“We Are the 99 Percent:” Globalized Crisis, Local Response


A common theme has emerged in the mainstream media’s reporting on the “OWS/We are the 99 percent” protests: that it is part of an international movement against global capitalism. The campaigns in different countries are merged into an amalgam of discontents, an international protest against economic distress.

The problem with this narrative is that it fails to distinguish between the obvious similarities of the rhetoric and tactics of the protests, and the social movements behind them, which are specific to each country.

This homogenizing narrative has the effect of  neutralizing the symbolic power of the OWS movement in our national dialogue. OWS is about Wall Street in New York and all it represents, and – while there may be many analogous streets in Spain, Cairo, Rome, London and so forth – what has captured the imagination of Americans are the protesters occupying places like Zuccotti Plaza near Wall Street, Dewey Square in Boston, and LaSalle & Jackson in downtown Chicago. These are places we know and which are part of our local and national imaginaries.

The narrative is clearly shown in the press reports of Saturday’s day of action. The London Independent discerned the start of a global upheaval: “Protests against corporate greed, executive excess and public austerity began to gel into the beginnings of a worldwide movement yesterday as tens of thousands marched in scores of cities. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest, which started in Canada and spread to the US, and the long-running Spanish ‘Indignant’ and Greek anti-cuts demonstrations coalesced on a day that saw marches or occupations in 82 countries.”

Likewise, the New York Times saw a protest tsunami: “Buoyed by the longevity of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan, a wave of protests swept across Asia, the Americas and Europe over the weekend, with hundreds and in some cases thousands of people expressing discontent with the economic tides in marches, rallies and occasional clashes with the police. … Yet despite the difference in language, landscape and scale, the protests were united in frustration with the widening gap between the rich and the poor.”

The Guardian reported: “Protests inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and the ‘Indignants’ in Spain have spread to cities around the world;” and the Washington Post concurred: “Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York, protesters [in London] entered a second day of demonstrations Sunday …”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius presented a lengthy justification of this homogenizing approach last week. He wrote: “What’s intriguing about the eruption of Occupy Wall Street is that it’s so similar to other populist movements that are demanding change in nearly every major region of the world. You can’t help but wonder if we aren’t seeing, as a delayed reaction to the financial crisis of 2008, a kind of ‘global spring’ of discontent.

“Obviously, circumstances differ: The anti-corporate activists gathered in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park have a different agenda than the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or this past summer’s rioting street protesters in Britain and Greece, or the anti-corruption marchers in New Delhi. … But the protesters do share some basics: rejection of traditional political elites; a belief that ‘globalization’ benefits the rich more than the masses; anger about intertwined business and political corruption; and the connectedness and empowerment fostered by Facebook and other social media.”

The common core of similarities that Ignatius lists doesn’t tell us much more than that their rhetoric is the same and they use similar methods of communication. By detaching them from their specifics, he can even detect an anti-elite commonality between the “Occupy” movement and the Tea Party. His conclusion is to attribute all the protests to an abstract moral concern. “It’s a stretch, perhaps, to look for shared themes in such disparate countries,” he concedes. “But these movements seem to have a common indignation toward leaders who are failing to maintain social justice along with global economic change. That’s certainly true in America, where the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street both rage against a financial elite that stumbled into a ruinous recession — and then got bailed out by a Washington elite that’s in hock to special interests.” Ignatius uses “Rage against the elite” as a shorthand to obfuscate the differences between the OWC/We Are the 99 Percent and Tea Party in the national context, and then blur both of these in an international matrix.

The difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party was made abundantly clear on Thursday night, when local politicians responded to the many phone calls of their constituents by pressurizing the owners of Zuccotti Plaza to call off their planned “clean-up” of the park. The Tea Party never had such popular support in New York, and it never raged against any financial elites: it raged against the Obama administration on behalf of its constituency of white, older, Republican voters and the super-rich who funded it. And to turn the international narrative on its head, we do not see thousands of people rising up around the world to support the ideologically driven Tea Party.

