Civil disobedience seem to be increasingly more common in the world today, from anti-austerity protests sweeping across Europe, to the so called Arab Spring, to public union battles in several American states, to riots in the UK, and finally to Occupy Wall Street, which has since escalated into a global solidarity movement involving 951 cities in 82 countries. This blog is an attempt to understand where all of this discontent came from, and why it is being seen on such a level, on a global scale.
The global recession has prompted many world leaders to put austerity measures in place in order to afford stimulus packages and bailouts to try and fix their financial problems. This has lead many to argue that the governments are forcing the working class to pay for problems mainly caused by speculation in the financial markets. Protests sprang up all across Europe, starting in September 2010, with people saying that investments needed to be made to promote job growth rather than cutting services to those who need it most.
The revolutionary wave referred to as the Arab Spring started in the small, North-African country of Tunisia, when a street vendor lit himself on fire, grabbing the world’s attention and sparking protests in his hometown, which spread to the capital Tunis. This action by 26 year old Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 17th, 2010, took his life, but lead to a revolution that ended the 23 year-old regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and inspired people across the Arab world that this kind of change could be possible in their countries.
Protests have since spread to Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Mauritania, Sudan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, and Syria. Some changes have been made to government in a number of these countries including a complete overthrow in Egypt and Libya.
In Libya, the overthrow was accomplished only with an intervention, by a NATO led coalition, in an all-out civil war that lead to the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, ending his 42 year rule, giving control to the National Transitional Council. Before the fighting was even over, many of these western nations who rushed in with their “humanitarian aid” were already trying to secure control over Libya’ oil.
In Egypt, despite attempts by president Hosni Mubarak to suppress journalists and shut down the internet, protesters managed to force his resignation, bringing his 30 year presidency to an end. Power was transferred to the military who subsequently dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, and promised to hold elections before the end of the year. In the meantime, a civilian Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf was put in charge of a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Protests continued, however, due to perceived slowness in bringing about reforms, and worries that the council was planning to hold on to power. The first round of elections was finally held in the country last week with preliminary results showing the Islamist party to be dominating.
Civil unrest has been subdued in many other Arab nations, but continues to this day in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.
The motivations for these uprisings are as diverse as the countries involved and a thorough examination cannot be done without going into detail about each one. However, there are some overlying themes, such as poverty, government corruption, a lack of trust in a dictatorship, and a lack of freedom and democracy causing people to feel they have no control of their own destiny. The wealth in most of these countries is hoarded by a handful of elites like in Egypt, where the Mubarak family fortune was estimated at over $30 billion, with some estimates as high as $70 billion. Mubarak had a system in place where outsiders wanting to do business in the country had to give a share of the profits to prominent Egyptians.
Things were a little slower getting started in North America largely because of steps taken over the last 40 years or so to subdue resistance using surveillance, the media and the education system to promote conformity to a consumerist society. Noncompliance with this society is seen as pathological and anyone educated enough to resist is so hampered down by student loans that they are afraid they might lose their jobs if they speak out.
In the US particularly, there are many reasons to be angry with the direction society is heading. The Citizens United Supreme court ruling, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money funding political ad campaigns and basically declaring that corporations are people, is expected to bring corporate campaign spending to astronomical levels in the 2012 election cycle, further eroding democracy.
When people did finally start to rise up in the US it was the result of attacks against public unions in several states, in an attempt to limit their collective bargaining rights. Many of the protesters have said that they were inspired by the uprising in Egypt, which was all over the media at that time. It seemed the era of subdued compliance and conformity may have been coming to pass.
One event that I believe really set things off on a national level in the US was the debt ceiling deal, in which the US debt was reaching it’s limit, throwing politicians and the media into crisis mode even though the debt ceiling has been raised over 100 times in the past. Although president Barack Obama went into negotiations claiming to want to raise taxes on the rich, a deal was struck cutting services like social security and medicare, while raising taxes on lower and middle class families and actually cutting taxes for the rich. Keith Olbermann had a great rant on Current TV about the hypocrisies of the deal.
The lack of compromise has usually been blamed on Republican unwillingness to budge or on Obama’s weakness in negotiations, although some have argued that this is what Obama wanted all along. Some go further to say that the whole political system is only a puppet show to give a false sense of democracy and to serve only the interests of the oligarchs who actually control the country. All evidence, from what I have seen, seems to support this last view.
The fact that the American political establishment is so set on protecting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans seems especially absurd when billionaires like Warren Buffett come out in favor of higher taxes for the rich. A poll also suggest that an overwhelming majority of American citizens in all demographics support a “Buffett Rule”, proposed by Obama, that would raise taxes on the people who can most easily afford it. A paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives analyzing the optimal tax rates for top earners has suggested that it should be about 70%, several times higher than it is at present.
