Saturday 17 March 2012

Is The Occupy Movement Dead?

(Note: In light of plans for an Occupy Wall Street rally on Saturday in Zuccotti Park, and OWS having less than $117,000 in their bank account from increasingly dwindling donations, I write down this piece.)

By early 2011, the Arab world was engulfed in massive socio-political upheaval. A series of protests of various sizes and forms, all calling for greater democracy and the advancement of human rights, an end to political and economic corruption and mismanagement, and the obliteration of the monopoly over power by the old regimes, all were taking place in nearly every Arab state. Western audiences took notice, and, all while acknowledging direct inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, decided that there was much to uprise against in the their countries as well. A familiar sequence followed. Anger expressed in traditional and alternative media, Twitter hashtags and Facebook pages surfaced and, shortly after, people took to the streets.

And for a while, it seemed that the spirit of protest and uprising was indeed infecting and taking hold of the West. The Occupy Movement spread like wildfire from its humble first real protest in Zuccotti park on the 17th of September of 2011 (with the landmark chant "We are the 99%!") to 82 countries across the world, according to one statistic. Born out of the international economic crisis, home foreclosures, an outcry against an oft-touted overweight power of business and banking lobbies, a stronger worldwide yearning for a true empowerment of citizens, and rising socio-economic inequalities, the movement called for an “end” to a perceived particular “corrupt form of greedy global capitalism” that was said to define the very way the world functions, and the forever reversal of “the placement of profits before people.”  

Perhaps less than two months into the protests, however, many (including myself) had begun to feel that the peak of the movement was astonishingly fast approaching, and that the momentum pushing forward the demonstrations was destined to a demise very soon, assuming everything remained as it were. There were a few reasons for such a premonition.

First, the American Occupy Movement (with “Occupy Wall Street” being the centre of the international movement) was its own Achilles heal. The movement failed to articulate its vision into a clear and sufficiently well-defined list of demands that people could rally around. It essentially remained an opportunity for people to express their anger, and to call for a varying set of wide social and political values and ideals to become the defining hallmarks of governmental policy-making and business management. It never actually produced a detailed recipe or framework through which such ideals could be become corporeal policies. For example, it did not produce consensual demands on Tax reform, environmental controls, electoral law reform, legal outlines for the closure of unjust loopholes for businesses, strengthening the penal code on certain white-collar crimes, greater implementation of the practices of Fair Trade, and so forth. The movement needed perhaps a singular defining document, a manifesto of sorts, with clear policy-proposals and even draft bills for congress that the movement would lobby for.

Moreover, it remained too much of a peoples’ movement. It never fully produced universally recognized leadership that could legitimately speak on its behalf. Unlike Tawakkol Karman in Yemen, for example, there were never really clearly accepted national or international faces for the Occupy Movement, people who could speak to the crowds and electrify them, and speak for the crowds and fight for their demands. This “non-personalisation” of the movement, much like in the Egyptian case, created perhaps more sympathy and recognition for the movement’s genuine grassroots appeal, but it also allowed its message and direction to be easily clouded and overly debatable internally amongst members, and externally amongst observers.

Even further, attention was slowly turned from the protesting peoples on the streets to the stump-speech politicians on the podiums as the 2012 US elections approached, and further so as minor positive news on economic performance and declines in unemployment began to trickle in. Outside the U.S., Putin’s single-round victory in the Presidential elections sent a resounding blow to the protest movement in Russia, and the Greek government managed to outrun the protests and passed its extremely controversial austerity measures while Athens was literally on fire. Within even a larger context, the European Union’s leadership and bureaucracy have also begun moving towards tighter fiscal integration in a hotly-debated effort to avoid the collapse of the European economic unity project and the Euro, and have commenced (slow, yet very visible) steps to contain any further economic crises in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. This seemed to have signaled to some existing and potential future protesters that solutions were being drafted, and that perhaps they could give the new set of policies a chance. The streets, as a result, seem to have calmed down considerably.

Even internationally, the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Occupy movement itself were losing steam. Arab revolutions and protests seem to be running out of momentum, with some entering a discouraging spiral of political instability, and others transforming into a whirlpool of protracted violent confrontations with no end in sight. Egypt’s political transition has turned into a mess, and Tunisia became no longer (luckily, perhaps) a source of attention-grabbing news, for example. Libya is barely exiting its own bloody struggle to already face the threat of possible violent internal conflict, while Syria is the definition of a bloody war zone wherein the ruling regime remains increasingly set to remain in power.

Is the Occupy Movement destined to death? The current trend seems to essentially be pointing in that direction. But if detailed political and economic agenda and legislative proposals materialise on behalf of the movement, and with such proposals being neither too wide and unfocused nor not too small and undeserving of the occasion, and if people rally around consensual national (perhaps even international) figures who can represent them and their cause, there might still be a chance left for the Occupy Movement to go into the history books as something further than a remarkable expression of international popular frustration.

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