Monday, November 14, 2011

Bank Transfer Day: A Model Victory for the Occupy Movement

Frustrated by a number of negative experiences involving her bank, LA gallery owner Kristen Christian decided to draw the line on October 4th, 2011, when she created a Facebook event entitled "Bank Transfer Day." Calling for people to move their money from banks to credit unions on November 5th, the action quickly went viral. By the intended date, more than 70,000 people had indicated their intent to participate on the Facebook event page, and the Credit Union National Association estimated that more than 650,000 new accounts were opened in the month before November 5th (more than had been set up in the entirety of 2010), and a further 40,000 people joined on the day itself.

When trying to explain this phenomenon, the dominant narrative coming out of both the credit union movement and the mainstream media as a whole is that Bank Transfer Day was primarily a reaction to the decision by large banks (most visibly Bank of America) to institute debit card fees. This ham-handed and poorly-executed policy change, the story goes, struck a nerve and instigated normally passive banking consumers to take Christian's call to heart by revolting en masse and moving their money to credit unions.

While true as far as it goes, this narrative discounts an incredibly vital element of the Bank Transfer Day phenomenon: the Occupy movement. Indeed, when Christian first created the event, the announcement was laden with Occupy-esque language talking about the "99%," its image was a modified Guy Fawkes mask, and the location was listed as "Occupy Wall Street." Though she later tried to distance the event from the Occupy movement and reframe it in the terms described above by moderating the language and removing the location, it had already been picked up on by Occupiers across the United States. They began eagerly promoting it within their rapidly expanding networks both on-line (through Facebook, websites, and forums) and in person (through teach-ins and informational pickets of Too Big to Fail banks), and the day itself was marked by the Occupy movement with pro-credit union rallies and mass account openings.

Interestingly, the involvement of the Occupy movement in Bank Transfer Day seems to have not simply increased the number of people moving their money, but it also influenced the profile of new members. Prior to the action, some in the credit union movement had raised the concern that the bank fees had been instituted with the intention of driving off unprofitable customers. As such, they worried that the accounts gained through Bank Transfer Day would actually end up being a financial drag on, rather than a gain for, many credit unions.

Had people been drawn to the action simply by fees, this would have likely been the case, and the impact on commercial banks would have been minimal (or even positive). However, by politicizing one's choice of financial institution, the Occupy movement added a new wrinkle to the event. Instead of being simply a reaction to the immediate affront of new fees, moving one's money to credit unions was framed by Occupy as an effective tactic for protesting a wide range of issues, such as the bailouts, Wall Street's inordinate influence on the political system, etc. Many of the people drawn in by this narrative were not the unprofitable customers who were the intended targets of the $5 fee, but well-off, politically-aware people whose departure dealt a meaningful blow to the bottom-line of their erstwhile banks. Therefore, the Occupy movement's involvement in Bank Transfer Day was not just supplemental in nature; it was the movement, rather than bank fees, that was primarily responsible for making the action a success.

As such, the example of the concrete and meaningful victory that the Occupy movement won with Bank Transfer Day both provides an answer to the movement's critics who claim that it is directionless, as well as a template for future successful actions. What BTD really demonstrates is that the real strength of the Occupy movement stems from its ability to rapidly disseminate new and innovative ideas through its networks. Instead of relying upon a centrally developed and administered platform for direction, all of the participants are equally empowered to propose actions or strategies. Most of those ideas only gain limited traction, but when something is proposed that makes sense to a critical mass of people, it spreads like wildfire through the whole movement (Kevin Carson insightfully dissects the phenomenon in a fascinating way in this recent article).

Bank Transfer Day was one of the first of these ideas which, originated by someone with a bit of outrage and a Facebook account (but no previous experience with credit unions), caught on and meaningfully shifted the balance of power within the financial system in the direction of democracy and accountability. As long as the millions of activists in Occupy movements around the globe continue the work that was started on September 17th, the emergence of innovative and effective actions will proceed apace. It is impossible to predict what form such developments will take; the only thing that's certain is that change is coming...

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