Occupy Wall Street Heralds a Global Counterculture

occupy wall street

Photo by Ross Wolfe

Occupy Wall Street at Liberty Plaza

I spent about an hour in Liberty Plaza the other day sitting, walking around, and talking to people before the event I had come for—a Grade-In organized by teacher activists—finally began, and was stunned by how different the occupation was from any demonstration I had attended recently.

First of all, in contrast to the last two protests I participated in—a Wisconsin Solidarity rally at City Hall and the Save Our Schools March on Washington—I saw few people my own age and no one I recognized, at least until the Grade-In started.  When I arrived, at 11:00 am, most of the people in Liberty Plaza were the ones who had slept there overnight, and the vast majority were in their 20s and 30s.  They were drumming, sweeping the sidewalk, talking to curious visitors—who were still few in number—eating or chilling with one another.  Their relaxed demeanor blew me away given the tumultuous events of the day before, when more than 700 protesters had been arrested by the NYPD after marching onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

They were also, to my surprise, thoroughly international.  Many of the people I met at the information desk, or who spontaneously started conversations with me, had accents which indicated they had come from countries outside the United States.  I felt like I was in Berlin or Barcelona, where you could always count on meeting young people from all over the world at any music performance or cultural event, only this was a political action in the heart of New York’s financial district.  I felt like I was in the midst of the global youth community that I had seen emerging during my travels and teaching, but I had not expected to see at this particular protest.  It definitely made the discipline, determination and camaraderie of the protesters that much more impressive.

But as much as the age cohort and global character of the occupation seemed strange, it also seemed oddly familiar, though it took a while for that familiarity to sink in.  The longer I stayed at Liberty Plaza, the more it felt like the countercultural communities of the 1960s, where discontent with war and a corrupt social system had bred a communal spirit marked by incredible generosity and openness to strangers.

I had feared those days would never return—erased by decades of consumerism, materialism and cheap electronic devices—but when I visited Liberty Plaza, I realized that the global economic crisis had recreated something which I often thought of as an artifact of my own nostalgia.  Because right here in New York were hundreds of representatives of a whole generation of educated young people around the world, numbering tens if not hundreds of millions, who might never land in the secure professional jobs they had been promised or experience the cornucopia of material goods that came with them.

Described as a “lost generation” by economists, a critical mass of these young people, in cities throughout Europe and Latin America—and now right here in the United States—had decided to build community in the midst of scarcity, challenge consumerism and the profit motive, and call out the powerful financial interests whose speculation and greed had helped put them in the economic predicament they were in.

Serious questions remain about the long-term significance of this global movement.  Can these middle-class (or ex-middle-class) protesters connect with the even larger group of people in their own countries—workers, immigrants, minorities—who had been living in poverty well before the current crash?  Will their communities survive even a modest revival of the world economy, sending them back into a lifestyle of acquisitive individualism which the global consumer market depends on to yield profits?  Can the protesters connect with the people in poor or working-class neighborhoods who were already practicing communalism and mutual aid to create a truly multiracial, multiclass movement?

The jury is still out.  But there are some promising signs.  The chants of “We are all Troy Davis” during several of the movement’s marches.  The increasing participation of labor unions in the protest.  The involvement of more and more activists from the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods in support for the occupation.

Mark NaisonAnd those who lived through the 60s should remember this.  Oppositional cultures of all kinds—ranging from hippie communities to the black arts movement—represented the soil in which political protest flourished during those heady years.

And the same is true in this era.  The emergence of a global youth counterculture should be seen as a powerful complement to, if not an actual component of, a global movement for freedom, democracy, and economic justice.

Mark Naison
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002.
Republished with permission from History News Network.


  1. says

    One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *