Occupy and Populists

The development of Neoliberalism in the U.S. and around the world during the 70’s, following increasing globalization, deregulation, and tax breaks, has led to the drastic income and wealth inequality gap we see today. The struggles of the Global justice movement, which protested against corporate globalization and for more equal distribution of economic resources, are direct responses to what many saw as a troubling development. The financial crisis in 2009 only worsened the symptoms, triggering one of the largest social movements in America, Occupy Wall Street.

Yet the origin, organization, and pursuits of Occupy goes far beyond the 70s. Economic inequalities along racial and gender lines have persisted in America since its inception, and social movements to reduce this gap often addressed, among other things, more equal access to economic resources and opportunities. Recognizing that Occupy was largely white and middle-class, many organizers made an effort to make the movement more inclusive, employing low-tech techniques to reach the poor and those without access to the Internet.

The 2016 election can, in part, be explained by the same sense of economic frustration that supporters of Occupy and GJM have felt. Although it may not be categorized as a social movement per se, the votes against the neoliberal establishment, as seen by the incredibly energetic supporters of Sanders and Trump, definitely constitute a raw political force on their own. The failure of institutions to address inequality has finally resulted in profound social and political change, albeit maybe not the one that movements like Occupy were hoping for.

The populist trend is a global one. Anti-establishment sentiments have been developing throughout European countries, with far-right political parties like the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany winning seats in recent elections. Unfortunately, the global social movements to combat inequality may have accidentally eroded people’s trusts in political institutions to such a degree that the general populace is now vulnerable to the words of demagogues and charismatic leaders. It is unclear to me how these inherently populist movements can shield itself from the downsides of mass social movements motivated by the frustration of its participants. Electing Trump, as far as we can tell, is not going to solve inequality.