By Jack Hamilton, 12 Oct, 2011
What is the ‘Occupy’ Movement?
The ‘Occupy’ movement started four weeks ago on Wall Street and more than 100 solidarity movements have since sprung up across the country as activists have taken to the streets to oppose what they perceive to be the injustices of the corporate and financial sectors.
Contrary to some media attention the protests are not solely comprised of ‘hippies in hoodies’ and ‘tattooed vandals sporting Guy Fawkes masks’. I met with nurses and military veterans, fire-fighters and lecturers, librarians and libertarians. It is not an explosion of violence as a result of disenfranchisement or a day in the park but an ongoing event which seeks to focus attention on the issues of jobs and financial reform. There are also some crazy people there who I will come back to. For now it is important to focus on the goals of the ‘Occupy’ movement and the tactics through which they seek to achieve them.
What Are Their Goals?
Nouriel Roubini, better known as Dr. Doom for predicting the financial crash of 2007-2008 has rightly asserted “There’s a huge amount of anger”. The protestors remain steadfast in their belief that the current financial system is heading for another meltdown if no reforms are made and the current system continues unabated. Dr. Doom agrees. In an interview with Foreign Policy Roubini described the protests as “a symptom of economic malaise” that is being felt not only in the United States across the world. The first facet of the ‘Occupy’ movement is a rapid response to this impending disaster.
One of the most prominent signs at McPherson Square, DC read in bold letters ‘We need to Unfuck Ourselves’. This message clearly outlines the trope that the Occupiers perceive themselves to be the victims of the system and have taken it upon themselves to become active political agents and drive policy reform. The catchy image of the 99% rallying against the 1% has spread from the initial Wall Street protest across the various national spokes and it resonates strongly.
Urgency and agency can best be described as two themes of the protests but when it comes to clear and defined policy goals the unity lapses dramatically. For some Obama is simply Hitler, a narcissist and a puppet of corporatism who must be sacrificed for the more malleable alternative in Joe Biden. For others it is the ongoing imperialism of the British Empire which is subjugating the world economy to the demands of the monarchy (I am not making this up) and they do so under the guise of soft power organisations. One of the bastions of this soft power network is the Wildlife and Wetland Fund (still not making this up) which uses the guise of environmental aid to dictate policy across the world. It is worth saying at this stage that I am not impartial on the subject as my Mother is a member of the WWF and counts birds in Northern Ireland on occasion. I will be sure to ask her if she has been intrinsic to any global domination plots, ornithological or economic, when I speak to her tomorrow.
The movement has been compared to the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009, breathing life into the conservative Republicans and influencing the 2010 elections which put in place a House of Representatives intent on blocking the Obama administration at every opportunity. By comparison the ‘Occupy’ protestors have no set of unified policy goals. The Tea Party opposed tax increases, demanded a cut in government spending and most of all rallied in opposition to something tangible: the sitting administration. The ‘Occupy’ protestors are apathetic towards Obama, who many of them voted for, but are also strongly opposed to all other parties. The narrative is clear: corporations have too much power. The policy alternatives and tactics are less so. Without tangible goals it is difficult to see tangible change occurring.
Chances of Success?
Is there any real pressure for the 1% to change their trajectory? The antipathy directed at the financial sector across large swathes of the globe has led to limited reforms and curtailed few bailouts. Protests in London and New York may lack a coherent agenda and action but there is no doubting that they have staying power and the longer they remain the more focus will be placed upon their agendas.
There are many questions that remain. The first issue is the nature of Roubini’s pending recession. Will it be another collapse along the lines of 2007-08 or will it be something more manageable. This may come down to the fate of the Euro-zone fringes. With Greece teetering on the brink of a disastrous default and Spain and Italy suffering the indignity of having their economies downgraded within the last week the crisis is showing little signs of abating. An article in The Economist posited that the continued uncertainty may actually play into the hands of Germany as it may be able to force the reform of the banking havens such as Ireland and Cyprus despite US objections. Merkel has a point. As soon as the European Central Bank intervened to stabilise Italy’s bond markets over the Summer, Berlusconi retreated from his austerity programme citing pressure from within his coalition. Financial panic is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a prophesy which the protestors should take heed of.
After the catastrophe in Japan earlier this year Germany took the lead in announcing that it would phase out nuclear power, whatever the cost, and turned to the nuclear power stations in France and Switzerland to plug the capacity gaps. When it comes to the sovereign debt crisis the most powerful country in Europe seems far more accepting of the risks of meltdown.
This does not mean that Europe is in a perpetual state of gridlock. Much has been made of the incapacities of European states to interact with each other the subsequent economic consequences. The strong European economies certainly resent having to bail out those who are perceived to have mismanaged their finances but that does not mean that they will cease to do so. One only needs to look at the passing of the Lisbon Treaty to see that the individual wills of European states can be subsumed in the European ideal and that the European institutions are much stronger than the Euro-sceptics are willing to accept. While the Mandelbaums and Thomas Friedmans of the world wax lyrical about the opportunities of a new Marshall Plan it must be remembered that this is not a post-war Europe and would not take kindly to being treated as such.
We the People
It is highly limiting to view 1% of society as being responsible for every problem of the 99%. Where does this leave the highly divisive issue of Medicare or the broader issues of over-consumption and overspending? While these issues are more acute in the ‘1%’ they are certainly wider than the ‘Occupy’ protests imply. If all of the problems descend from a simple high peak of American society then surely the solutions must simply focus on scaling that one summit? The reality is that those advocating financial reform need to look beyond their own mountain and see the full range. If the movement is to achieve its goals it requires a behaviour modification of much more than the top 1%.