On Jan. 6, the anniversary of a mob overrunning the U.S. Capital and rioting within its walls while our elected representatives huddled in fear for their lives, I spoke with Michael Levitin, author of Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy. Published 10 years after the brief flash of Occupy encampments throughout the country, his work reviews the legacy of what might be the most influential mass movement in the U.S. of the last 50 years. Wait, or was that the least influential? Let’s find out.
EBX: I feel like in your book there are a lot of reasons for optimism. Your optimism really comes through, yet in the Afterward it’s a little more sketchy.
Levitin: [Laughs] Yeah, ’cause we had an insurrection, right?
EBX: That we did. What are some of the lessons from Occupy that you would like to see really take hold, perhaps now as the national political system seems to be faltering?
Levitin: [There is a section in my book called,] “Courage is Contagious.” We all have the same impulse in us to do more than we’re doing right now, right? In activism, Occupy seemed to generate this wave of courage of, “wow I really can do that, I’m just as powerful an agent as my neighbor.” That was the brilliant wake-up that it gave.
Still, whatever form [collective action] takes there needs to be more clearly defined goals. It’s not about just protesting and getting angry and waving signs. It’s putting forward solutions and policies, like the Green New Deal, that can really move the needle.
The Sunrise Movement, working with AOC, put the Green New Deal on the national radar and [as a result] Bernie Sanders put it in the reconciliation package. So much of what they did is turning activism into concrete changes. It hasn’t happened because of whatever you want to say, a certain senator from West Virginia …
EBX: But that’s the meat of the thing, right here. Yes, those efforts have been inspired by Occupy. And I really dig what you said about feeling powerful in and around each other, and …
Levitin: But …
EBX: [Laughs] OK, but we don’t have time for things to work themselves out. The Green New Deal hasn’t passed. The way that the left assumes that over time, progressively, things get better, even if that is true, there’s no time. On the climate scale and maybe even on other, more near-term threats, we’re running out of time. It’s the anniversary of the insurrection right now. Today actually, yeah.
Levitin: Totally, today is the perfect day to talk about this. This is what it’s all about. I wrote the book optimistically, in the sense that it seemed more hopeful, but once  got underway [the Afterword to the] book takes more of a dark turn because things just didn’t work out. The year just got darker, and it’s dark now.
EBX: On those two major intellectual [laughing], I mean existential crises—and intellectual—we’re facing, which are 1) climate change, where we have this deadline which is like 10 years [according to the UN’s IPCC scientists] and 2) the risk to democracy right now which, I don’t know, is the deadline … is this year the deadline, is the election in November the deadline? And still there is no real move toward election reform.
Levitin: Right. Big one, man. I don’t know if “democracy,” even now, I don’t know how you mobilize a whole generation to, like, save democracy. I wonder if that’s the thing that’s going to galvanize young people. Frankly, I don’t think that they feel that democracy has given them much as it is, has done its job enough to be … the thing to get people out. I think climate is going to be the one that gets people, because the threat is truly existential.
[What was] so effective and important at the time of Occupy, was to come out and say, “the whole system is rotten,” because nobody had done it yet. And now we have done it and everybody knows it’s rotten. A decade later nobody doubts that our whole system is broken and that all of them at the top are complicit. We’re all informed about it. The language has sunk in. And everyone knows it.
EBX: I hear you, that the solution is in projects: new legislation, grassroots food banks, etc., or is it? Is the solution really, like, if we start behaving together in this radically equal way, which was the basis of Occupy, do we start to get things in order? Can we use this to build resilience in the difficult times ahead?
Levitin: Building on the whole participatory democratic [example], yeah I love that idea: local people organizing together like that, collective water, food, energy use, bargaining for solar pricing, public banks …
EBX … tool shares …
Levitin: Right, all of that. So, I don’t think anything is stopping people on that small scale. Like, that is where the future lies, right? Especially as things break down, and we do evolve from this kind of federal [model]. That seems to be the [direction]. Like, people aren’t having mandates from above anymore. We seem to be entering into a non-mandate era, [which is problematic, but] I love the idea of people at a community level making changes, when they can [navigate] the interpersonal part.
EBX: And you see how cities are leading on climate over the federal government.
Levitin: Right, cities absolutely are, because they can make decisions, small-scale.
EBX: There is a lot of talk in the press about how workers now have more power than they’ve had in years. How has the concept of the 99% informed the workers movement that’s going on right now?
