Two years after a small group of scrappy protesters occupied Zuccotti Park, the impact of Occupy Wall Street is hard to pin down. Some of it lies in the coining of "the 1%," and in subtler shifts in conversations around corruption, poverty, and populist discontent. New York City’s democratic mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio—likely successor of the mayor who ejected the occupiers—said on Monday: "Occupy Wall Street pulled the growing crisis of income inequality out into the light of day."
But a large part of Occupy’s legacy is in the activists themselves, and formal offshoots as varied as the humanitarians of Occupy Sandy, the Volcker-Rule-commentators of Occupy the SEC and Strike Debt, a movement to cast off student loans (among others). Members of one working group, Occupy Finance, were back in Zuccotti Park on the OWS anniversary with what Cathy O’Neil called, in a prepared speech, a "birthday present" for the movement: a 98-page primer on the financial system and how to fix it.
The book starts on a pessimistic note—"There has been no reckoning. There have been no apologies. …There has only been great suffering and the loss of homes, jobs, and confidence in a better future"—but it ends in optimism. Natasha Blakely, who Tuesday morning was putting the pamphlet in anyone at Zuccotti Park with a free hand, put together perhaps the most optimistic, on "Resources: Thinking Outside the Corporations." "I’m that kind of person," she told me, raising her voice to be heard over a circle singing "This Little Light of Mine." "I see what some people say is ‘the sunny side of a turd.’"
The sunny side she sees isn’t reforming the existing financial system: it’s a building a new one from the ground up. Here are the suggestions:
One of the beneficiaries of the "Move your Money" movement. "Credit unions generally have missions to serve their local communities. This means that the money deposited by members often (but not always) stays local."
Who needs banks when you can get a loan online? Start-ups Prosper, Lending Club, Lending Tree, Zopa, and LoanBack all get a call-out. With caveats about its semi-unregulated nature, Occupy Finance notes "peer-to-peer lending is filling a vacuum left behind by the banks, at least for now."
Or ROSCAs. More common in the developing world, it’s basically a pool of money that a group maintains with monthly contributions, and doles out in a lump sum to a different member at regular intervals. "Of course, any system like this can be set up and can work well in good times. It’s the question of what happens during financial crises or other hard times that tests such a system."
The model here is the Bank of North Dakota: the only state-run bank in the nation. There have been simmering attempts to start one elsewhere. It may seem like a reach, but it’s been a top priority of Oregon’s Working Family Party, which recently passed a bill towards the seemingly pie-in-the-sky idea of tuition-free college.
The principle here seems to boil down to mobile banking. "Considering how developed a system it is in some countries, it’s surprising indeed that no such system has been introduced in the United States." Then again, the two functional businesses she points to—Square and WePay—aren’t exactly bucking the financial system, since they essentially process credit card payments. The other, Mobino, is an experiment currently active only in Europe.
These last three suggestions are less ideas to reform the financial system than to reform all kinds of businesses by altering who owns them and their mission. Worker cooperatives are worker-owned; land-trusts are inhabitant-owned; and "social enterprises" are basically businesses that care.
It’s a somewhat mushy ending for a book that started—like the Occupy Wall Street itself—with a concrete outrage. But at least it’s optimistic.
"Though we recognize that fundamental reform will, of necessity, take years, we know it is imperative to start now. The financial system will only change if we change it. If not us, who? If not now, when?"
And then, a call to join their weekly meeting and their mailing list.
[Image: Daryl Lang via Shutterstock]