Views » January 3, 2020
The Decade That Put Capitalism On Trial
How the 2008 financial crisis kicked off a new age of dissent
This has been one of the astonishing motifs of this decade: wave after wave of new people engaging in social movements for the first time.
I can’t say I’m convinced this decade has really just ended, especially since it didn’t start Jan. 1, 2010. As far as I can tell, it actually began in 2007, with Wall Street’s historic financial crisis.
That calamity has defined the last 13 odd years—call them the long teens—and transformed American politics by showing the center, indeed, could not hold. In the immediate aftermath of the mortgage debacle, the Tea Party rose to prominence, foreshadowing the racist, rightwing populism that continues to gain ground at home with Trump and around the world. But over time, the U.S. Left learned its own lessons: that capitalism can fail and that the government can spend huge sums of money to intervene in the economy. These revelations, in turn, have shaped the emerging generation’s sense of what is possible, spurring a democratic socialist revival and opening space for teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg to credibly insist in 2019, “If we can save the banks we can save the world.” United behind the proposal for an economically and ecologically transformative Green New Deal, young people understand it isn’t some pie-in-the-sky fantasy but a pragmatic and urgent necessity.
Greta’s comments echo the now famous refrain, which I first heard on Sep. 17, 2011 when a few hundred of us gathered at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan for Occupy Wall Street: “The banks got bailed out; We got sold out.” As a result of the financial crash, around 7.8 million U.S. homes were foreclosed. Black households lost half their collective wealth. Back then I didn’t have a home or savings to lose, yet my personal finances were in meltdown nonetheless. Around the same time Lehman Brothers collapsed, I got a call telling me my student loans were in default. I remember trying to grasp the logic: “I don’t have money, so you are increasingly my principal by 19%?” My balance ballooned, as did my monthly payments, which meant I was even more broke than before.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as I became more deeply involved in Occupy, I found myself gravitating to work focused on the problem of debt. It made sense, since most people drawn to the encampments were in the red as a result of being forced to debt-finance basic goods such as housing, healthcare and education, often with disastrous results.
Soon enough, I was collaborating with people I met through the movement and devising new creative ways to organize to transform indebtedness into a source of power and leverage. We co-founded the Debt Collective, a union for debtors, and in 2015 we launched the country’s first student debt strike, eventually winning over $1 billion in loan relief and crucial changes to federal law. Early on our position was mocked by mainstream media, but through organizing and public education we have shifted public opinion, helping lay the groundwork for the decommodification of higher education. We never would have predicted that in 2020 two leading presidential candidates would make our twin demands of mass student debt cancellation and free public college central planks of their campaigns.
Occupy marked a decisive break with the aughts, a difficult decade for social movements. In the wake of 9/11, New York City protests were often massively overpoliced, making demonstrating a grim and dispiriting affair, with the protesters who did show up to an action typically quarantined in “free speech pens” or arrested after being trapped by the awful orange netting cops would use to catch demonstrators like fish. Fortunately, most of the young people who had answered the call to “Occupy Wall Street” were new to activism—their sense of possibility hadn’t been constrained by the previous decade’s crackdown on dissent. Emboldened by recent uprisings including the Arab Spring, the Spanish and Greek indignados, and the occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol, the people gathered in Zuccotti Park were determined to hold their ground for the night, and they succeeded.
This has been one of the astonishing motifs of this decade: wave after wave of new people engaging in social movements for the first time, be it Occupy, Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, the Women’s Marches, #MeToo, Indivisible, Democratic Socialists of America, Sunrise Movement, the Schools Strikes for Climate, and more. Since 2016, there has also been a remarkable insurgency of bold, unabashedly leftwing candidates for public office, many inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ progressivism. If you had told me in 2010 that socialists would be winning office from Houston, Texas, to Fulton, Georgia, and serving as judges, city councilors and Congresswomen, I never would have believed you.
If this decade has been anything, it has been a decade of crisis: the financial crisis, the post-Trump political crisis and the climate crisis. I spent much of this period writing a book and making a film about democracy and one thing I learned is that the word for crisis, like the word democracy, comes from the ancient Greek, krisis. It means the turning point in an illness—death or recovery, two stark alternatives. It’s fitting, then, that two divergent possibilities lay ahead: on one side, the path to a more egalitarian society, underpinned by a wholesale transformation of our economic and energy systems; on the other, a nostalgic, ethno-nationalist rightwing backlash combining plutocracy with other forms of minority rule. No one knows what the next decade will bring, but given the high stakes we have no choice but to pick a side and try to be part of the cure.
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Astra Taylor is the director of the film What Is Democracy? and the author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.
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