The year 2021 marked the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. In the impressive outpouring of reflections on the movement, one found much talk of birth and beginnings. Occupy was regularly portrayed as a social movement renaissance that brought issues of class and inequality back into mainstream discourse.1 Lines were traced to Black Lives Matter, the Debt Collective, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Sunrise Movement, though in a manner more akin to montage than history. In the brewing activist mélange of the last decade, for many tenth anniversary commentators, Occupy lay at the origin.
Though it was undeniably an important event for the contemporary Left, the idea that Occupy inaugurated or birthed much of what followed it strikes us as incorrect, but in ways that are politically instructive. In this essay, we take up one component of what we will call the “Occupy origin story” — that which traces the Bernie Sanders moment to Occupy — and argue that it is unconvincing in its two broad assertions: that Occupy, in some meaningful way, made possible the success of Sanders’s campaigns; and that the involvement of many Occupy activists in those campaigns was a natural result of their political maturation.2
Our basic argument is this: the lurch to the left in American political consciousness followed from the 2008 economic crisis, to which Occupy was an insufficient response that quickly flamed out. In this, it constituted not a beginning but an end — of decades of nonstrategic activist-ism, of self-defeating horizontalism, and of protest without politics.3 Only with Sanders’s admittedly quixotic primary bid in 2015 did a majoritarian and politically strategic left current emerge, one that absorbed people activated by Occupy as well as many others who had been either hostile or indifferent to it in 2011. Occupy-inspired activists were thus not the origin of the Sanders moment but rather merely one group (albeit a particularly vocal and influential one) swept up in the first left awakening to mass politics in at least a generation, and it was this experience that transformed many of them from liberal anarchists to liberal socialists.
We then attempt to make sense of why this myth has taken such hold in left circles, and how it obscures significant political divisions that persist today. In brief, the Occupy origin story is a legitimating narrative for a certain activist set that has become influential in the left-liberal nonprofit and media worlds. In addition to being unconvincing, it performs, like all myths, an obfuscating function — in this case, covering over the ideological division responsible for much conflict within the Left during the past several years. We believe that reckoning with this division honestly, rather than trying to obscure it with a narrative of political continuity, is necessary to carry forward the gains of the current left revival into a true movement toward democratic socialism.