Without losing sight of international solidarity, it has to be stressed that “OWC/We are the 99 percent” is a specifically American and pluralist response to the globalized financial crisis. Americans of all ages, races and genders face the dismantling of the social contract and the breaking of promises of a better life. We have grown up expecting government to be of, by, and for the people, and are enraged by a political system that has rewarded bankers for fraud and punished the public with an economic recession. A typical sign at the occupation says: “I’m here because I can’t afford my own lobbyists.” That defines the opposition to the Wall Street elite’s political domination better than any journalistic analysis.

8 Comments

Filed under austerity measures, credit creation, debt limit impasse, financiers, marxism, monetary economies, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, populism, Tea Party movement, Uncategorized, We are the 99 percent

8 responses to ““We Are the 99 Percent:” Globalized Crisis, Local Response

  1. Caught In A Riptide

    Why Occupy?
    Why Protest?

    Simple; The US economy is broken. Incomes are less than they were 35 years ago. Everything costs more. We’ve had 17% unemployment (traditional measure) for 2 years and we’re about to lose many more jobs.. Our collective debt is 370% of our GDP (from all sources, from consumer to gov’t). Our financial system has a) enabled the transfer of our manufacturing jobs to a mercantilist (managed trade) China and b) stolen the rest of our wealth (and is in the process of gambling what’s left of it away). Finally, given the ongoing instability of our economic system, we don’t have long before the entire thing fails and with it our collective future (rich or poor).

    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/10/some-random-items-re-occupy-question-how-do-you-reform-capitalism-if-the-current-corruptedbroken-system-completely-rej.html

  2. Lake Effect Snow

    Excuse me, but who declared this to be “the age of austerity”? And austerity for who, exactly? The 30 people who last dined at Chez Friedman may not have noticed, but “austerity” is failing all over itself all over the world. Ask the ordinary Brits how much “austerity” has done for them. Ask theIrish. Ask the Greeks. Austerity is a way to make the rest of us pay in blood for the crimes and bungling of our political and financial elites — that’s you, Tom and a way for the governments that are wholly owned subsidiaries of those same elites to buy time for themselves while, outside, the people who took the hosing over the last 30 years are beginning to object.

    http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/alzheimers-class-program-6516493

  3. Newz 4 All

    Glenn Greenwald asks: What are those OWS people so angry about?

    One of the most revealing aspects of the rapidly growing OccupyWallStreet protest movement has been the bewilderment and befuddlement expressed by so many media stars as to what the “message” is of these protests and what these protesters are so angry about.

    One point that I think becomes clear is that growing wealth and income inequality, by itself, would not spark massive protests if there were a perception that the top 1% (more accurately thought of as the top .1%) had acquired their gains honestly and legitimately. Americans in particular have been inculcated for decades with the belief that even substantial outcome inequality is acceptable (even desirable) provided that it is the by-product of fairly applied rules. What makes this inequality so infuriating (aside from the human suffering it is generating) is precisely that it is illegitimate: it is caused and bolstered by decisively unfair application of laws and rules, by undemocratic control of the political process by the nation’s oligarchs, and by a full-scale shield of immunity that allows them — and only them — to engage in the most egregious corruption and even criminality without any consequence (other than a further entrenching of their prerogatives and ill-gotten gains).

    Anyone who expressed difficulty seeing or understanding what motivates these protests revealed many things about themselves. None is flattering.

    http://www.salon.com/2011/10/17/what_are_those_ows_people_so_angry_about/singleton/

  4. Dennis Hopper

    These last weeks, there have been two “occupations” in lower Manhattan, one of which has been getting almost all the coverage — that of the demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park. The other, in the shadows, has been hardly less massive, sustained, or in its own way impressive — the police occupation of the Wall Street area.

    On a recent visit to the park, I found the streets around the Stock Exchange barricaded and blocked off to traffic, and police everywhere in every form (in and out of uniform) — on foot, on scooters, on motorcycles, in squad cars with lights flashing, on horses, in paddy wagons or minivans, you name it. At the park’s edge, there is a police observation tower capable of being raised and lowered hydraulically and literally hundreds of police are stationed in the vicinity. I counted more than 50 of them on just one of its sides at a moment when next to nothing was going on — and many more can be seen almost anywhere in the Wall Street area, lolling in doorways, idling in the subway, ambling on the plazas of banks, and chatting in the middle of traffic-less streets.

