Occupy Protests’ Seismic Effect

This past weekend, in 900 cities across the world, tens of thousands demonstrated against unregulated capitalism. Something fascinating is growing, and by the time it ends, I suspect, politics will be different in the United States and a lot of other places as well.

In a great many countries, especially in the West, the political grass is dry. Huge numbers of young people are unemployed, governments are launching harsh and unpopular austerity programs, and the financial elites responsible for the global economic meltdown have almost entirely escaped justice. Millions of articulate, educated, tech-savvy people are enraged and desperate. And they have time on their hands.

To understand this movement’s potential, it’s worth comparing it with the other spasms of global leftist activism in the past half-century. The last time we saw anything on this scale was the late 1960s, when anti-government protests broke out from Berkeley to Paris to Mexico City to Prague. What spurred those protests was the war in Vietnam, the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the way in which both superpowers—in very different ways—used the cold war to enforce conformity and repress dissent.

The protests of the late 1960s helped end the Vietnam War and usher in the era of reduced superpower tension known as détente. But especially in the United States, they failed to push politics to the left.

One reason is that the existence of a powerful, global, communist adversary made it difficult for New Left activists to criticize American foreign policy and American capitalism without being branded communists themselves. A second reason is that the protests of the late 1960s coincided with massive cultural upheavals: revolutions in the relationship between whites and blacks, men and women, gays and straights, young and old, and a rising sense of disorder in America’s families and streets. The protesters of the late 1960s became a symbol of this disorder and thus became culturally threatening in a way that transcended their actual political demands.

Finally, the protests of the late 1960s came after several decades in which government had grown bigger. While leftist demonstrators were denouncing American capitalism, many ordinary Americans were starting to chafe against taxes and regulations that had been growing since the New Deal. Although few realized it until Ronald Reagan’s election, the relationship between government and the economy in the late 1960s and 1970s was actually more conducive to right-wing than left-wing change.

The anti-cold war protests of the 1960s resurfaced in the early 1980s, when left-wing Europeans protested American missile deployments and left-wing Americans took to the streets in support of a nuclear freeze.

But the first left-wing protest movement of the post-cold war era was the anti-globalization movement, which in the 1990s began besieging meetings of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization. Those protests are a lot like today’s: a transnational, non-communist rebellion against the social and environmental effects of unregulated capitalism. But the 1990s were a period of relative prosperity in the West, which helps explain why much of the protesters’ anger was focused on globalization’s impact in the developing world. Today, by contrast, the protesters in America and Europe are primarily focused on what unregulated capitalism has done to their own societies—societies where there is much greater anger and pain than there was 15 years ago. Therein lies the movement’s greater potential to create political change.

The final, and most important, precursor to what is happening today is the movement that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Starting with Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004, a younger generation of web-savvy liberals congregating around websites such as DailyKos and groups like MoveOn, began using their fury against the Iraq War to create a leftist activist movement inside the Democratic Party. What distinguished these “netroots” activists from the anti-globalization activists was their willingness to work inside a major political party. That pragmatism (which stemmed partly from the memory of Ralph Nader’s 2000 independent presidential campaign, which had helped elect George W. Bush), was a source of the movement’s strength. And it was in the Dean campaign that many younger activists learned the organizational skills that helped power Barack Obama’s campaign in 2000.

But in retrospect, the netroots movement’s focus on candidates as a vehicle for change left it unprepared for the aftermath of Obama’s election, when Obama failed to articulate a story about why the financial meltdown had occurred—and why America’s regulatory system and welfare state needed to be rebuilt—that could compete with the Tea Party’s narrative of a government grown so large that it was stifling both economic growth and personal liberty.

Today’s Wall Street protests represent the left’s decoupling from Obama and the Democratic Party, something that the global nature of the movement will only reinforce. That doesn’t mean the movement has a clear critique of unregulated capitalism yet, let alone a concrete agenda for reform, but it means that the left finally is forcing those questions onto the public agenda. By confronting Wall Street, it is creating the populist energy that Obama himself has not.

What we are witnessing in Zuccotti Park actually represents an improvement over the Obama campaign. That campaign was largely about faith in one man. The Occupy Wall Street movement, by contrast, represents a direct reckoning with the most powerful forces in American life, forces that are not voted in and out of office every two or four years. And it represents a belief that young Americans must force that reckoning by themselves. No politician will do it for them. Those instincts are exactly right, and we’ve never needed them more.