Although Occupy Wall Street and the 1990s anti-globalisation protests do share similarities, the differences between them are especially noteworthy. These divergences show what developments have occurred in the relatively new area of global protests. Some of the main differences between these movements are listed below:
- Context: When the anti-globalisation protestors were agitating for change during the 1990s, the capitalist economic system was booming and employment was high. Although these protestors may have been displeased with the idea of inequality and poverty in third-world countries, many of these unpleasant realities did not directly affect their quality of life (Webb 74-75). However, the Occupy Wall Street protesters faced a far less favourable economic situation. According to the United States Bureau of Labour, the unemployment rate in June 1999 (the month in which the anti-globalisation protesters held their J18 Carnival Against Capital international demonstration) was 4.3%. The number of unemployed persons who were searching for their first job had fallen to 349,000 nationwide. The employment statistics for October 2011 (the month in which Occupy Wall Street’s 15-M synchronised global protests occurred) were far less pleasant. The overall unemployment rate stood at 9%. The number of unemployed new entrants into the job market had climbed to 1,293,000 nationwide. The anti-globalisation protests occurred in a period of sustained prosperity; the Occupy Wall Street protests occurred in the context of a prolonged economic recession. The differences between these environments may serve as an explanation for many of the divergences between the two movements which will be discussed below.
- Size and Scope: The anti-globalisation protests were far smaller in size than the Occupy Wall Street movement, with protests only occurring in a handful of large cities during the decade. Furthermore, these cities, namely Seattle, Montréal, Genoa and London are all wealthy Western cities. By contrast, Occupy Wall Street protests have been held in 951 cities in 82 countries. Lists of these may be found here and here, although it is important to remember this data is user-submitted. Protests have been reported in smaller towns and in cities which do not play a major role in their country’s economy. Additionally, many of the protests occurred in non-Western nations and in developing nations, such as the countries of South America. OWS protests are far more widespread, and have managed to transcend cultural boundaries to a greater extent than the anti-globalisation movement, which remained confined to Western cities with a key role in the economy.
- Strategy: The anti-globalisation protests occurred sporadically and were day-long events in which protestors gathered at a specific location, voiced their dissent, then went home. Occupy Wall Street protestors have typically remained encamped at the location of their protest until being forcefully removed by police.
- Demands: The demands of Occupy Wall Street protestors are not clearly defined, which allows them to agitate for change in many areas. This makes the movement more adaptable, and it has been used as a platform by individuals and groups with many different agendas. OWS demands broad social change, and individuals within the movement have demanded education reform, political change, healthcare reform, immigration reform and many other issues. By contrast, anti-globalisation protestors confined the scope of their protests to economic matters. Therefore, their goals were far narrower, and the movement had more of a unified focus. Within the area of economic demands, the OWS protestors certainly seem to voice more radical demands than those expressed by the anti-globalisation protests. Perhaps this radicalisation is a result of desperation stemming from the economic downturn or, more likely, the large size and visible status of the movement –for, as Bill Wasik argues, a group which perceives itself to be powerful will act in a more extreme manner (Wasik 7). The anti-globalisation protestors opposed the particular manner in which capitalism was being used, not the idea of capitalism itself (Webb 74). However, there are visible elements of anti-capitalist thought among the OWS protestors, such as the Workers World Party.
- Opponents: OWS differs from anti-globalisation protests because the movement has named specific opponents. Occupy Wall Street protests against “the 1%” of the wealthy, the Republican Party, banks, corporations and other persons or institutions mostly associated with the conservative establishment. OWS has selected specific targets and made their displeasure with these extremely public. Their hostility toward their opponents is palpable, and many of the protestors want the elites whom they dislike removed from power. In this sense, they are true “revolutionaries” who want to replace one societal order with another (Webb 74). The anti-globalisation activists objected to the manner in which capitalism was utilised, but had no explicitly named enemies and rarely called for leaders to be removed from power (Webb 74-76). Thus, OWS protesters are more strident in their demands and more targeted at their opponents than the anti-globalisation activists.
- Technology: Although the anti-globalisation protests occurred in the internet age, the 1990s-era agitators did not have access to much of the technology used by OWS in the new millennium. I have not been able to find a website established by the anti-globalisation movement. By contrast, OWS has a tumblr and a twitter account to communicate with its followers. OWS also benefits from an increase in the speed and portability of technology; its adherents can follow the movement’s online presence with laptops and smartphones, and may thus receive updates at a moment’s notice. OWS’s use of technology makes it a more adaptable movement capable of rapid and spontaneous action. The challenge for these more connected protestors is maintaining control and avoiding unwanted mob-like outbursts.
Is the Occupy Wall Street movement strong because it constitutes a reaction against an unfriendly economic situation? Is the movement’s open platform more appealing to the public? Or does the movement owe its larger spread to the significant technological advancements which have occurred since the 1990s?
Global protests are a relatively new phenomenon, and their nature is still evolving. Clearly, the face of global protest can undergo a great deal of change in a short amount of time. What differences will another decade bring in the methods of global social movements? I’d love to hear your thoughts!