    This might be seen as massive overkill. After all, the New York police have already shelled out an extra $1.9 million, largely in overtime pay at a budget-cutting moment in the city. When, as on Thursday, 100 to 150 marchers suddenly headed out from Zuccotti Park to circle Chase Bank several blocks away, close to the same number of police — some with ominous clumps of flexi-cuffs dangling from their belts — calved off with them. It’s as if the Occupy Wall Street movement has an eternal dark shadow that follows it everywhere.

    At one level, this is all mystifying. The daily crowds in the park remain remarkably, even startlingly, peaceable. (Any violence has generally been the product of police action.) On an everyday basis, a squad of 10 or 15 friendly police officers could easily handle the situation. There is, of course, another possibility suggested to me by one of the policemen loitering at the Park’s edge doing nothing in particular: “Maybe they’re peaceable because we’re here.” And here’s a second possibility: as my friend Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, said to me, “This is the most important piece of real estate on the planet and they’re scared. Look how amazed we are. Imagine how they feel, especially after so many decades of seeing nothing like it.”

    And then there’s a third possibility: that two quite separate universes are simply located in the vicinity of each other and of what, since September 12, 2001, we’ve been calling Ground Zero. Think of it as Ground Zero Doubled, or think of it as the militarized recent American past and the unknown, potentially inspiring American future occupying something like the same space. (You can, of course, come up with your own pairings, some far less optimistic.) In their present state, New York’s finest represent a local version of the way this country has been militarized to its bones in these last years and, since 9/11, transformed into a full-scale surveillance-intelligence-homeland-security state.

    Their stakeout in Zuccotti Park is geared to extreme acts, suicide bombers, and terrorism, as well as to a conception of protest and opposition as alien and enemy-like. They are trying to herd, lock in, and possibly strangle a phenomenon that bears no relation to any of this. They are, that is, policing the wrong thing, which is why every act of pepper spraying or swing of the truncheon, every aggressive act (as in the recent eviction threat to “clean” the park) blows back on them and only increases the size and coverage of the movement.

    Though much of the time they are just a few feet apart, the armed state backing that famed 1%, or Wall Street, and the unarmed protesters claiming the other 99% might as well be in two different times in two different universes connected by a Star-Trekkian wormhole and meeting only where pepper spray hits eyes.

    Which means anyone visiting the Occupy Wall Street site is also watching a strange dance of phantoms. Still, we do know one thing. This massive semi-militarized force we continue to call “the police” will, in the coming years, only grow more so. After all, they know but one way to operate.

    Right now, for instance, over crowds of protesters the police hover in helicopters with high-tech cameras and sensors, but in the future there can be little question that in the skies of cities like New York, the police will be operating advanced drone aircraft. The first attack on an American neighborhood, not one in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, or Libya, surely lurks somewhere in our future. Empires, after all, have a way of coming home to roost.

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175454/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_mapping_america%27s_shadowy_drone_wars/

  5. Bernard Shakey

    Remember this: in 1932, three years into the Great Depression, most Americans were more demoralized than mobilized. A few years later, all that had changed as “Our Street, Not Wall Street” came alive. The political class had to scurry to keep up. Occupy Wall Street may indeed prove the opening act in an unfolding drama of renewed resistance and rebellion against “the system.”

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175453/tomgram%3A_steve_fraser%2C_the_street_of_torments/

  6. Oh My Brother

    He Made It on Wall Street and Used It to Help Start the Protests

    Robert S. Halper, a retired Wall Street trader, spends time each day in Zuccotti Park talking to protesters about politics and their thoughts on reforming the banking system.

    But Halper, a 52-year-old Brooklyn native, never reveals two facts about himself: he is a former vice chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange and the largest single donor to the nonprofit magazine that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    Halper said he first heard about the plan for protests in June when he visited Kalle Lasn, the editor in chief of Adbusters, a Canadian anticorporate magazine, in Vancouver. Over a steak dinner, the two longtime friends discussed Lasn’s project, a plan to fill Wall Street with protesters as a way to galvanize anger on the political left into a revolutionary movement resembling the Arab Spring.

