Global economic and political systems continue to be delegitimised in the eyes of many, as communities are squeezed by the ongoing manifestations of the global financial crisis. While mainstream political forces attempt to absorb and deflect citizens’ dissatisfaction, activists within popular protest movements, rather than merely venting anger, are beginning to offer alternatives to the status quo.
In 2012, the Arab Spring appears to have become mired in sectarian conflict, repression and infiltration by religious fundamentalists, but non-violent direct action remains an effective tactic for movements in other parts of the world. Recent national and regional elections in France, Greece and Germany, saw voters reject parties advocating a continuation of economic austerity policies that cut government spending and services in order to service national debt, while in Spain the Indignados returned to the streets in their tens of thousands.
In the United States, the Occupy movement consists of no central organisational structure but is composed of independent collectives in various cities covering a variety of issues. Activists are hoping to consolidate gains made through mass protests in October and November while regaining momentum through a series of planned actions. Six months after police violently evicted peaceful protestors from Occupy camps across the country, activists now see a programme of local engagement and international coordination as central to advancing their movement. Organisers are hoping spring in the northern hemisphere will bring a renewed energy to the movement, which seeks to challenge and reform structures of power on local, national and global levels.
The Global May Manifesto
A regular criticism by commentators in the mainstream media is that the movement lacks a core list of demands. While this may reflect more on the media’s preference for neat categorisations and simplistically framed debates, the International Global Spring Assembly, consisting of groups from the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, recently released the Global May Manifesto putting forward proposals for alternative power structures.
“We are moving forward from saying we need a global change to actually starting a dialogue on the concrete change that we want to see,” said Peter Arad, an alias for a London-based activist involved in the manifesto’s formulation (who did not wish to be named).
The manifesto outlines several key areas for reform of the international system. The document has been offered to local Occupy, and associated assemblies for consideration, but does not yet represent an official Occupy statement of goals. These proposals include democratising organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, replacing the G8 and G20 with a democratic United Nations assembly, the abolition of tax havens and a global taxation system for financial transactions.
Arad describes the document as an outline for greater global democracy. “We deserve a new form of economy that puts people at the centre rather than the accumulation of wealth,” he said. “It aims to create new democratic international institutions and a democratic economy.”
In accordance with the principles of grass-roots democracy, the process of developing the manifesto involved participants engaging in online forums and debating the document’s content. Arad describes its formulation in historic terms. “On the whole the process was really inspiring – it was one of those ‘democracy does work!’ moments,” he said. “It’s amazing that the technology exists. It didn’t four or five years ago and this is something that can only happen for the first time now. This is going to change the way we are doing activism forever. This kind of global assembly might go down in history as one of the main contributions of the Occupy movement.”
The US elections
With 2012 a presidential election year in the United States, it is feared mainstream political forces are attempting to co-opt Occupy’s ability to mobilise large numbers of people and give voice to popularly-held grievances – relating to the distribution of power and wealth – in order to achieve the re-election of President Obama.
In April, a group supporting Occupy’s call for a May Day general strike and calling itself ‘99% Spring’ held workshops for 100,000 people on non-violent protest, in preparation for May Day. While the term ‘99%’ has been popularised through the various incarnations of Occupy, 99% Spring is not part of the movement. Rather, it is a working group of various non-profit organisations – including the influential fundraising website MoveOn.org and large trade unions, all closely aligned with the Democratic Party.
Rebecca Manski, an outreach and press worker with Occupy Wall Street said she was “concerned” about the prospect of the movement being absorbed into the mainstream political process as the group’s agenda was never to work within existing structures but to create change.
“These establishment groups have become impotent and stagnant,” she said. “Clearly what these institutions cannot do is generate the creative space that a radical anarchist-based movement, such as ours, can create – the kind that’s necessary for actual radical change, which we need.”
Speaking from his home in Boston, noted academic and political dissident Noam Chomsky outlined the movement’s success in altering the public discourse and confounding media pundits dismissive of its resonance with the general population.
“At first it was a derisive: ‘Why don’t you get a bath?’ that sort of thing,” he said. “But it shifted and, partly, it’s been moderately positive including, incidentally, in the business press. I think some of the most sympathetic coverage has come from the Financial Times, in London, the world’s major business paper.”
Chomsky describes the movement as succeeding because of dissatisfaction with political and financial systems.
“Much of what the Occupy movement has been bringing forth has just entered the national discourse,” he noted. “It brought to the fore issues that had always been there but were under the rug – like the huge inequality, the character of elections bought by huge funding, the shenanigans of financial institutions, the stagnation of wages and income for the vast majority of the past generation, the impact of neo-liberal programmes. All this is very much in the common discourse right now.”
Rebecca Manski’s experiences of joining Occupy Wall Street reflect this assessment.
“All of us were in exactly the same place at the same time,” she recalled. “After returning to live in New York and feeling that no one was doing anything around me and things were falling apart economically in this country, I, like many people, had hit my limits of feeling as though I was sitting idle. None of us expected that it would turn into something that would build real momentum.”
With Barak Obama likely to face billionaire Republican Mitt Romney in November’s presidential elections, it appears the President’s re-election campaign will, in part, focus on selected themes and demographics highlighted by the Occupy movement – particularly “tax fairness” for the United States’ middle class.
In April, the US Senate voted against a bill introduced by Obama, referred to as the Buffett Rule, which sought to increase the tax level for Americans earning over $1 million per year to 30 per cent. “Senate Republicans voted to block the Buffett Rule, choosing once again to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class,” the President said in a statement released following the bill’s rejection.
Professor Chomsky is dismissive of any politician within the current political system instituting radical restructuring for the benefit the majority of the United States’ population – describing Obama’s promises for ‘change’ in 2008 as “complete illusions” based on rhetoric.
“Democrats and Republicans have pretty much the same funding sources,” he said. “In 2008 Obama received more funding from the financial institutions than John McCain did. These institutions preferred Obama to McCain and not because Obama was going to be a radical. They knew what they were getting and he paid them back right away.”
Taking action on various levels
Despite satisfaction that a measure of the Occupy message has penetrated into public discourse, organisers are busy planning and taking action on various levels.
“If you were to look at it objectively you would say it’s been an overwhelming success,” Occupy Wall Street’s Rebecca Manski said. “But I wouldn’t be satisfied if we only saw a repetition of the rhetoric or a polishing of it by organisations like MoveOn. The adoption of this rhetoric by Obama, that’s all good but we’re not here to feed them new lines. We’re here to continuously push things.”
The organic and local nature of Occupy has meant that since the camp evictions, action around the country has been directed by locally-based collectives on issues concerning their members. Establishing camps in houses under foreclosure and other locally-and-community based actions have become the norm.
While some may gauge the movement’s success through highly visible actions such as mass protests, Manski describes the group as focussed on working to achieve objectives over a longer period of time through community-based work and mobilisation – with an eye on broader systemic issues in global power structures.
“Two months after the eviction from New York’s Zuccotti Park we decided to be more strategic going forward, with clearer decisions about days of action and working long term,” she said. “The energy was out there anyway. We started something with a radical basis and what we are saying is: ‘This is a call for everybody to act on their own patch and everyone should speak for themselves’.”
For her the target is big. “To end the corporate occupation of the planet,” she stated. “Right now we’ve narrowed our focus to things like police brutality, foreclosures and student debt. Strategically this could be good but I hope it’s not our ultimate destination, and we want to address climate change, militarism and the power of global corporations.”