Occupy the Shelf

The tents are gone, but here come the books

It has been a year and a half since the Occupy movement first emerged, adding the concepts of “the 99 percent” and “the one percent” to the public consciousness and getting large segments of the North American population talking and thinking about economic inequality for the first time in decades. Nor is Occupy dead. Since the eviction of the encampments, for example, Occupy Sandy has done commendable relief work in response to the super storm that rattled the Atlantic coast, and an Occupy offshoot called “Rolling Jubilee” is buying distressed debt from financial institutions for pennies on the dollar and then cancelling that debt.

Given that Occupy is in a period of permutation and experimentation, the release of a shelf’s worth of books on the movement is welcome. This list includes Judy Rebick’s Occupy This and Kalle Lasn’s Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics but also many others: The Occupy Handbook, a selection of writings edited by Janet Byrne that includes contributions from thinkers as diverse as David Graeber and Paul Krugman, Noam Chomsky’s Occupy, British Columbia–based Stephen Collis’s Dispatches from the Occupation: A History of Change, David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution and a collection of reflections called Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America that features writing from Slavoj Zizek and Angela Davis.

Judy Rebick has spent decades fighting for the issues with which Occupy is concerned. She is well known across Canada as an activist and a journalist. She has taught at Ryerson University and McGill University and had a long-standing relationship with the CBC in which she has co-hosted one show and hosted another. Although Rebick is often dismissed by commentators for being too radical, she has always kept one foot in the mainstream through her three years as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women or her decades of work in both the federal and Ontario NDP. Even the National Post once published a column of hers.

Her latest book, Occupy This!, is well worth reading for its exploration of Occupy’s origins in other social movements such as those championing feminism and African American civil rights, environmental sustainability and alternative models of globalization. Yet Rebick is also a gifted storyteller and her flair for the literary and ability to personalize Occupy through accounts of the people involved make this book compulsory reading for anyone seeking an understanding of the movement. For example, she tells the story of Malik Rhasaan, a middle-aged African American construction worker. Malik had never been involved in politics but his daughter joined the army and he felt compelled to visit Zuccotti Park, the site of Occupy Wall Street. “My daughter is risking her life so she can get a job. That’s so wrong. I have to do something,” he thought, and he came to find that participating in Occupy changed him: “There weren’t many brothers and sisters here the first week when I came, but I felt welcomed … I didn’t feel any barriers to my participation at all … I found my voice here [at Zuccotti Park].” After that experience, Malik founded Occupy the Hood, which Rebick describes as “a subset of OWS that organizes people of colour in their neighbourhoods with methods learned from OWS.” Rebick describes a debate between Malik and an older African American man who opposes making alliances with white people, in which Malik says, “Don’t tell these brothers not to hope that this can work. This can work. It has to work. We need it to work.”

There is also Stefonknee Wolscht, a 48-year-old transgendered woman who, prior to taking part in Occupy Toronto, had lost her job and her family and been hospitalized for being suicidal. Upon joining the movement, Wolscht was able to sleep for the first time in two years. Rebick describes her as “a key figure at Occupy Toronto.” Wolscht says:

Of course not everyone at Occupy accepted me as a trans woman, but for the first time in my life I didn’t have to defend myself. People defended me. I would hear something that was negative and hear people explain in the background, “She’s transgendered, and she’s a woman.” Whatever happened in the park created a bond of love that we can now take beyond the park and into the city.

It is through stories like Malik’s and Stefonknee’s that Rebick most forcefully evokes Occupy’s importance. She demonstrates that the movement has empowered people who have been de-politicized for most of their lives by giving them a sense that political and economic systems need not function to exploit large swathes of the population and that these institutions can indeed be reshaped or perhaps even replaced by the coming together of the very people they have excluded. Occupy encampments may have been uprooted but Rebick’s stories make clear that the shift in the consciousness of many participants has been monumental and in so doing she leaves readers with the sense that Occupy’s impact may well be widespread and ­long-lasting.

Meme Wars is the latest book from Kalle Lasn, co-founder of Adbusters, the magazine that famously put out the initial call to set up camp on Wall Street. Although this is very much a book about Occupy, the writings collected in Meme Wars are primarily analyses of the currents driving the movement rather than overt discussions of the encampments themselves. Meme Wars is essentially an extra large issue of Adbusters. It has page after page of the agitprop art for which the publication is known. Meme Wars’ aesthetic tells us the very predictable. Suburbs are boring. Fast food establishments are something less than the pinnacle of artistic and ethical achievement. Evidently the Adbusters crowd also finds impoverished people of colour to be pleasing art objects. For example, a two-page spread has a caption that asks “Who grows up happier … the suburban kids in North America or the kids in the slums of Dhaka?” This phrase appears above two images that combine to bludgeon us with the answer: one photo is of a sterile-looking suburban home and the other is of smiling, shirtless Bengali children playing soccer in front of a shanty.

Yet the essays in Meme Wars are engrossing, exciting even. This book compels us to rethink our approaches to economics by offering critique after critique of the way the subject is written about and taught, indeed of the very conceptual categories we use when we debate about how goods are produced and distributed, services provided and resources extracted. By turns wonky and visionary, Meme Wars is the sort of book where on one page Steve Keen explains that “nominal magnitudes matter—precisely because they are the link between the value of current output and the financing of accumulated debt” and on another Julie Matthaei draws our attention to the idea of a “solidarity economy,” questions “why anyone ever believed that a solely profit-motivated corporation … would be able to do right by its … workers, suppliers, government and the environment,” and reminds us of the need to “repudiate … the prevailing economic religion of the market.” Meme Wars brings together a group of accomplished writers, most of them academics, who approach the world’s economic, environmental and social problems in ways one seldom finds in mainstream journalism or economics departments and from which readers outside of Adbusters’ usual constituency will benefit if they pay attention.

