A Comparison of Global Protests: Occupy Wall Street and the 1990s Anti-Globalisation movement [Part 1: Similarities]

Although uprisings are by no means a new phenomenon, global social movements are a relatively recent development. Before the advent of globalisation, uprisings and revolutions were often confined to one country. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, many Marxists anticipated a world revolution and eagerly awaited the collapse of capitalist régimes. A Soviet propaganda image shows Lenin sweeping kings and bankers off the earth; its caption reads “Comrade Lenin cleanses the earth of filth.” Unfortunately for Lenin, this never came to fruition, and the revolution remained in Russia.

As such, very little precedent exists for the global spread of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Furthermore, in the two decades between the fall of the USSR and the start of the Arab Spring, revolutions of any sort had been quite rare. So rare, in fact, that many scholars writing at the dawn of the 21st century considered them to be a thing of the past. Writing in 2006, Adam Webb disputed this claim. He argued that, although revolutions within countries would be rare, a global revolution of hitherto unseen proportions could easily erupt if the capitalist system suffered an economic downturn (Webb 74). In 2011, Webb’s argument was proven correct; revolutions returned stronger and more vocal than ever. Most importantly, they now have the potential to quickly spread throughout the world.

Lenin would likely support Occupy Wall Street's stance against corporate and governmental greed.

Although it may be the most well-known, Occupy Wall Street is not the first global uprising. In the 1990s, an international movement agitated against corporate-driven globalisation. This anti-globalisation movement bears some similarities to Occupy Wall Street; a comparison of the two will serve to contextualise the importance and extremely far-reaching spread of Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street protest locations around the world

The anti-globalisation protests were staged by left-leaning individuals, primarily in Seattle, Montréal and Genoa. These agitators opposed what they saw as corporation-led globalisation, instead calling for a “globalisation from below”, which would do far more to correct global inequality. Their main complaint was that investors and elites were growing wealthy at the expense of the average person. Despite their dislike of heartless neoliberal globalisation, these protestors did not want to overturn capitalism. Instead, they hoped for a fairer distribution of the wealth it brought to a few. The protestors saw such a redistribution as necessary for a healthy democratic society. Furthermore, the movement’s grievances were rather vague; specific individuals or groups were not designated as enemies. Concerns were very broadly articulated using a discourse of human rights and environmental obligations. Political parties were not singled out for blame, and the protestors did not want to remove their current governments from power, even if they felt the politicians contributed to their grievances (Webb 74). This movement, therefore, was rather mild; it neither placed explicit blame nor desired a new world order. These protestors, agitating during an economic boom, merely wanted a restructuring of the existing system.

Note that for the purposes of this comparison, I will focus only on those anti-globalisation protests which occurred during the 1990s. I begin with the similarities between the two:

  • Origin: Both of these movements originated in wealthy Western nations, in cities which played a major role in the economy of their country. Although Occupy Wall Street later spread to other areas, it began in New York City.
  • Ideology: Both movements are majority left-leaning and opposed to what they perceive as the morally bankrupt neoliberal world order.
  • Methods: Both protests were conceived as non-violent movements.
  • Structure: Both groups were decentralised movements lacking formal leadership. The protestors functioned as a network, not a hierarchy.
  • Constituencies: Both movements speak for an average majority marginalised by an elite minority. Bill Wasik describes modern social movements as spurred by the emergence of a mega-underground, a group which is ignored despite its vast size (Wasik 10). In the age of mass communication, these groups were able to coalesce in a way which would not have been possible during Lenin’s time. Thanks to the internet, these protestors were able to connect across oceans.
  • Desires: Both movements seek to increase fairness in the economic system through more equitable distribution of resources and more ethical codes of conduct for corporations and elites.
  • Co-ordination: Both movements used modern communication to co-ordinate a specific day on which they would hold protests in all their locations worldwide. The anti-globalisation movement organised the J18 Carnival Against Capital, which was held on 18 June, 1999. Occupy Wall Street participated in the 15-M Movement, also referred to as the Indignants movement, on 15 October 2011.
  • Response: Both have met with violent opposition from law enforcement.

Both movements represent a new type of uprising, one which came as a surprise to many; the global revolution. Although it may not be a communist insurrection, Occupy Wall Street has achieved the global spread Lenin hoped for, almost 100 years after the Russian revolution.

Although perhaps some OWS protestors would welcome a communist insurrection?

Note: Although there are several similarities between these movements, there are also important differences between them. I will explore these in my next post. Thank you for reading!


11 responses to “A Comparison of Global Protests: Occupy Wall Street and the 1990s Anti-Globalisation movement [Part 1: Similarities]

  1. coffeeshoprhino

    You have a nice comparison of the two movements (in your list). Specific examples (i.e. quote from movement manifestos) would give the list even more impact.

  2. eimilealoisia

    Thank you for your comment 🙂
    That is a good idea! I did not think of doing that. I will have to look for the anti-globalisation movement’s manifesto. If I can find it, I will definitely use quotes from it in my next post! I do plan on making my next post, in which I will discuss the differences, more specific than this one. Thanks again for the suggestion!

  3. Pingback: A Comparison of Global Protests: Occupy Wall Street and the 1990s Anti-Globalisation Movement [Part 2: Differences] | Occupy Wall Street Analysis

  4. Pingback: Russia…Un-communist? « Modern Underdog Blogspot

  5. This was a really good post. I do want to point out, however, that the Russian quote and artwork can be translated in another way that might be interesting to look at. The last word in the sentence, нечисти, can be translated as filth, scum, or even evil. So that quote could also mean that Lenin is trying to rid the world of “evil” in his mind, which could also mean capitalism, Western ideals and ideas, as well as corruption. Just a thought to consider. It may offer you another topic to think about for another post. If you find any more Russian quotes or sources that may relate to OWS, let me know! I’m a Russian major and would love to see what you come up with!

    • Thank you for the comment! I was aware that нечисти could also be translated as “scum,” but not as “evil.” That does lend a stronger tone to the message. I may indeed use more Russian-related material in other posts, since I’m also very interested in Russia and the Russian language. Thanks for reading 🙂

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  9. ramblerofoccasionalbrilliance

    This is a really great post. I’d love to explore how Adbusters was and is apart of both movements and/or how it used the Seattle 1999 protest to the World Trade Organization. I’m still doing some digging but it seems that the background image from the original Adbusters call to arms for Occupy Wall Street, with the gas masks, is from that Seattle anti-globalization and anti-corporation protest or at least a huge nod to that protest. According to Roberto Ciccarelli, “The image – both the foreground and the background – is significant. For example, a similar image surfaced in Seattle in 1999, the year the anti-globalization movement was born, during the first episode of resistance and combat against global capitalism. The foreground of that symbolic image was the gas mask of an activist surrounded by flames. Again, both the foreground and background were significant. The symbol of the WTO emerges from the fog of tear gas in the background.”What happened to that movement after those protests? I was around when it was going on but I was not of the age to care or even understand what was going on. The exploration continues! Here’s the link to the tranlation (originally in Italian) of Ciccarelli’s article http://watchingamerica.com/News/136601/occupy-wall-street-the-dancer-and-the-bull-story-of-an-epiphany/

  10. I learned about the AGM just a few years prior to Occupy and I was also struck by the similarities. People are starting to wake up and hopefully the next movement of this kind can garner more success. Excellent post.

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