Putting the Occupy movement in historical perspective

“The whole history of Mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes …”

– From the Communist Manifesto, 1848

These words resonate as powerfully now, in the Age of Technology, as they once did in the dawn of the capitalist epoch in Europe and America. As do the words of the socially-conservative American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who have not learned the lessons of history are bound to repeat them.”

Lately I have heard criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement – overall a positive movement – that the occupiers’ encampments foment crime, trash private property, create disorderly conduct and general “civil unrest.”

While some of these criticisms may be correct – as happens with any mass movement of peoples – they cast a shadow over a just cause. A look at history helps to put them in perspective.

As can be found in any American history textbook, patriots committed many injustices against “loyalist” families during the American Revolution.

And was not that revolution, as seen through the eyes of the British imperial masters, the epitome of “civil unrest?”

But the Occupy movement is civil unrest in the interest of constitutional rights – the right to assemble, to protest, to exercise free speech.

As to “civil unrest,” what about the civil unrest of bank foreclosures, families living in cars and left to forage for food in dumpsters following evictions?

What about the jobless, the blue and white collar workers, who have run out of unemployment benefits and find themselves lining up in charity dining rooms? (How reminiscent of the soup kitchens of the Great Depression!)

What about soldiers returning from the debacle in Afghanistan only to find themselves jobless and homeless as well? What about 31 million children in America living in poverty, 5.3 million children affected by foreclosures? Even the media has said, “Who would have believed these figures would characterize social conditions in 21st Century America?”

Indeed there is civil unrest! Workers cry out for justice, as workloads grow and wages stagnate while owners’ profits soar, as jobs are sent overseas.

What impact has this movement actually had on Wall Street? None.

The Bears and Bulls continue their ups and downs. Stock averages up, employment figures down. The so-called business cycle rolls along on the backs of the working class, the poor and disenfranchised, on the backs of African American and Latino communities. Some Republican presidential candidates have even suggested deporting 11 million Mexican immigrants they call “illegals,” as a solution to the country’s economic woes.

But the economic woes are precisely the reason for the outcry by the Occupy Wall Streeters. Yes, there is disruption. Lives have been disrupted in America: families forced from their homes, children traumatized by these circumstances. Yes, undesirables have infiltrated the protesters’ encampments, damage has been done to private property in some circumstances, but on the whole the Occupy Wall Street movement has been peaceful and respectful of others’ property. But this is the risk during mass movements.

Civil unrest has been here in our midst, as we see the Arab masses rising against dictator-governments in the Middle East, as the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators cry out, “We are the 99 percent” – the exploited, abused, disinherited, awaiting emancipation.

With them we all await the promise of American democracy, with liberty and justice for all, not just the privileged 1 percent!

“However much the state of things may have altered … the general principles laid down in the Manifesto are on the whole as correct today as ever.”

– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1872

Sotere Torregian is an American poet associated with the French surrealist poets. Coffee House Press will publish his 15th book, “On the Planet without Visa,” in August 2012. Torregian was assistant to Dr. St. Claire Drake, teaching with the program in Afro-American Studies at Stanford University, 1969-75. He is a lifelong peace activist and socialist.



Sotere Torregian
Sotere Torregian

Sotere Torregian is an American poet associated with French surrealist poets, former assistant to Dr. St. Clair Drake, Stanford University Afro-American Studies Program (1968-1975) and now occasional visiting lecturer, Third World Affairs, University of the Pacific, Stockton, Calif.