In developing its own print culture, one thing Occupy and its supporters have created is a corrective to mainstream media coverage of the movement that, on the whole, ran from hostile to lazy. The tenor of this is captured by, for example, a November 2011 Maclean’s cover story in which Andrew Coyne springs to the defence of the über-rich. Coyne argues that wealth in Canada is already subject to substantial redistribution and he demands to know “on what principle” Occupy activists dare to suggest that more of the wealth of Canada’s richest one percent be redistributed. In The Globe and Mail, similarly, Gwyn Morgan describes Occupy encampments as “hangouts for the dysfunctional dregs of society, pretending to be there for some noble cause.” He claims that “the vast majority of Canadians started near the bottom of the so-called 99 per cent. But rather than protesting to take away from those who had more, they found a way to get a useful education, started out working in low-paying jobs, gained experience and gradually moved up the income chain over several decades.” Leaving aside that it is a mathematical impossibility for the “vast majority” to be near the bottom of the 99 percent, Rebick’s book offers ample counterpoints to the arguments Coyne and Morgan put forth. She directs readers, for example, to a December 2011 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that criticized Canadian tax policies for causing greater inequality as the “top marginal tax rate dropped from 43 percent in 1981 to 29 percent in 2010.”

Both Coyne and Morgan write that Americans in the Occupy movement have some reason to be upset about inequality but Canadians do not. Again, Rebick refutes such claims by citing a 2011 Conference Board of Canada article that shows that inequality is growing at a faster rate in Canada than in the United States and by quoting economist Armine Yalnizyan who just before the birth of Occupy wrote in the National Post that

economic growth used to be touted as the surest ticket to broad-based prosperity. But during the strongest period of economic growth in the past 30 years, between 1997 and 2007, a third of all income gains went to the richest 1% of Canadian tax filers. Think that’s normal? In the 1960s, the most recent comparable period of sustained growth, the richest 1% took only 8% of the gains from growth.

And while Coyne and Morgan fail to address the ecological concerns that participants in the Occupy movement voiced, this issue is central in Occupy This! and Meme Wars. For example, in Meme Wars Joseph Stiglitz calls for “a global compact, a social compact, that we all have to have a lifestyle that treats the planet with the respect it needs” and Lourdes Benería argues that “what the ecological crisis means is that economists have to start almost at zero in terms of rethinking the discipline.”

Coyne also informs us that “what concerns a single mother on welfare isn’t that she can’t afford a yacht. It’s that she can’t send her kids on school field trips, or buy them a basketball.” Except for when he is assuring us that the “single mother on welfare” supports his defence of millionaires’ and billionaires’ right to own yachts, Coyne has no interest in the question of who endures the most dramatic forms of inequality and neither does Morgan. On this matter the books by Lasn and Rebick again have a salutary effect. Rebick notes, for instance, rising debt levels for Canadian students and “the third world levels of poverty among Indigenous peoples living in Canada under a colonial Indian Act [that] continues under government after government.”

Writers in Meme Wars make similar points about mainstream economic analysis in general. George Akerlof notes that conventional approaches to microeconomics overlook the question of why minorities tend to have high levels of poverty, while Benería criticizes neoclassical economists for being “androcentric or male-biased.” Her point is that they use the household as an economic model but without considering that “within a household, men and women can be very unequal subjects … Men have often had better educational opportunities—they may own land, they may control the money, they typically have more power.” Accordingly, “policies based on these models can underestimate how they affect men and women differently.” That inequality hits women and people of colour especially hard evidently does not merit the consideration of Coyne or Morgan, but Akerlof, Benería and Rebick all make this very important point.

But based on the readings in these books, perhaps it is fair to say that the most important function of Occupy’s books is that they confer intellectual authority on a movement that critics have disparaged for its alleged lack of theoretical rigour. With so many accomplished intellectuals writing in defence of Occupy, commonplace claims that the movement’s ideas are simplistic or non-existent are rendered untenable. Those who dismiss or oppose the movement will now have to do more than suggest that Occupy consists of an unwashed, dangerous lumpenproletariat who are supposedly incapable of having political insights. No longer can Coyne ridicule Occupy for its “cartoonish understanding of the world” unless he is willing to engage with Herman Daly’s argument that to avoid ecological catastrophe it is necessary to develop a “steady state economy” that would “permit qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.” No more can Morgan condescendingly assert that Occupiers need a history lesson without taking on Steve Keen’s exploration of how neoclassical economists’ “equilibrium vision of the functioning of finance markets led to the development of the very financial products that are now threatening the continued existence of capitalism itself.” By its very existence, Occupy’s print culture disproves the accusation that this is a movement without intellectual weight: reflections on and analyses of Occupy are right there in print, thousands of pages of them. It follows that debate surrounding the movement has to be over which ideas are most persuasive rather than over whether these ideas exist. That ultimately may be the most important consequence of the production and hopefully wide circulation of the Occupy books.

Yet the strength of the Occupy books also points to their weakness. In them we hear a great deal from professors, writers and even Nobel Prize winners, but very little from those Occupy participants who are not professional intellectuals. Commentary for, by and on the movement of the 99 percent will be more useful if it comes to include the voices of all of its constituents more equally. As important as it is to have analysis from Rebick and from the ­credential-heavy writers in Meme Wars, Occupy’s print culture will have still more resonance if writing by people like Malik and Stefonknee, if the so-called “dysfunctional dregs of society” come to occupy books.