Michael Kazin: How Occupy Wall Street Offers a Promising New Model for the Left

Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.

“This occupation is for you.” The protestor with a trim grey beard smiled a bit as reporters and tourists snapped pictures of the small, handmade sign he was holding at the entrance to Zuccotti Park. His simple slogan—and the month-long occupation that inspired demonstrations in over 900 cities last weekend—may represent the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the left. Or the whirlwind of activism could end up sharing the fate of other protest campaigns since the 1960s, from anti-apartheid to global justice, leaving its organizers wondering how they let so splendid an opportunity slip away.

The greybeard’s slogan, a variant of the ubiquitous chant “We are the 99 percent!” makes an audacious claim: We may be just a few hundred people willing to camp out on a concrete slab a few blocks from Wall Street. But we are angry about how the economic elite and their neoliberal system caused a global economic crisis, and we have discovered a way to turn that anger into studying up on and debating the possibilities as fast as we can. But we do know that the crisis has battered the jobs, wages, and benefits of million of people all over the world. And, until the global economy is restructured in the interests of the battered majority, the very rich and extremely irresponsible will continue to have their way with us.

This deeply moral and democratic message represents a leap beyond what most left-leaning activists, both in the U.S. and in Europe, have been saying since the 1960s. Gender equality, multiculturalism, opposition to military intervention, and global warming are all worthy causes. So was the sometimes disjointed attack on the World Bank and the IMF that briefly shut down Seattle in 1999. But each of these causes represented the passions of discrete groups whose opponents were able to belittle them as “special interests.” For all their virtues, each cause was either absorbed into the political culture (like feminism) or (like environmentalism and the movement against the invasion of Iraq) confronted powerful enemies able to wage a grossly unequal fight....

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