The time was right for a mass movement in America and that is what #OccupyWallStreet provided. Months before protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park on September 17th , a small group of activists, some of whom were involved in the Arab Spring and European austerity protests, gathered to form a general assembly to discuss some of the problems facing the world. In July a call was put out by Canadian anti-corporate magazine, Adbusters, to fill Manhattan with protesters. Adbusters is most often credited with sparking the movement and they, no doubt, added a lot of support for the goals of the general assembly, which has become the core of the movements decision making. Thousands of people came out to show support, with hundreds of them setting up camp for the night. These people were determined. They weren’t going anywhere.
Wall Street is a reasonable target because it exemplifies the greed and corruption at the heart of free market capitalism. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Wall Street watch-dog, has been shown to be covering up crimes being committed on Wall Street. Salon.com journalist Glenn Greenwald illustrates what he calls a “two-tiered justice system” in his recent book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, giving countless examples of the upper-class and political leaders getting away with unforgivable crimes while the poor often receive the full wrath of the justice system.
Much of the dialogue from the Occupy movement focuses on the growing disparities between the richest 1% of the population and everyone else, with the most common heard slogan being “we are the 99%”. The numbers are arbitrary, they could easily have been 0.1% vs. 99.9%, 2% vs. 98%, or even 20% vs. 80%. The point is that the gap between the richest and the poorest is enormous and growing. Taxation is a large part of the reason. In 2011, the Bush tax cuts alone, which were continued by Obama, will save the average 1%er more than the average 99%er makes in total income.
Plenty of evidence supports the idea that greater equality leads to a better society for everyone. This graph compares equality in prosperous times (1947-77) and in times of regression (1981-present). An eye opening TED talk by Richard Wilkinson compares more equal and unequal societies on a wide range of issues including health, life expectancy, addiction, education, violence and even trust among the societies members. Despite all of this, world leaders continue to put policies in place that lead to further inequality. Luckily the Occupy movement has come to stand up against this abuse.
Four weeks after protesters took to the streets in New York, on October 15th, a call was put out for a “Global Occupy Day”, which spawned new Occupy camps in 951 cities in 82 countries protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.
In Canada, the country I call home, camps were set up in every major city and some not so major. I’ve heard a lot of people ask why I would protest in Canada, saying that we are in much better shape than the US. The thing is, with our low corporate taxes, business is thriving but it’s all at the cost of the lower and middle class. Like other more equal countries, such as Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, Canada is seeing income inequality rise faster than much of the world, including the US. Canada is also seeing an unprecedented attack on unions, and environmental policies that make us the worst polluters in the world, not to mention several other ways that we are going in the wrong direction. In other words, we Occupy because we don’t want to end up in the same situation as the US.
The argument that we are doing pretty good compared to the rest of the world, so we really have nothing to protest, doesn’t hold any water to begin with. Human empathy allows us to put ourselves in other peoples position and to feel compassion for them. A common misconception of the movement is that we are all unemployed or even homeless. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many in the movement are either students, or working full time, and although they might be just barely scraping by, joined the movement to stand up for the rights of those less fortunate, in their own communities, countries, or in less developed parts of the world. Psychological research has shown that upper class citizens are less likely to to experience empathy, although they can be induced to feel compassion if they are exposed to the suffering of others.
Support for the Occupy movement does not come exclusively from the lower class. Many prominent individuals from all sectors of society have come out in support. In the business world, the Board of Directors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream have given a statement of admiration and solidarity. Many well known celebrities have also gotten behind the movement, most visibly Micheal Moore, who has attended several rallies. Well respected progressive thinkers, such as Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Žižek, and Cornel West have also had positive things to say about the movement. Many scientists are getting behind the movement as well, including Canadian award-winning environmentalist and broadcaster, David Suzuki. Naturally, unions have been supportive as well, and the support goes both ways.
By far the most common criticism of the Occupy movement is that there is a lack of focus and no demands being made. This is simply an attempt by the media to force the movement into the conventional political framework. Occupy is about reframing the debate beyond the limited views accepted in the mainstream media. The reason for the lack of focus is that, like with any group of free thinking individuals, opinions are diverse, with a lot of disagreement on a number of things, including the need for demands. Everyone is involved for their own personal reasons, whether it’s for the environment, social justice, a more democratic society, or a combination of different reasons, but the one thing that seems to be agreed upon is that there are fundamental problems facing our society that need to be addressed.
The general assembly setup is slowly coming to consensus’ on a number of things. This process takes time because it is truly democratic with no centralized decision making, which I believe is the real beauty of the movement.
One idea endorsed by much of the movement was for people to transfer their funds from big banks, which were deemed “too big to fail” and bailed out by the governments, into credit unions. A “Bank Transfer Day” was decided on for this purpose. This action was largely a success, with 650,000 Americans switching to credit unions in October alone, which is estimated to cost the 10 largest banks $185 Billion next year.
