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.
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.
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.
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!