Author Archives: eimilealoisia

What is Occupy Wall Street? Global and Flexible!

What is Occupy Wall Street? Such an abstract question would seem difficult to answer — no broadly accepted standard definition exists, not even within the movement itself. Nevertheless, we can arrive at an answer to this question by examining some prominent characteristics of this movement. Occupy Wall Street is a broad platform used by individuals or groups of people as a means of raising awareness of their grievances. However, these grievances differ across nations, and even across regions within the same country.

OWS is a global movement, the most widespread in modern history, with locations in 951 cities in 82 countries. Although Samuel Huntington’s “civilisations” theory is deeply flawed in an academic sense, it is useful to us in our attempt to see the extent of the popularity of OWS. According to Huntington’s theory, the world is divided into nine “civilisations” — geographic areas which share the same general culture, ethnicity and values. The civilisations are as follows: 1. Western (most of Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand), 2. Orthodox (Russia and the Slavic nations of Eastern Europe), 3. Islamic (the Maghreb, the Middle East, Central Asia and some parts of South Asia), 4. African (African nations not included in the Maghreb), 5. Latin American (Mexico, Central America and South America), 6. Sinic (China and parts of Southeast Asia), 7. Hindu (parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh), 8. Buddhist (Mongolia, parts of China and Southeast Asia), and 9. Japanese (Japan).

Huntington's civilisations

Map of Huntington’s civilisations

OWS protests have been reported in each of Huntington’s nine civilisations, even in countries like China and Russia which are known to be politically repressive and which have responded violently to peaceful protests in the past. Some of these protestors are “occupying” despite a real possibility of mistreatment or physical harm from their governments. Clearly, there is something about OWS which is motivating people all over the world to join in. This far-reaching appeal speaks to the movement’s status as a broad platform for the airing of various grievances. All these people throughout the world are not agitating against the same set of perceived ills, they each have their own grievances which they would like to make known. Indeed, in its current state, the movement as a whole can hardly be referred to or thought of as merely “Occupy Wall Street” — this term suggests a too-narrow set of goals and ideals. When discussing the movement in general, it is more appropriate to use the broader term “Occupy,” in order to better reflect its status as a sort of springboard for countless divergent agendas.

Map of OWS protests

Occupy Wall Street protests across the globe

At its inception (when “Occupy” was still confined to Wall Street), OWS was a movement against economic inequality. For many of the original protestors, this problem lay at the root of many other issues, such as government corruption. As Occupy spread nationally and internationally, its functions and purposes were adapted by the newcomers to better reflect their desires.

In some countries, the broad ideas evinced by the original OWS protestors are preserved, but some aspects of Occupy are tailored to address issues more specific to that country. This trend is especially evident in European Union nations, who merged Occupy with a local movement known as “Indignados” (the indignants). Europeans were “indignant” over the same general issues which had enflamed the protestors at Zucotti Park, and they took to the streets to oppose government bailout for banks and the luxuries enjoyed by elites at the expense of the common people. In Slovenia, the movement earned the nickname “Za več svobode,” meaning “for more freedom.” The EU protests shared the New York protestors’ desire for a more egalitarian society, feeling that a reduction of economic inequality would reduce government corruption and therefore allow for a more free society. However, European Occupiers also spoke against the austerity measures being enacted by their debt-ridden governments. Austerity was not an issue commonly mentioned by New York City occupiers, since the American government has not enacted any such measures. Therefore, EU Occupiers added this EU-specific issue to the Occupy movement. Thus, Occupy protests in the EU exhibited both broad themes and region-specific themes, which illustrate the adaptability of the Occupy platform.

Indignados protestors in Spain

Indignados protestors marching against austerity measures in Spain

In other countries, Occupy is being used as a means to show solidarity for those suffering economic hardship. This is especially true in the socialist nations of Scandinavia, where income inequality is low. Thanks to the extremely high taxes of the Nordic Model, citizens of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland receive many high-quality services from their governments, and all four countries are consistently ranked among the top ten happiest countries in the world by the Legatum Institute. Rather than protesting the conditions in their own countries, several Scandinavians have joined the movement to encourage other countries to adopt the Nordic Model as a solution to their problems of economic inequality.

Solidarity for OWS in Finland

A young man from Finland shows solidarity for the Occupy protestors in the United States

In other countries, Occupy is being used as a vehicle to demand a different sort of change. In Iran, “Occupy Wall Street” protests have been staged to make a political statement against the West itself, not merely against some of its practices. A Reuters video shows protestors burning American and Israeli flags. These protests were ostensibly organised by students, but there has been speculation that they were in fact orchestrated by the government. Whether the Iranian protestors burned those flags on their own volition or under orders from their government, the fact remains that they did this in the name of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street is so adaptable that it can be used by virtually any group, for virtually any purpose.

