Occupy Wall Street Failed, the 99% Lost. But Why?

Exactly ten years on from the anti-capitalist protests in New York and around the world, we look at the empty legacy of Occupy Wall Street.

Banner reads "Occupy Wall Street, Do It For Your Kids"

Ten years on from the major anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist protests in New York City and around the world, we look at the legacy of the movement.

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 17: A protester with ‘Occupy Wall Street’ holds up a sign during demonstrations on September 17, 2012 in New York City. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, which sparked international protests and sympathy for its critique of the global financial crisis, is commemorating the tenth anniversary of its earliest protest. The main protest began in front of the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Occupy Wall Street was a social activist protest that began on September 2011 as an occupation of Zucotti Park in the Wall Street financial district of New York. The movement ostensibly ended after police (under the instruction of Mayor Bloomberg) raided the park encampment on November 15, 2011. While the original event made headlines, expanding into a wider international ‘Occupy movement’, the moral sentiments of the protest have faded or been hijacked by subsequent groups, many with radically different goals. These groups kept the model of mass ‘social activism’ pioneered by Occupy, but less so anger for the corporate financial system it aimed to reform. So what happened? Let’s go back to the beginning. You’re going to have to be patient, but if you want to know about how the world works, you’ll want to read this.

The Occupy movement was the brainchild of Kalle Lasn of the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, who first published a demand for a protest in Lower Manhattan. The proposal was for a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest economic inequality, corporate and financial sector influence on democracy,  and the global wealth disparity. The protest’s slogan was: “We are the 99%”, in reference to the wealthiest 1% versus the rest of the population.


After their eventual expulsion from Zuccotti Park the Occupiers struggled to remain relevant, but attempts to occupy banks, corporate board meetings, and university campuses (with support from the ‘anonymous’ hacking group) gradually faded. The movement underwent a variety of criticisms and it seems despite their heyday as a media favourite and memorable impact (including 2011 Time Magazine listing ‘The Protester’ as Person of the Year) their efforts were ultimately a failure.  

And why was this?  

Some say they failed to enact change due to lack of clearly stated demands, or any apparent concept of how they might fix the system they were protesting. Things like ‘bank reform’ and ‘political lobby interests’ require sweeping system changes and serious reform to a foundational power structure. Such a proposal requires not only a deep understanding of what those structures represent, but also a mitigating power of their own, as there is certainly no interest in ‘change’ from the power-structure itself.

We could name the power structure as ‘Moneypower’, but really what is it? Understanding this requires a  willingness to navigate the real results of human-built systems (capitalism) with inhuman goals (infinite growth). When abstract creations become predictable you can study their habits like you would an animal, but to understand them you have to step outside your own hopes, because their goals are indifferent to human concerns: Moneypower values are all money values.

Attempts such as OWS to combat this system will be used by the system itself as a pressure release valve, to be subsumed and redirected and eventually discarded. Moneypower is both an abstract and real creature, a metaphor for ‘a system’, which might as well be considered as an entity. A savage beast, loose upon the world, draped in the machinations of the techno-edifice.

Attempts such as OWS to combat this system will be used by the system itself as a pressure release valve.

What also needs to be understood by ‘activists’ and ‘culture jammers’ is that America is a nation in decline. An empire has overstretched and become decadent, yet in its decadence it has a will to cling to life, stronger than ever in its desperation. America as a nation is demoralised, yet it is not in poverty, all its cures are the cures of wealth. They are superficial, easy, and fake. 

What was real of capitalism and corporatism in 2011 is only more true today. Wage disparity? How many fewer people today own their own home compared to ten years ago? Very few even have home ownership as a prospect, unless their parents are involved. The idea of having a career itself is beginning to fade. What people have now are contracts, more at their personal expense than ever, without real security or human attachments. Jobs are more scarce and competitive than ever, and if you are among those lucky few you will find yourself performing corporate tasks which circle in nonsensical loops. More dehumanising than ever.

The corporate mindset – that commercial commodification of life that Occupy was protesting – is now all pervasive, and all-encompassing. Global Moneypower conglomerates own everything, and seemingly control everything. All modern incarnations of protest have the outward trappings of the Occupy movement, but underneath this they are closer to their enemies in mindset. They do not truly oppose the banking system, the financial system, the lobbyists, or the corporations. Indeed they enjoy the support of these institutions. These protestors may pay lip service to an old-fashioned Occupy critique of capitalism, but the prevalence of corporate culture (which has only expanded in the ten years since Occupy) makes certain ways of thinking now socially impossible.

This is sensed in the culture of activist platitudes and buzzwords, even in the proliferation of a Silicon Valley ‘way of speaking’ (upspeak). A strictly anti-finance, anti-advertising (or predominantly environmental)  attitude like that of Adbusters is now very far down a list of common protest grievances. High finance, Wall Street, bankers, universities and political lobbyists now ironically enjoy a blackout on scorn from activist protesters. On Twitter, mega-wealthy corporations share protest memes, voice support for post-Occupy movements, and seem to (somewhat successfully) masquerade as as anti-establishment.

On Twitter, mega-wealthy corporations share protest memes, voice support for post-Occupy movements, and seem to (somewhat successfully) masquerade as as anti-establishment.

Adbusters themselves are largely forgotten now as the creators of a grassroots post-60s protest movement, and their other initiatives, such as Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week, have met with less popularity and media coverage. As a magazine their essential ethos remains: to combat the permeation of advertising into every aspect of culture, where commercialism ‘colonises’ public spaces by appearing incessantly in films, social media, schools, sports games, etc. And they are right. In many ways, advertising has now become the culture. So much so that counter-advertising protest itself can be categorised as another commodity option. Can you ‘resist’ commercialism by selling resistance as a magazine? 

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY – OCTOBER 18: Protesters, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States display a placard in front of the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) on October 18, 2011 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Around hundred protesters operate a camp outside the ECB to demonstrate against economic and financial policy. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 15: Protesters cheer as Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website speaks outside St Paul’s Cathedral during the ‘Occupy London’ protest on October 15, 2011 in London, England. Thousands of people are taking to the streets in cities across the world today in demonstrations inspired by the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests in the United States, against the global financial system. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Occupy Wallstreet knock-offs are now endlessly imitated in a rinse-and-repeat cycle of fashionable causes. None of which affect the system, as it’s likely these offspring are at least partially managed by the system. Thus, the energy of anti-consumerism is now owned by Moneypower. Social activism is itself now a kind of youthful product you can sell, like Glastonbury, to fulfill a need for self-importance. It is an option with which to express  your individuality, within an all-powerful technocracy which manages its own opposition, by permitting it and outlining it’s definitions and boundaries. 

“We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale” Arthur Jensen, Network – 1976

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