Levitin: Gosh. The 99%, that was the genius concept of Occupy, the 99%. Even the haters, even the 1%, everybody gets it. That’s what changed the culture more than anything from Occupy. The paradox was that the Occupy didn’t have the 99% behind it in the streets when it was happening. It didn’t have the workers, it didn’t have Black and Brown folks. So I guess my big hope for the next participatory democratic rebellion would be that it really does bring in the 99%. Workers just haven’t been at the center of the conversation since the socialist and communist conversations of the 20s and ’30s. Basically that was the end of the whole idea of worker-controlled and worker-managed companies.
EBX: Yeah, that’s where the power is. That is the definition of “power,” people working together.
Levitin: Sure seems to be, absolutely. That’s behind the whole resignation economy. The consciousness that Occupy awoke, that we are not just automatons working for the 1%, we actually need to make demands and start to say this is what we need. To me, this whole worker-empowered era that we are going into, the new ’20s—and the pandemic obviously set it all off—it was to my mind Occupy that was instrumental in the resignation economy. Everyone’s saying, “Actually, you want me to get sick, you want me to work for lower fucking everything—wages, pensions, health care, benefits, cutting, cutting—maybe I just won’t, I think I’ll opt out.”
EBX: Become a journalist, for example [laughing]. But really, people are resigning for sure, but they are not just going and begging, people are doing things.
Levitin: I guess the question I would ask, tying us back to Occupy, is the 1% think they [Occupy] are like a bunch of people that need a handout, that these are going to be worthless drags on society. I would beg to differ. What about the interesting, enlightening, illuminating opportunities that open up in their lives to actually finally start to do what they actually want to do in their lives?
EBX: Look, you and I both wrote a book during this time, right? What, don’t you know other people that have launched new ventures during Covid?
Levitin: … launched a million projects, yeah!
EBX: There’s an explosion of creativity that people are sharing online. You’re seeing that, right?
Levitin: Sure. On the other hand, [people are] suiting up [to make] money just so you can live this freaking lifestyle here in the most expensive economy on Earth. Real estate prices, I don’t know. I feel both ways.
EBX: For sure, I would hate to deny the effort that people are putting in to take care of their families and get by. Still, there are those that are finding ways to use extra time that they used to commute …
Levitin: Yeah …
EBX: … or they’re not working. That time is going into stuff.
Levitin: Into stuff right? So what should it go into? Like, say that you are trying to organize great new things, aren’t there a bunch of new people that maybe weren’t even there 10 years ago because they were too locked in to come out and occupy?
I guess a big question is, what do you do with this huge growing demographic with more free time? Are they ready to engage? I don’t know. Are they ready to do something beyond themselves, like form something? I don’t know. I love the idea.
EBX: So much in our system is designed to prevent people from coming together. Like at San Francisco State, after all the student activism of the ’60s, the new student center was built so that you couldn’t gather. It’s designed that way. There is no way for any group to gather, small twists and turns and edges. They are called Malcolm X Plaza and Cesar Chavez Student Center, but you can’t gather, right?
There are all these artificial limits to collectivism intentionally built into education, economy, the workplace. And so, if this new generation are checking out and they are not going into debt for a home and they’re limiting their work where they can, you know, one person working half-time in the family and one person working full-time, these kinda new decisions which weren’t even options before. That should free up time to pursue their common interests, what is sometimes called “the general welfare.”
Levitin: You would think so. I would think that would be a great optimistic take on the ’20s. Maybe this is the decade, like, if the resignation is real, if it is sustained and people have had enough of capitalism as it was … maybe that is the thing that unites us in, like, a spiritual rebirth of our whole culture which has been desperately needed for so long.
We have just been mired in the pursuit of wealth and materials. Yeah, what if that’s what sets us off? This is going to be a crazy time ahead with climate and other dreads. It’s like there’s almost nothing to lose. It might be like a free-for-all, Burning Man kind of mentality for mainstream life. Maybe we’re all just here to make incredible, beautiful creations as a culture and do some crazy shit because, you know … we’re not turning shit around, but we can certainly dance while we’re in the dance.
“Generation Occupy: Reawakening American Democracy” by Michael Levitin, is available at Pegasus Books in Berkeley or online from independent bookstores.
Michael Giotis was a facilitator for Occupy Petaluma. He writes on culture in this time of monumental change.