One meaning of the word “occupy” involves asserting sovereignty over a place. For the demonstrators who set up camp in lower Manhattan last fall, “occupying” was a reassertion of popular sovereignty at the very epicenter of our economic system. It was a challenge to the power that giant corporations—and Wall Street banks in particular—have amassed. It was a challenge to the way these firms have captured the levers of government and rigged policy to protect their own positions and profits at the expense of everyone else.
More than three years after their reckless greed triggered the Great Recession, the nation’s biggest banks have paid almost no penalty and are bigger than ever. In 2007, the top four banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—held assets of $4.5 trillion, which amounted to 37 percent of U.S. bank assets. Today, they control $6.2 trillion, or 45 percent of bank assets, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. For them, the recession was a brief hiccup, promptly ameliorated by a public bailout and a return to robust profitability. Last year, these four firms, together with the next two largest banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, paid out $144 billion in compensation, making 2011 their second highest payday ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average bank teller made $24,980 in 2010. Such rank-and-file employees didn’t benefit from the big bonuses and compensation packages which were heavily concentrated at the top of the corporate ladder.
Meanwhile, joblessness, staggering debt, and foreclosure have devastated countless families. Many have shared their stories on the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr website, which should be required reading for the 1 percent. It provides a heart-breaking account of living in a society “made for them, not for us,” of drowning in debt and struggling merely to secure a means of keeping food on the table.