In some areas, Occupy is being used to bring attention to other causes which are not intrinsically related to the movement. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, a one-day event was held to occupy Plymouth Rock in a show of solidarity for Wampanoag indians. This manifestation was a yearly event, and was merely renamed “occupy” in an attempt to raise interest for the event. Here, the “Occupy” name is being adopted without the adoption of any of its original ideas — it is merely being used as a vehicle to increase the status of an unrelated cause.

These widely divergent agendas of Occupy protestors are made possible by the movement’s loose structure. Jenna does an excellent job of describing two perspectives on this. Some people, like founder and CEO of Psych Central John Grohol, Psy. D. would claim the movement is entirely leaderless. For Grohol, the lack of named and recognised leadership stands as an obstacle to Occupy’s ability to achieve any real change. Comparing the movement to the American Revolution, he argues the American independence movement was successful largely due to the founding fathers’ willingness to step forward as publicly-known leaders. Grohol also sees Occupy’s lack of clearly defined objectives further impedes the movement’s success. Grohol does not feel the protestors will get anything accomplished by using the current Occupy methods.

Journalist Nigel Underleider disagrees with Grohol, arguing that Occupy Wall Street does receive a measure of guidance from its nine “key players,” individuals and organisations who hold sway within the movement. Underleider also feels that Occupy has been successful at accomplishing “things,” although he does not give any specifics as to the nature of those “things.”

Ultimately, I believe Occupy has been successful in raising awareness of grievances which had been largely ignored by mainstream society. This consciousness-raising is, after all, what I believe the ultimate function of the movement to be. The movement’s ability to bring public and media attention to grievances so diverse as austerity measures in Europe, anti-American sentiment in Iran and the colonial era abuse of Native Americans in Massachusetts is a function of its loose structure and fluid nature. The movement’s broadness, the attribute which makes it the most difficult to define, is also the attribute which is most important to its adherents. Thanks to that broadness, Occupy can serve as a broad platform from which virtually anyone can raise virtually any issue. That broadness has also helped the movement achieve success in its goals of raising popular awareness. Occupy Wall Street may have gone global, but it was able to do so thanks to its most important characteristic: its flexibility.

As always, I welcome your comments. Thank you for reading my posts!



Is Occupy Wall Street actually benefiting New York City?

In this article from Forbes magazine, Tom Watson points out that OWS is having unintended good effects on the economy of New York City, since tourists are coming to see the protestors. Rather than attempting to evict them, Mayor Bloomberg should accept them as a permanent New York City feature, and actually take measures to accommodate and promote the group. An interesting opinion piece!

Why get involved ? Motivations for supporting OWS differ across the globe

As I have discussed in my previous posts, Occupy Wall Street is a global social movement of unprecedented size. The movement is also noteworthy for its refusal to articulate demands which would be seen as the goals of every participant in the movement. In the early stages of the movement, a “Demands” group working from Manhattan attempted to devise a specific proposal on behalf of OWS demanding the ending of all wars and heavier taxation on the wealthy in order to implement a New-Deal style programme which would create 25 million government jobs. However, this proposal met with stringent opposition from other segments of the movement. In response, other OWS members worked together online to create the Liberty Square Blueprint, a document discouraging the formation of goals and outlining a very broad “vision” of what the OWS movement hoped to accomplish. An excerpt from the document reads, “Demands cannot reflect inevitable success. Demands imply condition, and we will never stop.” In other words, since demands cannot adequately convey the magnitude of the social revolution OWS hopes to effectuate, they are not appropriate for the movement. Those opposed to goals see the enumeration of concrete aims as a threat which would limit the scope and effectiveness of the mocement. Furthermore, the task of setting goals for the movement is complicated by its decentralised nature. A Zucotti Park occupier known as Ketchup explained, “If anyone is attempting to speak for OWS, that’s bullshit” (Harkinson).

Since the movement lacks a clearly defined ideology, reasons for joining may differ between individual protestors. This is especially true when we consider the movement’s spread to other countries. Internationally, OWS has been used in a variety of ways, most of which are different from its original use in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park.

Some individuals, notably EU residents, have used the movement to protest inequality and economic woes in their own countries. Faced with government spending cuts and austerity measures, many of these protestors are being adversely affected by the current economic situation. Others, such as the Iranian protestors, have used the movement as a means of drawing attention to their anti-western stance. Still others have joined the movement, not because they are discontented with their personal economic standing, but as a means of showing solidarity with citizens of other countries whom they perceive to be unjustly suffering.

