The Decade That Put Capitalism On Trial

How the 2008 financial crisis kicked off a new age of dissent

Astra Taylor January 3, 2020

Activists gather in downtown Manhattan for the 7th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, Sep. 17, 2018. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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.

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.

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 911, 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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