In the first interview in a series on the Occupy Wall Street movement, history professor Peter Kuznick talks about the beliefs behind the movement, its future, and related events in history.
What are the central issues of Occupy Wall Street, and why was the movement started?
The Occupy Wall Street movement is the cutting edge of a broader societal reaction to the enormous and growing gap between rich and poor in the United States, which is the result of what Chris Hedges termed “the corporate rape of America.” By 2007, the top one percent was receiving 25 percent of national income and owned 40 percent of American wealth. Twenty years earlier, those figures stood at 12 percent of income and 33 percent of wealth. The one percent’s income share was nine percent in the late 1970s. In 2007, the bottom 80 percent owned only 15 percent of all wealth. And if homes were excluded, in 2007, the top one percent of households owned 43 percent of all wealth while the bottom 80 percent owned only seven percent.
The problem goes beyond the distribution of income and wealth. A stunning measure of how deep the disparities have become was discussed in the October 2011 Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation report “Social Justice in the OECD—How Do the Member States Compare.” The report measured the 31 OECD nations on factors such as poverty prevention, poverty rates for children and senior citizens, income inequality, expenditures on pre-primary education, health care, and other key metrics. The U.S. 27th ranked out of the 31 OECD nations, only beating Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey. The U.S. came in 29th in overall poverty rate and 28th in child poverty and income inequality.
When you add to this the fact that the government bailed out the top Wall Street banks at the same time that homeowners were being hit with foreclosures, Wall Street was doling out huge bonuses, taxes for the wealthy were being cut, unemployment was rising, students were drowning in debt and facing miserable job prospects, and the U.S. was waging three wars and supporting an overseas empire of approximately 1,000 bases, you can see why Americans are angry. Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project calculated that the U.S. actually spends over $1.2 trillion out of its $3 trillion annual budget on “defense,” when all military- and security-related expenses are factored in. In fact, the U.S. spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Yet it can't find money to put the unemployed back to work, pay teachers, nurses, and firefighters, or rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure.
Who is taking part? Who is benefitting?
The activists seem to be a pretty diverse group. Students and young people are heavily represented. Many of my students have spent time at the DC encampment and have visited the other sites. The labor movement has been providing strong support. Many Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans are participating. And many of my colleagues at universities across the country have been involved. The important thing is that those who have been actively involved are only the tip of the iceberg. The message resonates deeply throughout society.
Do you think this is a lasting movement? Will anything come of it?
Photo by David Shankbone.
This is definitely a lasting movement. Whether participants continue to camp out or choose other methods of protest, the essence of the movement—its political and socioeconomic message—is here to stay. By focusing on economic and social injustice, movement activists have shined a spotlight on issues that have been ignored for too long a time. The country is going in the wrong direction and people are angry and frustrated.
Are there any past events in history that seem to mirror this movement?
The current movement is a mix of old and new. There have been marches of the poor and unemployed like Coxey's Army in 1894, the Bonus Army in 1932, and the Poor People's Campaign, which established Resurrection City on the Mall here in Washington in 1968. The IWW (the Wobblies) had some of the same spirit of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as did the early unemployed marches in the 1930s and the organizing of the Unemployed Leagues and Unemployed Councils.
But this kind of mass movement is something we haven't seen in this country since the early 1970s. The anti-nuclear movement exploded briefly in the 1980s and there was enormous opposition to invading Iraq in 2002 and 2003, but I would not say that any of them “mirror” this one. The current effort is part of a worldwide movement against the excesses of capitalism. It was inspired by the Arab Spring and the liberation movements in Latin America. We're seeing a global movement against injustice in its myriad manifestations.
I was moved by an article in the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago that said that the richest 300 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion. Whether that is really the richest 300 or richest 500 or richest 3,000, doesn’t matter. The fact that some people have so much wealth while others are hungry is obscene, and many people are mobilizing to change it.