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Occupy the Future

How Do We Make Sense of All This?


Saturday, October 22, 2011

In July 2011, the publishers of Adbusters, a Canadian counter-cultural publication, emailed a proposal to its readers: On September 17, the 224th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, there should be a gathering called “Occupy Wall Street” to protest the negative effects of corporate power over the lives of individuals.

The idea attracted a bit of attention. On the appointed day, a group of people gathered in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street. They marched up Broadway, stopping at a small park in Manhattan’s financial district where 150 of them established a permanent protest camp that they named “Liberty Square.”

Harley Hahn

In a short time, the inchoate ideas of that small group caught the imagination of the world. Within 30 days, the “Occupy” movement had spread widely, throughout the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and parts of Asia, resulting in a large number of quickly planned, leaderless gatherings. On October 17, there were 1,500 permanent protest camps, with more than 100 in the United States alone.

How do we make sense out of all this?

What we are seeing is more than mere whimsy. After all, so much discontent, expressed in so many places by so many people at the same time can be birthed only by an exceptionally strong force, one that can effortlessly transcend cultural boundaries. But what is that force, and where will it lead us?

The spontaneous, worldwide movement is much more than a protest against “Wall Street” and “corporate greed.” We are, in fact, witnessing nothing less than a massive expression of human will, one that has the capacity to create enduring change on the scale of the cultural metamorphosis we saw from 1965 to 1975.

To see what I mean, let’s look back to 1967. For several years, the war in Vietnam had been escalating, while the military draft continued to conscript thousands of young men and send them to Southeast Asia to fight a war that made little sense to most of them. Then, unexpectedly, during the summer of 1967, tens of thousands of young hippies migrated to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, creating the “Summer of Love,” an amalgam of music, psychoactive drugs, free sex, and idealistic anti-materialism.

What happened next, however, was much more than sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll hooking up with anti-war protesters. The late 1960s was also a time in which two other social movements were in play: Civil Rights/Black Power and Women’s Liberation. Between 1965 and 1975, the influence of these four distinct forces — the hippie counterculture, the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights movement, and Women’s Liberation — spread around the world. The result was momentous and enduring, creating a huge cultural divide referred to as the “Generation Gap.” It was an epoch during which power shifted from one generation to the next.

It is my contention that a set of equally powerful and diverse forces are in play today. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are unhappy because they believe that powerful companies and wealthy individuals have been allowed to manipulate a complex system to their own advantage. As a result, goes the argument, the forces of unbridled greed have foisted economic hardship on much of the world, the “99 percent” of the population that depends on a fair, transparent economic system for their well-being.

As such, the protesters are unhappy about:

1. Lack of jobs

2. People losing their homes to foreclosures

3. Exorbitant salaries for corporate executives

4. Lower wages

5. Decreasing purchasing power

6. Loss of pensions

7. Unaffordable health care (in the U.S.)

A closer look reveals even more areas of discontent:

8. Lack of consumer protection from predatory companies

9. Impersonal computer-mediated systems controlling much of our lives

10. Credit card companies charging avaricious interest rates

11. Expensive U.S. college tuition, requiring huge student loans

12. Outsourcing that takes advantage of cheap labor in other countries, regardless of social and economic costs

To which I would add:

13. Large numbers of middle-class people addicted to prescription drugs

14. Large numbers of children with ADD and ADHD (as early as age 4)

15. Large numbers of people on antidepressants (23 percent of U.S. women between 40 and 59; 11 percent of all Americans over age 12)

16. Epidemic obesity and diabetes

17. Serious problems for military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan

I could go on and on, and I’m sure you have your own list. What is important is that these problems have converged to create an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, a sense that systems that affect much of our lives have been designed to favor big business and big government at the expense of the individual; to promote profit over happiness and security. Is it any wonder, then, that the resulting cultural discontinuities are sparking an economic revolution?

The 1960s and the 2000s have more in common than might be obvious. First, each time period suffered from myriad reasons for general discontent. Second, large numbers of young people were not integrated economically into mainstream society, breeding widespread disaffection and alienation. Among the poorest and least educated youth, such an economic climate creates a perpetual underclass, one that continually drains government resources, thereby diminishing the public good.

No matter how many middle-class baby boomers might choose to support the Occupy movement, the truth is, their time has passed. As always, significant, enduring cultural change will come, not from aging middle-class consumers, but from their children.

As much as the baby boomers might dislike losing the jobs, their security, and the stability they see as their unalienable birthright, it will be — as it was in the 1960s and 1970s — a cohort of disaffected and idealistic youth who will lead the cultural transformation toward economic fairness.

In February 1963, Betty Friedan sowed the seeds of the Women’s Liberation Movement when she published a book called The Feminine Mystique. In the introduction, Friedan described the widespread unhappiness of women as “the problem that has no name.”

Let us borrow Friedan’s apt expression and apply it to today’s embryonic social movement. Yes, it is true that the widespread discontent of so many people around the world may, as yet, have no name. However, the movement that is forming so quickly and so powerfully around this discontent does have a name.

It is nothing less than “Occupy the Future.”

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