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).
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.
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.
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.
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!