On its Facebook page, “Occupy Events” has posted several images of individuals affiliated with the  OWS movement. Several of these photographs show an individual holding a piece of paper which describes his or her grievances and support of the movement. Most messages are signed with “I am the 99%.” One of these, written by a young man from Finland who feels “sad” for Americans, is below:

OWS Finland

I am a 21 year-old student from Finland. It makes me sad to hear how Americans are suffering.

Here, our taxes are high but we all benefit from them.

I grew up in the countryside and always had access to the same services that people in the city did.

My university is known around the world in my field and my education is not only free, but my government pays ME [sic] to go to university. Everyone has a right to this.

Everyone has a right to the best healthcare, there is no such thing as health insurance.

I am young now and able to take risks and pursue my passion because I will never have to worry about starving if I loose [sic] my job or my business fails. I know that when I am old my state pension will be there for me so that I can enjoy my retirement.

We call this the Nordic Model, and under it we live well and our businesses are among the most competitive in the world. I am grateful to have been born a citizen of a country that cares for its people, and I hope that one day the USA will take an example from us.

I am the 99%

According to his message, this young man is not personally experiencing any economic hardship. He is pleased with his quality of life, and with life in general in his country. He appears to view the government as a competent, even a benevolent, entity in which he has great confidence. Rather than demanding that another model be adopted in his country, this man recommends that his country’s model be adopted by the United States.

The language used by this OWS sympathiser is one of universal rights. Speaking of education and healthcare, he writes “everyone has a right to this.” He also emphasises the economic and social equality among residents of Finland, explaining that access to social services is the same for all the country’s residents. For this man, Finland’s Nordic Model is beneficial to all its citizens; he writes “we all benefit from them” of his country’s high taxes and “under it we live well” of the Nordic Model. Furthermore, he does not see the Nordic Model as beneficial only to Finland. The young man sees Finland’s system as universally viable and expresses a hope that it will spread to other countries.

This agitator represents an interesting by-product of global protest in the age of social networking. He is involved in the movement to show solidarity for a distant group with whom he likely has no direct connection. Such an action is a result of the weak ties which Malcom Gladwell claims are formed between protestors in the modern era (Gladwell). His message is not one of anger or discontentment, but one of pity and support. Although he has no incentive to take to the streets, he is able to share his support of the movement quickly and easily thanks to the internet.

Surprisingly, this young man’s message has met with disapproval, or even derision, from some of the “Occupy Events” page’s fans. Despite some comments mocking the youth and his country, this young man’s message has spread to a global audience, having received 8 653 “likes” and 4 425 “shares.” Additionally, it is important to remember that the movement’s fan page may be being used by individuals who disagree with OWS. Such a trend has already been seen with OWS-related hashtags on twitter.

In the age of globalisation, greater interconnection breeds ties and feelings of solidarity which bridge oceans and continents. Such a phenomenon would have been highly unusual one hundred years ago, when global communication was extremely limited. OWS’s vague platform and use of modern technology allows its message to spread abroad on an unprecedented scale. When the movement progresses overseas, its message may be changed from its original intent. But some OWS protestors, such as Ketchup, may see this as a highly positive occurrence. Whether or not OWS protestors are happy with the uses of their movement seen overseas, they must certainly be pleased with the additional attention which the activities of international protestors being to their cause (whatever that may be).

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

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.

An OWS protestor in New York City holds a sign reading "Capitalism is Organised Crime! This whole system has got to go."

Workers World Party members protest capitalism at a New York City OWS protest in September 2011

  • 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.

This OWS protestor has identified a specific corporate target

This OWS protestor advocates a class war, ostensibly with the revolutionary goal of removing current elites from power

  • 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!


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!


Occupy Wall Street goes global

Since its beginnings in New York City, the Occupy Wall Street movement has become a worldwide phenomenon with a presence in 82 countries. However, this rapid spread has not been entirely beneficial to the movement’s image.

Bill Wasik describes an incident in which electronic musician Kaskade accidentally caused mayhem by tweeting that he would put on an impromptu show in a public place as publicity for his new album. As the tweet spread, a large crowd overran the area and resisted policemen’s efforts to disperse them. Although Kaskade generated a substantial response, he was unhappy with the result. He asked his crazed fans to go home, worried they would tarnish the image of electronic music.

A similar problem has arisen for the original OWS protesters. Although most countries have followed the intended principles of the movement, some have not. In Spain, an existing movement which had used violent riots associated itself with the nonviolent OWS. In Italy, a peaceful protest turned violent when protesters began rioting and destroying property. These highly visible violent outbursts harm the peaceful image of OWS.

OWS has also been co-opted to spread a different message than its intent. In Iran, students used “occupy wall street” protests to show radical anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments. The notoriety of the movement is being hijacked by others to gain a higher profile for their own ideas.

As Wasik says, groups and initiatives can become more visible through their use of social media. However, they risk becoming visible enough that they lose control of their message.