Today, Sept. 17, is the nominal anniversary of the Occupy Movement. Or maybe that should be the Occupy ‘Movement,’ with scare-quotes softening any suggestion that an actual social movement of any scope has arisen and persisted.
On this day in 2011, hundreds of protesters flowed into New York’s Zuccotti Park, a small private park just two blocks from Wall Street in the city’s financial district. Months of periodic,isolated mayhem ensued, with Occupy sit-ins and marches happening in cities all over the U.S. and to a lesser extent around the world. In theory, Occupy was a protest against economic inequality, a reaction not just to the gap between “the 1%” and “the 99%,” but to the widening of that gap in the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
In practice, Occupy became a rallying cry for complaints of all kinds. One Occupy rally I stumbled across here in Toronto featured speakers from a big trade union, members of which enjoy jobs that pay relatively well, and a representative of one of Canada’s aboriginal groups, whose complaints are legitimate but have little to do with having been left behind by capitalism. This dilution of the main Occupy message was unfortunate, since it virtually guaranteed that the movement would suffer additional criticism while at the same time raising the probability that such criticism would be used to avoid the real issue.
Two years later, it’s hard to see Occupy as having achieved much of anything, other than a lot of overtime for police and a few weeks’ fodder for the nightly news. Certainly its economic impact has been negligible. A year ago, on the 1-year anniversary, I suggested that the main lasting effect of Occupy was more cultural than economic, and that’s still true. Politicians now must now acknowledge income inequality in speeches, for example, but action has been scarce.
So inequality is now ‘on the table,’ but it’s not clear yet that putting it on the table means much in practice. I wrote two years ago that “Wall Street needs to be fixed, not occupied.” Even a die-hard capitalist has to admit that there are problems with the way Wall Street runs, but those problems won’t be fixed by sit-ins. They need to come from an understanding, on the part of Wall Street and its supporters, that there are changes that should be made because those changes stand to make capitalism work better. Any changes that can’t be made on that basis—changes, for example, that simply redistribute money—will have to be made through legislation, if and when there is the political will to do so.
Of course, Occupy doesn’t necessarily need to have brought lasting change in order to have been significant. It may be enough for that word to mark a moment in time. It reminds us that there was a day when people rose up in peaceful opposition to fight for an ideal. Even those who think the movement misguided should in principle be happy about its idealism.
But then, it’s much harder to inspire idealism about the painfully slow, methodical route to institutional change, even when the slow and methodical route is the more plausible one.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.