As the world watches, can the Wall Street protesters make enough noise? (Published in The Caravan, 1 November, 2011)
Most demonstrations are held with the conviction that they serve a cause far bigger than the sum of their parts. I have seen many examples of this faith in the United States: the three pro-Palestinian pensioners who every Sunday berated passers-by in my glacially indifferent college town; the meagre picket lines of union workers at a doomed New York City hospital, shivering under the nose of a giant inflatable rat. They were sustained by the hope that their demands would be met, but also by the belief that they represented something larger: that they were not a lonely few, that they stood for all colonised and oppressed peoples. Or that they went on strike to protect the dignity of all labour. Clutching worn placards and shouting tired slogans, did they ever wonder if their pious efforts had all the impact of trees falling in a silent, unknowable forest?
The current Occupy Wall Street protesters in the US have an indefatigable, brazen belief in their broad relevance. The optimism is electric, the excitement contagious in the regular assemblies, rallies, and marches that have captured public places and public attention. Occupy Wall Street activists see themselves as part of a historical moment of social unrest around the world. Themes of universality and ubiquity shade much of the movement’s rhetoric. “All day, all year, occupy everywhere,” goes one chant. “The whole world is watching,” insists another.
Somebody must be watching. Less then one month after the initial occupation of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street stirred a day of coordinated protests across continents. On 15 October, demonstrators flooded the streets of cities in the United States and Europe. In New York, they stormed the iconic Times Square. In London, they rallied in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. In cities in Spain and Greece, thousands flocked to central squares.
The protests borrow from an increasingly familiar global style of rebellion. Placards bearing the words “We are the 99%” (Occupy Wall Street’s defining slogan) appear in London, in Germany and elsewhere. Occupy Wall Street protesters compare their encampment in Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square in Cairo. Activists called 15 October a “global day of rage”, invoking a term often used during the Arab Spring. The “people’s mic” (a form of throaty Chinese whispers used to make up for the lack of a PA system, because New York City law requires a permit for “amplified sound” at demonstrations) is now a feature of gatherings in other countries, even when protesters have access to mics and loudspeakers. Methods and philosophies of organisation spread across borders. I sat in New York’s Washington Square Park in mid-October, watching protest organisers teach fresh-faced students the various protocols and hand-signals that comprise “direct democratic process”. The same gestures and procedures have been used across Europe in building ostensibly leaderless (“horizontal” and non-hierarchical” in the activist dialect) movements. Both the form and content of all these protests have gone viral, speeding around the globe in an age of hyper-communication.
But beyond talk of “memes” and “inter-connectivity”, the protesters feel tied together by shared circumstance. “The rapid spread of the protests,” Occupy Wall Street organisers announced on their website on 15 October, “is a grassroots response to the overwhelming inequalities perpetuated by the global financial system and transnational banks.” Though there are obvious differences between each national situation, many grievances are held in common: the rejection of the ideology of government austerity; the critique of the relative impunity afforded to the financial establishment; and the fatigue with sclerotic political systems.
If you go to Zuccotti Park and shuffle between the ad hoc cooking, sleeping and computing areas of the camp, you will invariably bump into a Dutch television crew or Japanese journalists or a team of Spanish radio reporters. The notion that “the whole world is watching” isn’t entirely fanciful. Such enthusiastic interest instils confidence in many activists involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Their cause has huge appeal. After all, people from around the world help the occupiers of Zuccotti Park in numerous ways, including by ordering them quantities of pizzas and Mexican tacos from local restaurants. (Thanks to credit cards and the Internet, the 21st century brings us the solidarity of the dialling finger and the take-out menu.)
Of course, there are many people not persuaded by these demonstrations. The most common criticism of the uprisings is that the protesters have a tenuous interest in policy-making and don’t always seem to maintain coherent agendas. This certainly seems to be true of Occupy Wall Street, which has released a rather broad manifesto called the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”. But the wide range of demands included in the document is deliberate. The movement intends to remain as inclusive as possible as it builds strength, frustrating the media, but winning more supporters. Still only in its infancy, Occupy Wall Street will sharpen as it grows.
Others criticise Occupy Wall Street and their counterparts in Europe by springing to the defence of the banks and financial institutions under attack. This debate will continue to rage, with armies of statistics mobilised on either side. My general sympathy lies with the protests and the protesters: more should be done to curb the power of finance capital, to minimise spiralling inequality, to allow lives of dignity for the poorest in these societies and to disentangle money from electoral politics (particularly in the US).
At the same time, these movements—despite their global pretensions—have not grappled with the implications of major, over-arching global change. You do not have to embrace the neoliberal vision of the world to recognise that a significant shift in wealth and power is taking place in the 21st century. The only time I have heard any discussion of China or India or “outsourcing” was at a march organised by unions; other Occupy Wall Street activists have nothing to say about the changing dynamics of the international stage. Does the purported “decline of the West” and the “rise of the rest” mean anything to the protesters in Times Square in New York or Syntagma in Athens? The economist Nouriel Roubini and others have argued that growing economic inequity in Europe and North America helped cause their systemic crises. Yet countries home to even greater, more glaring inequality (like Brazil and China, not to mention India) currently sustain fairly stable economies and growth rates. From the perspective of Shanghai, Singapore or São Paulo, a rally of Occupy London activists in front of St Paul’s Cathedral may seem like little more than pointless raging at the fading of the light.
All politics, even those of a global protest, are local. The movements in Europe and America were conceived in national contexts and will only be fulfilled within them. In that narrower arena, the enemies are clearer and the battles can be fought. These protesters do not need to see the forest to make noise amid the trees.