Ten Years On, We Are Still the 99%

Occupy Wall Street Movement
Credit: David Shankbone (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Sept. 17, 2011, several hundred activists gathered in Downtown Manhattan and took over the Zuccotti park near Wall Street where they staged their protest against the growing economic disparity in the background of the Wall Street crash of 2008. The movement came to be widely known as the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protesters mainly comprised young people, students, urban middle class, union leaders, the working poor, the underemployed and the unemployed. What brought them together to Occupy Wall Street was their rage against and distrust towards a system of stark inequalities and the erosion of social mobility that it brought. Ravaged by the economic recession, they denounced the state system that worked in collaboration with corporates and other bankers, speculators and traders, responsible for the economic recession, who largely escaped the consequences unscathed while the brunt was felt by the working class. The movement which started from a student protest against tuition hikes, budget cuts and staff cutbacks in 2009 spread all over the world with protests in as many as 900 cities across 82 countries.

The Idea of It All

Contrary to reality, in the early days of the movement, it was much publicized that the Occupy movement had no well defined demands. This was due to the biased perceptions of the media and other stakeholders to defame the movement and rob it of any credibility, which was later seen in the part played by lobbyists vying for a $850,000 contract to run a smear campaign against the occupiers. The Occupy movement had very clear demands right from the beginning. Set in the background of the great economic collapse of 2008, the people were filled with rage as the Obama administration failed to punish the ones responsible for the collapse but rather bailed them out at the expense of the common people. Occupy denounced the involvement of money in politics, directly attacking the corrupt members of the Congress. They wanted more and better jobs, equitable distribution of wealth, less profit for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services. They also wanted to reduce the influence the corporations wield in politics, they wanted a more populist set of government priorities such as bailing the student debtors rather than the banks. The echoes of “We are the 99%” were heard in every corner of the world, ranging from the United States to Japan.

On the Verge of Another Occupy

In the past two or so years, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread at an alarming rate, leading to a huge loss of life while also bringing almost all economic activity to a standstill all over the world. The World Bank estimated a global GDP contraction of 5.2% in 2020 while the advanced economies were projected to shrink at 7% and the developing economies at 2.5%. This has led the world into a global recession, where the per capita income has seen a stark decline. According to an Oxfam report, as of January 2021, the number of people living in poverty has doubled to more than 500 million.

The pandemic has adversely affected sectors such as hospitality, travel and tourism, and boosted others like pharmaceuticals, digital platforms, and networking technology. It is therefore not surprising that many rich people have actually emerged from the crisis better than they were before, while the poor have been burdened with the brunt of this impact. According to a study by the Institute of Policy Studies, US billionaires have seen their wealth rise by 62% which amounts to a whopping $1.8 trillion. This statistic is ever so more appalling when put in the context of the difficult conditions the working class had to face in the times of the pandemic. Thus, in the face of this stark inequality, it would be wrong to say that the pandemic has affected the rich and poor alike. Given the circumstances the working class finds itself at this point in time, another Occupy isn’t an absurd demand.

The Occupy movement is more relevant than ever before. The ravages felt around the world by the working class people during these testing times have severely affected any kind of support for the current system. A system where the government, elected by the people, works not for them but for only a few billionaires. A system where any and every sort of struggle by the people is invalidated by the vulture media which only works at the behest of the ruling dispensation. A system where a measly sum as a stimulus check is frowned upon while billions and billions of dollars in government subsidies are handed to the richest people without a second thought. A system where millions of people lose their jobs and have to live a life in abject poverty, while a stark rise is seen in the wealth of the top 1%. A system where the rich keep getting richer while the poor get poorer and the ones barely making ends meet slip into worsening conditions.

The point is that the working class is still the 99%, holding a small share of the total global wealth. The inequality is so visible and so, dare I say, shameless that while a billionaire goes on a trip to space, the workers in his factories fail to make ends meet. The world in its current state, does not need new billionaires or new politicians giving the same old policies a new twist. What we need in these dire times are new movements, new solidarities, new policies and a new system. Though a lot has changed in the past decades, one thing remains the same, the 99% are, sadly, still the 99%.

Gagan Hitkari is a postgraduate student of Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India.