Another idea that the Occupy movement got behind is that of a “Robin Hood Tax“. This idea, that has been floating around for a while, is to implement a small (0.5%-1%) tax on financial sector transactions, and have the revenue raised be used for social services and environmental causes around the world. Some conspiracy theorists have taken this as evidence that Occupy is a part of a globalist agenda. This appears to be based on nothing more than paranoia over who would be responsible for ensuring that the funds actually go where they are supposed to. This is, of course, a genuine concern. With the amount of corruption in the world, how can we be sure that the money would go towards the intended purpose. The bottom line is this would never be able correct all of the ills of society, but I do believe that it would be a huge step in the right direction.
The Occupy movement is largely seen as a left wing movement. While mostly true, this assessment misses the point. Politicians who call themselves liberals or Democrats are every bit as responsible for maintaining the established status quo. For instance, the Obama administration is mostly made up of former Wall Street bankers, and Wall Street firms were among the top donors for his 2008 campaign. While there are some socialist elements in the movement, there are libertarian elements as well. Some views are more aligned with right wing politics, such as the opposition to bank bailouts, so it is really unfair to call it a left wing movement. Occupy is beyond left and right and politics in general, for that matter.
The main reason the mainstream media dismisses the Occupy protests is that at at it’s core, the movement is against the whole establishment that they are a part of. Many journalists would simply lose their jobs for speaking favorably about Occupy. Very few well known, established people in the media have actually come out in support of the movement. It seems to me like, to have that kind of freedom, you need to be an op-ed writer or a free-lancer. Economist and NY Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman has criticized the establishment’s response to the protests, saying that the oligarchs are really the un-American ones. Canadian author and free-lance journalist, Naomi Klein, called the Occupy movement “the most important thing in the world” in her address to protesters at Zuccotti Park.
Even journalists, in some cases, who simply want to report on what is happening at the protests are having their freedoms attacked. During a police raid on Zuccotti Park, journalists were forced away from the scene, some having their credentials confiscated. This was reminiscent of actions taken in Egypt, which were heavily condemned by US politicians.
Of course the police and the leaders who give them their orders don’t want the public to know what happens during a raid. Every time footage is released of police using excessive force, it gains more public sympathy for the protesters. In Oakland, police threw flash grenades and fired tear gas canisters into crowds in efforts to disperse them. One tear gas canister struck a Marine Corps veteran, Scott Olsen, in the head fracturing his skull. So much support was gained by the movement as a result of this that a general strike was planned which saw thousand of people in the streets and caused the city’s port to temporarily halt it’s operations. There were also several reports of pepper spray use, like in Seattle, where victims included the elderly, a priest, and a pregnant woman who later miscarried.
Evictions of camp sites have been coordinated by mayors of different cities. Reasons given for eviction include everything from violence and drug use, which are common in any city, to concerns for the safety of protesters. Some have raised legal complaints about evictions, citing freedom of assembly or association rights, which overrule bylaws or park rules.
Other than a few odd occurrences, any violence in all of the protests mentioned above has been from the authorities. In instances where protesters do get violent, like on the first day of Occupy protests in Rome, it’s usually a small minority of people looting or vandalizing property. When protests escalate into a full scale riot, as it did in in the London area, it’s often sparked by police violence. The fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan is considered to have instigated riots in London that lasted several days.
Research into the motives and evolution of collective violence often show a correlation with high food prices. This was certainly the case with the current wave of protests, as global food prices have hit a record high this year. Add this to higher energy prices and austerity measures and you have a lot of hungry, poor and angry people. In primate studies, it has been shown that impoverished environments lead to higher levels of aggression and antisocial behavior. It seem that increasing the amount of food decreases aggression, while restricting food to the more dominant among them, triples the amount of aggression.
In humans, a triggering event is often required to push people over the tipping point, sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was the case with the police shooting in England. At this point a mob mentality kicks in, where people behave in ways that they normally would not. It’s not that they lose themselves or their own identity, but they gain a group identity on top of their own.
Occupy is essentially a complete rejection of a whole social structure. Basically, humans have set up a game hundreds of years ago and this game has since become more important than life itself. For those who say “that’s just life, deal with it”, I would like to remind them that that’s not the way it’s always been. Humans used to live off the land, working with it to ensure it’s and our own sustainability. Now, the free-market system being violently forced on people and countries around the world, is raping and destroying the very land we require for our own survival, while allowing multinational corporations to exploit workers for cheap labor. We are in dire need of a mass, global environmental movement, and Occupy realizes this. We also realize that our political leaders are unwilling to do anything about it since they are controlled by the same market forces that are destroying the earth. People are fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore!