Ever since I wrote a book about Occupy Wall Street, I’ve often found myself on the receiving end of people asking, “What happened to Occupy, anyway?” Now, more than two years since the movement faded from the headlines, and in the wake of French economist Thomas Piketty’s bestselling diagnosis of economic inequality, the urgency of these questions is mounting, not diminishing. The answer is also becoming clearer: the networks of activists that formed in the midst of 2011’s worldwide wave of protest are developing into efforts to create durable economic and political experiments. Rather than focusing on opposing an unjust system, they’re testing ways to replace it with something new.
The 2011 movements were always prefigurative in some respects. From Tahrir Square in Cairo to Zuccotti Park in New York, protesters eschewed formal leadership in order to practice direct democracy, a means of revealing just how false our societies’ claims to being democratic have become. They built little utopias that provided free food, libraries, music, religious services and classes, trying to put on display what they thought a good society should look like.