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.