    Halper readily admits to being a member of the so-called One Percent — the top slice of American earners, who have been vilified by the protesters. “The fact that I made a lot of money, things just worked out for me,” he said. “There’s some issues where we’re all in it together.”

    Halper said his conversations with protesters had made him think a lot about what should be done. “If there’s pain, it should be shared,” he said. “The people who have money — they should pay something more, whether that’s in taxes or somewhere else.”

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/he-made-it-on-wall-st-and-used-it-to-help-start-the-protests/

    http://www.adbusters.org/

  7. Rust Never Sleeps

    Powerful words from stalwart OWS supporter Chris Hedges @ TruthDig:

    Tinkering with the corporate state will not work. We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands. This radical message, one that demands a reversal of the corporate coup, is one the power elite, including the liberal class, is desperately trying to thwart. But the liberal class has no credibility left. It collaborated with corporate lobbyists to neglect the rights of tens of millions of Americans, as well as the innocents in our imperial wars. The best that liberals can do is sheepishly pretend this is what they wanted all along. Groups such as MoveOn and organized labor will find themselves without a constituency unless they at least pay lip service to the protests. The Teamsters’ arrival Friday morning to help defend the park signaled an infusion of this new radicalism into moribund unions rather than a co-opting of the protest movement by the traditional liberal establishment. The union bosses, in short, had no choice.

    The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated the narrow political parameters. It proposes something new. It will not make concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power. It holds fast to moral imperatives regardless of the cost. It confronts authority out of a sense of responsibility. It is not interested in formal positions of power. It is not seeking office. It is not trying to get people to vote. It has no resources. It can’t carry suitcases of money to congressional offices or run millions of dollars of advertisements. All it can do is ask us to use our bodies and voices, often at personal risk, to fight back. It has no other way of defying the corporate state. This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or virtual one. It affirms our dignity. It permits us to become free and independent human beings.

    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_movement_too_big_to_fail_20111017/

  8. Not a Sansculotte Yet

    The Colonel’s post and the comments here address the issue of how the legitimacy of the protests is being read and contested on our public sphere. That the internationalization of the narrative is designed to draw dismissal and derision is confirmed by yet another commentator in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum, who makes a ludicrous leap of reason in arguing by tautological analogy. She writes “Although I still believe in globalization’s economic and spiritual benefits — along with open borders, freedom of movement and free trade — globalization has clearly begun to undermine the legitimacy of Western democracies. ” The argument goes something like: because there have been global protests resembling each other, these are similar to globalization, but different because they demand political change, and thus undermine democracy because they are global. Thus in insisting on how OWS is particular to America, the Colonel gives the lie to the internationalizers, and as he points out, it’s an argument with a double edge that also highlights why OWS is different from the Tea Party (another pet canard comparison of commentators). Clearly, the deregulated, transnational, chaotic character of international finance is causing havoc in countries on both sides of the Atlantic. How people respond in each context is another and what we cannot lose sight of here.

    To my mind, the “shadow” of police presence that Dennis Hopper points to in his valuable comment is evidence of how serious and *legitimate* the OWS/We are the 99% is in the eyes of the powers that be and in the eyes of the people. They are shinning the light on the hydra monster of finance capital and bought politicians–(that Ms. Applebaum, is the real threat to Western democracies). The suggestion that we are witnessing a “Ground Zero Doubled” does highlight the militarized state, and it’s a really evocative concept. I would also suggest it indicates the transformative power of the 99% in the same way that two negatives multiplied become a positive. The 99% have reversed the dynamic of debt (actuality predicated against the future) into an affirmation of the actual to claim the future. So while the police can harass, arrest, haunt, intimidate, wound, hurt, and even crush–the feeling that our future is here and now is not going away anytime soon. And as the Colonel chronicled a few posts back, the reason the PoPo backed off on Friday morning was because actual constituents–average New Yorkers–called local officials to stop the eviction.

    Expect the movement to grow because its urgency is legitimate and rooted in the people’s experiences of poverty, hunger, homelessness, illness, and vanishing of hope regardless of what billionaire contributor to Romney’s campaign is now fanning about claiming to have started the movement over a steak dinner in Vancouver (which is a lovely city, by the way) or a magazine taking the credit.

    Even they know the 99% is way bigger than them.

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