is a window into the nationwide scope of the FBI’s surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protestors organizing with the Occupy movement,” wrote Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, the fund’s executive director, in a press release Saturday.

According to the documents, the FBI coordinated extensively with private companies, including banks, that feared they could be affected by Occupy protests. Occupy, which took root in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and spread to cities across the country, targeted corporations and other forces it believed to perpetuate social inequality. The FBI’s investigation included the movement’s manifestations in New York; Milwaukee; Indianapolis; Anchorage, Alaska; Jacksonville, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; and Memphis, Tenn., among others. [Continue reading…]


Occupy Sandy’s spirit of solidarity resonates with Latino values

Arturo Conde reports: In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, community-based volunteers led by Occupy Wall Street supporters have emerged to fill the void left by FEMA, and The American Red Cross. In less than a week, the Occupy Sandy grassroots movement has raised over $264,000 in relief for New York’s hardest hit neighborhoods, and have established a network of volunteers and materials that is empowering people to rebuild their communities.

Supporters of Occupy Wall Street credit their ability to respond quickly to the needs of people in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Red Hook and Coney Island in Brooklyn, Astoria and Rockaway in Queens, and Staten Island, to the profound sense of solidarity that their community-based network has promoted for over a year, bringing people to work together from different places and social backgrounds. But for a group of activists who helped organize Occupy’s relief effort from a hub in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, this solidarity is also emblematic of their Latino identity and heritage.

When Occupy organizers approached the Mexican community leader Juan Carlos Ruiz, 43, a week ago to ask for permission to use the basement of St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park as a distribution hub for dispensing water, food, clothing, and other materials to people in areas that were damaged by the storm, he saw it as a natural extension of the volunteer work that he carries out at the Lutheran temple, which was originally founded by German immigrants in 1889.

While churches are often perceived as conservative institutions, many temples have become refuges and meeting places throughout American history, where people could address economic, political, and social injustices. And for Ruiz, who was ordained as a Catholic priest, these parishes are much more than a destination where believers commute to feel closer to God. For Latinos, he explained in an interview with Univision News, they are also places where they can reaffirm their cultural and religious values, and channel the spirit of God to promote a greater sense of solidarity in their immigrant communities.

“If you do not find God out there,” he said referring to the immigrant communities in Sunset Park, “you will not find him in here. The spirit of God is present in your neighbors, when you live day to day in solidarity.” And this communal spirit, Ruiz upholds, is the essence, the soul, of both Latino immigrants and Occupy Wall Street. [Continue reading…]


Is Occupy Sandy outperforming the Red Cross in hurricane relief?

Slate reports: In Sunset Park, a predominantly Mexican and Chinese neighborhood in South Brooklyn, St. Jacobi’s Church was one of the go-to hubs for people who wanted to donate food, clothing, and warm blankets or volunteer help other New Yorkers who were still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. On Saturday, Ethan Murphy, one of the people heading the kitchen operation, estimated they would prepare and send out 10,000 meals to people in need. Thousands and thousands of pounds of clothes were being sorted, labeled, and distributed, and valuable supplies like heaters and generators were being loaded up in cars to be taken out to the Rockaways, Staten Island and other places in need. However, this well-oiled operation wasn’t organized by the Red Cross, New York Cares, or some other well-established volunteer group. This massive effort was the handiwork of none other than Occupy Wall Street—the effort is known as Occupy Sandy.

The scene at St. Jacobis on Saturday was friendly, orderly chaos. Unlike other shelters that had stopped collecting donations or were looking for volunteers with special skills such as medical training, Occupy Sandy was ready to take anyone willing to help. A wide range of people pitched in, including a few small children making peanut butter sandwiches, but most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s. A large basement rec room had become a hive of vegetable chopping and clothes bagging. They held orientations throughout the day for new volunteers. One of the orientation leaders, Ian Horst, who has been involved with a local group called Occupy Sunset Park for the past year, says he was “totally blown away by the response” and the sheer numbers of people who showed up and wanted to help. He estimated that he’d given an orientation to 200 people in the previous hour.

By midday, a line stretched all the way down the block of people who’d already attended orientation and were waiting for rides to be dispatched to volunteer. Kiley Edgley and Eric Schneider had been waiting about 20 minutes and were toward the front of the line. Like several people I spoke to, the fact that this effort was being organized by the occupy movement wasn’t a motivating factor—they found out about the opportunity to volunteer online and just wanted to help.


The 5 percent whose need is greatest

David Runciman writes: There is some competition to be the person who inspired the slogan of Occupy Wall Street: ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ Joseph Stiglitz thinks it might be him, on the back of an article he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2011 entitled: ‘Of the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent, for the 1 per cent.’ Others think it was the economist Emmanuel Saez, who helped popularise the idea that 99 per cent of American households have been watching their incomes stagnate or fall while the top 1 per cent pulled away. As Saez reported back in 2007, since the 1970s half of all income growth has been captured by just 1 per cent of the population, leaving everyone else to get by on what’s left. But Rolling Stone magazine identified the originator of ‘We are the 99 per cent’ as David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist, who first spotted its potential as an organising tool.[*] You can see why people might want to lay claim to ‘We are the 99 per cent’: it’s a brilliant slogan and an increasingly successful brand, doing its work on T-shirts and banners around the world. But it’s a half-baked idea.

The problem is that 99 per cent is far too many. Majorities on that scale sound overwhelming, but they always come apart on closer scrutiny. There is nothing on which so many people will ever be able to agree. You often find polling questions to which only 1 per cent of the sample are willing to give their assent – flailing candidates for office can easily plumb those depths – but it would be a big mistake to assume that the other 99 per cent are united on anything at all, even on their dislike of the unpopular candidate (many will never have heard of him). The only time the figure 99 per cent appears in polling data is when the poll is a fraudulent one. It’s a number I still associate with elections in the old Soviet bloc, or with the last remaining dictatorships. Kim Jong Un can get the backing of 99 per cent of his electorate. No one else can.

Occupy Wall Street is not trying to get 99 per cent of the population to vote for anyone or anything. The movement is simply highlighting an experience that the 99 per cent have in common, which is to have been stiffed by the current system. But this is another way in which 99 per cent is too many. Something must have gone very wrong with democracy when so many can be outwitted by so few. The implication of the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is that we have all been duped. If we had known what was going on we wouldn’t have let it happen. Now that we know about it we can stop it. But how? Any system in which 99 per cent of the population can be duped at the same time is not merely a defective democracy; it is no democracy at all. ‘We are the 99 per cent’ is intended as an accommodating idea, but really it’s a revolutionary one. It implies that we have been the victims of a giant confidence trick. You can’t work to improve a system like that, any more than you can work to improve a Ponzi scheme; you need to scrap it and start again. Some prominent figures associated with Occupy Wall Street are quite happy with this line of thought. Slavoj Žižek is unabashed about the movement’s revolutionary implications. He sees it as a harbinger of the coming transformation, ‘a message from the communist future’. But for all Žižek’s brilliance as a sloganeer, he would be hard-pressed to get many of the 99 per cent to agree with him on that. They don’t want to scrap the democracy we have. They just want it to work better.

So how were we duped? Mainly by not paying attention. The 1 per cent didn’t conspire to rip everyone else off. They got their way by walking through the door we left open for them. We were too distracted and disorganised among ourselves to put up enough resistance. What the 99 per cent have in common is that they don’t have enough in common to make a difference politically, compared to the very rich, who are a well-organised bunch. The 99 per cent are a lot more numerous than the 1 per cent; they are also a lot more divided, and it’s the second fact that counts. [Continue reading…]


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…]