One year has passed since protesters first began gathering at Zuccotti Park in New York City, the most famous site of what came to be known as the Occupy Wall Street movement. Though Occupy Wall Street represents the most well-known of the Occupy protests, the powerful language of the movement has appeared at Occupy gatherings in over 82 countries. Much like the protests that have occurred around the world in the past several tumultuous years, the Occupy movement has faced many difficult questions in the aftermath of its moment in the media spotlight. The bold scope, decentralized leadership and dissolution of the Occupy movement have spurred questions over its intentions, values, consequences and relevancy. Though it is hard to speculate about the varied effects of the Occupy movement, I would argue that the issues raised by the protests are some of the most important of our troubled time.
Despite claims of incoherency by those on the right, there are several issues that are clearly defining for the Occupy movement. Significantly, these issues revolve around the dangerously growing power and influence of the financial industry on governments and the world economy. The fallout of the crisis, when millions of hard-working Americans lost their jobs in large part because of the risky betting of powerful financiers, provided the spark for the protests. The fact that essentially none of these financiers have faced jail time for taking down the world economy with irresponsible behavior should be troublesome to all Americans. Even if it is true that no illegal action took place, shouldn’t that be a cause to rethink our legislation? Do we really want to live in a country where a powerful, wealthy elite dealing with a financial world that is beyond the comprehension of not only most normal Americans, but also of most lawmakers as well, can send the entire economy reeling for years?
Not only have these executives and financiers gotten away with the risky betting, but many of them are also doing very well despite the sufferings of most common Americans. This is due in large part to the massive bank bailouts built on the concept of the largest financial institutions being “too big to fail.” This frightening concept is central to why Occupy Wall Street is so important. The assumption that giant financial institutions are too important to the global economy to allow them to fail is at the heart of modern American corporatism. “Too big to fail” implies that the government will always be obligated to bail out the uber-influential, poorly regulated driving forces of global capitalism. Beyond that, it seems that the free, democratic governments of the world have made it one of their primary concerns that these behemoths run smoothly. The Occupy movement represents a legitimate frustration with the fact that in the face of the many problems exposed by the financial crisis, the government has doubled down on its commitment to the institutions that caused the meltdown in the first place.
In 2011, Time Magazine recognized “The Protester” as its Person of the Year. Around the world, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring to the Tea Party, people are taking to the streets in search of an alternative to the monolithic advance of the status quo. Since the fall of 20th-century communism, consumerist cultural capitalism has been the sole world power and has steadily plowed over any opposition. I would argue the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq represent just that. The financial crisis of 2008 exposed the dangerous inconsistencies of this ideology, and throughout the world, people have risen up in various forms to call for a meaningful discussion of these problems. It has become increasingly clear that the powers-that-be have no interest in dealing with these critiques in a constructive manner. Look no further than the petty distractions of the current presidential campaign for evidence of that. If the more recent violent protests in the Middle East are any indication, we have yet to see the end of global unrest.
Given the failure of global leadership, we the people have a responsibility to demand a vital discourse on the questions that will define our futures. If that means taking the discussion to the streets, so be it.
Jon Erik Haines ’14 email@example.com is from Golden Valley, Minn. He majors in English and philosophy.