The Occupy protests are part of a global movement that is questioning the basic structures of the political and economic system to an extent not seen since 1968. Whether it will succeed in changing these structures is unclear. But, Roger Burbach says, it has already created something far more powerful: a global shift in consciousness.
* * *
“Shut It Down”, “No More Shipping for the 1%” and “Death to Capitalism” proclaimed some of the banners near me as I joined thousands of demonstrators who converged on the Port of Oakland on a sunny afternoon in November.
The west coast United States city is part of a global movement that has changed the terms of the political debate in the US, stealing much of the thunder from the right-wing Tea Party movement and shaking governments around the world in a way not seen since the 1960s.
It started with Tunisia and the Arab Spring, then spread to Spain and the Indignados movement, to Chile with the huge student mobilisation for an end to education for profit, to England with the urban riots, to Athens with the huge demonstrations against the tyranny of the euro and the financial markets, and then to New York with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Two comparable uprisings have rocked the course of history.
The revolutions of 1848 in Europe — known as the Spring Time of the Peoples — challenged monarchs, aristocrats and autocrats alike as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels penned the Communist Manifesto.
Disturbances and revolutions took place in more than 50 countries and thousands died with untold numbers fleeing abroad.
Then, one century and two decades later in 1968, a broad anti-systemic movement roiled the globe on many fronts: the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the global anti-war movement, the student and worker uprising in Paris, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the riots in Chicago at the Democratic convention and the Mexican student protests that led to the massacre at Tlatelolco Plaza.
None of these historic revolts succeeded in taking power, but they changed the world in profound ways, just as the great revolt of 2011 is doing.
As in 1968, today’s uprising is anti-systemic — calling for fundamental changes in the world's political and economic order.
The youthful demonstrators of Tahrir Square in Cairo and the young people camped out in Zuccotti Park in New York see no future in the governments that control their countries, be they authoritarian or democratic.
As Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote: “Social protest has found fertile ground everywhere: a sense that the ‘system’ has failed and the conviction that even in a democracy, the electoral process will not set things right — at least not without strong pressure from the street.”
A strong sense of solidarity and communication exists among these movements.
The initial squatters in New York City openly acknowledged that they were inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. When the police crackdown took place against Occupy Oakland in late October, Egyptians sent communiques of support and marched to the US embassy in Cairo calling for an end to police violence in Oakland.
Weeks later, a group of media and political activists in Cairo sent out a call for international support against the growing military repression in their country: "We are still fighting for our revolution. We are marching, occupying, striking, shutting things down. And you, too, are marching, occupying, striking, shutting things down.
“We know from the outpouring of support we received in January that the world was watching us closely and even inspired by our revolution. We felt closer to you than ever before.
“And now, it’s your turn to inspire us as we watch the struggles of your movements ... If they stifle our resistance, the 1% will win, in Cairo, New York, London, Rome — everywhere.
“But while the revolution lives our imaginations know no bounds. We can still create a world worth living.”
October 15 marked an international upsurge in the movement. The headline of the Guardian newspaper of London proclaimed: “Occupy Anti-Capitalism Protests Spread Around the World.”
Tens of thousands rallied and marched in London, Frankfurt, Madrid, Rome, Sydney, Hong Kong, Toronto, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro and scores of other cities around the globe.
Although the demonstrators were largely peaceful, the police cracked down in many cities and clashes in Rome became particularly violent.
A banner in Rome read: “People of Europe Rise Up.” In Berlin banners called for an end to capitalism and in Frankfurt protesters fought with police in front of the European Central Bank.
These were the largest global protests since the international mobilisation in February 2003 tried to stop the Bush administration from going to war in Iraq. But the protest movement today — driven by the Great Recession that threw the global economy into crisis —runs deeper and is far more resilient than that of 2003.
At the heart of the crisis are international banks that got bailed out as millions of people lost their jobs, life savings, homes and their bread. As Naomi Wolf said, the “enemy is a global ‘corporatocracy’ that has purchased governments and legislatures, created its own armed enforcers, engaged in systemic economic fraud and plundered treasuries and ecosystems".
Meanwhile, the “corporatocracy” is determined to maintain its power and privileges as it comes under increasing scrutiny.
In Europe, draconian austerity policies are being imposed to rescue the euro, policies that will condemn Europe and much of the world to stagnant economic growth for years to come.
In Greece and Italy, democracy is shunted aside as elections are avoided and technocrats beholden to the big banks are put in charge.
For much of the post-World War II period, it was believed that the inherent conflict between the “free market” and democracy could be reconciled. The electorate would refrain from interfering in the markets in exchange for steady employment, economic growth and access to an ever-increasing array of consumer commodities.
Now this compact is broken.
The financial markets ruin any country and its populace if it refuses to accept austerity and a decline in its standard of living. The “sovereign debt” must be paid, insist the bankers and the financial markets.
In effect, democracy is under siege.
In the US, a country where ideology and the left have a weak legacy, the top 1% get more than 20% of the national income, up from 9% when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. Perhaps the most telling figure is that one-tenth of the top 1% earn as much as the bottom 120 million people.
This is why the slogans “Occupy Wall Street” and “We are the 99%” captured the imagination of people across the US when the first tents went up in Zuccotti Park in New York City.
The genius of the movement is its refusal to tie itself to a particular set of demands. The grievances are so extensive — a lack of jobs, an unequal distribution of income, a decline in educational opportunities, a lack of affordable housing, the high cost of medical care, corporate funding of elections — that the entire system has to be taken on.
The police assaults against the urban camps can’t snuff out the movement. It will resurface in other ways and other forms. As a post-eviction statement by Occupy Wall Street read: “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.”
We are in a volatile and unpredictable era. What we do know is that the great revolt of 2011 marks a turning point in history as a global mass movement takes on the economic and political forces that are plundering our world.
[Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, California. He is working on a new book with Michael Fox and Fred Fuentes for Zed Books, The End of US Hegemony and Socialism (As We Know It): Social Movements and Left Leaders in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela.]