Summing up: OWS in context: “What’s Left?” December 2013, MRR #367

Hooligan Header
Forgive me if I repeat myself.

I’ve had the above column header for a while now, a kind of homage to the anti-globalization movement. A response to the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal agenda that included an aggressive economic and political globalism, the anti-globalization movement rapidly expanded through a series of international protests targeting the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various annual global summits. These protests climaxed with the massive Battle of Seattle on November 30, 1999 that temporarily shut down that city and the World Trade Organization. A half dozen ever more violent mass confrontations followed, in Gothenburg, Sweden and Genoa, Italy in 2001 alone. But the worldwide clampdown that followed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, under the United States and its allies, forced the movement to evolve between 2001 and 2003, from roving international protests into international social forums. The affinity groups and non-governmental organizations of the “First World” based anti-globalization movement can be counterposed to much more significant “Third World” insurgencies. In Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) instigated a guerrilla-lead communal uprising in January, 1994, that continues to this day. And the Argentinian economic debt crisis of December, 2001, resulted in political turmoil, financial collapse, street riots, and workers’ self-managed cooperatives taking over much of Argentina’s economy.

I am definitely inspired by the anti-globalization movement and, even more so, by the parallel Third World insurrections of the day. My first book, End Time, which was published in January of 1994, anticipated both. Now, let’s take stock of the last five years as far as international protest and insurgency goes. The landmark here is the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown initiated by the financial crack-up of Wall Street.

There was an uptick in labor unrest in this country, starting with the Republic Windows occupation in Chicago, Illinois, in late 2008 following the economic collapse and subsequent calls for economic austerity. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker successfully divested public employee unions of their right to collectively bargain in early 2011, Madison became the center for demonstrations by unions and their supporters. These protests eventually culminated in the unsuccessful attempt to recall Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature. First World American labor unrest has grown diverse since then, from dock workers’ agitation on the west coast through attempts to unionize and pay fast food workers a minimum wage to a BART workers strike against management.

The worldwide 2008 economic meltdown buffeted the European Union with a severe recession and calls for austerity that hit the weakest economies of the Union hardest. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland became subject to more extreme neoliberal measures. Cutbacks in government spending and services, financial reorganization on the backs of working people and the poor, economic privatization, and the scaling back of an already anemic welfare sector followed. Comprised of generally prosperous First World western nations, the EU was politically committed to liberal democracy, economically hellbent on financializing to supersede their industrial sectors, and socially aging to where only 20% to 30% of the population is aged 24 or under. Yet when austerity was imposed on the feeblest members of the EU, political protest and social violence quickly broke out and rapidly spread. Initiated by the youth of Greece (2010-12), Italy (2011-12), Spain (2011-12), and Portugal (2011-12), these social insurgencies were true mass movements. They were largely leaderless due to their size, with mixed economic/political/social demands, a social composition crossing social classes, and activity not solely economically based. These mass movements allied with the working class of their respective countries, with trade unions calling limited, one-day general strikes in solidarity with popular anti-austerity actions.

The main aspects of this First World social opposition are magnified when we consider countries in the Third World, Brazil and Turkey being the most prominent. These nations are often only tentatively devoted to democracy, still heavily steeped in industrial economies, and defined by profoundly youthful societies with populations of 40% to 45% aged 24 or under. The world economic crisis hit most Third World nations hard, but Brazil and Turkey actually were less affected by the post-2008 financial collapse and effectively resisted the austerity efforts of the World Bank and IMF. Leaderless due to their magnitude, the youth-based, cross-class mass movements that exploded in these countries were intensified by conditions specific to the Third World. The mass movements were much larger, the political protests were more radical, and the social violence was more extreme. Finally, the allied working-class solidarity, the trade union general strikes were more potent. The Brazilians demanded an end to public transport fare increases, government corruption, the economic dislocations produced by the upcoming Olympics, and state repression of demonstrators. The Turks quickly moved from a sit-in against urban development plans for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park to demands for freedom of press, expression, and assembly, further democratization of the Turkish state, and increased secularization of Turkish society. It was the EU protests, times ten.

The fraudulent 2009 presidential election of Ahmadinejad in Iran provoked a widespread uprising in the streets called the Green Movement, so massive that it threatened to topple the government. State repression quickly followed, forcing the movement underground. After protests over the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor at the end of 2010, a youthful insurgency rapidly spread to twenty-odd other countries across the Middle East, where 54% of population is under the age of 25. Accompanied by popular support and working class solidarity strikes, these actions—collectively called the Arab Spring—were leaderless because of the scope and breadth of the movement as a whole. The Arab Spring swept a region of the Third World where the countries were politically inimical to democracy, often economically dependent upon simple resource extraction, and geographically carved up by historical imperialism. Four governments were overthrown, as exemplified by the 2011 Egyptian Revolution focused on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The processes of the Arab Spring that some hoped would be ongoing in countries of the region, instead are experiencing dissolution altogether in multiple national civil wars, or in region-wide disintegration involving intercommunal and sectarian violence and warfare. The reverberations are intense and immense, ranging from Sunni/Shi’ite conflagration across the Middle East to the potential wholesale destruction of Egypt, one of the oldest national societies in the area.

In contrast to these world-spanning protests and violence, China experienced a less substantial economic slowdown after 2008 which produced an increase in industrial strike activity. While not as dramatic as those actions detailed above, this strike wave nevertheless amounted to significant opposition to Communist Party rule. Depending on the study cited, 345 industrial incidents occurred from 1990 to 2008 (18 years), 355 incidents from 1997 to 2007 (10 years), and 553 incidents from 200 to 2010 (10 years). By comparison, from 2008 to 2012, just 3.3 years, 435 industrial incidents occurred. Protests based on environmental issues alone increased by an average of 29% every year since 1996, while in 2011 the number of major environmental actions rose 120%. The number of protests, termed “mass incidents” in general, doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to 180,000; uprisings that were responses to myriad issues, primarily official corruption, government land grabs, Tibetan autonomy, and environmental problems. And these are merely the tip of the iceberg, as it is notoriously difficult to ferret out information, facts and statistics from China’s state-controlled society. A putative socialist “Second World” country during the Cold War, China is a top tier Third World nation, comparable to Turkey or Brazil described above.

Then, there was Occupy Wall Street.

I tried to remain critical yet positive, analytical yet constructive, in particular with respect to Occupy Oakland. I attempted to use this column to detail the ups and downs of the OO encampment, the victories and defeats of OO’s black bloc anarchos, and the “close but no cigar” General Strike that wasn’t. Returning to the source—OWS—the contrasts with much of the post-2008 protest history described above cannot be more obvious, nor more troubling. OWS was self-conscious in so many ways, starting with being self-consciously NOT a cross-class mass movement. Rather, it was a movement of activists, and mostly of young activists at that. It self-consciously avoided “hitching its wagon to” (read “making alliances with”) any social sector or interest group, like organized labor or the Democratic Party or anti-capitalist movements or people of color, just as it self-consciously remained leaderless or self-consciously refused to formulate specific demands. Through this, OWS wanted to prevent being coopted and, as a movement, prevent being recuperated by state and capital. Only thing is, OWS was so busy paying inordinate attention to itself as a movement, it failed to take seriously the issue of power.

OWS garnered an extraordinary amount of national and international media attention, often excruciatingly self-aware, yet it accomplished almost nothing in the close to the year of its existence. It was a resounding failure, a flash in the pan, a nine days’ wonder. Much like those anarchists who proclaimed that the black bloc was not a group but a tactic, and became so preoccupied with their tactic that they failed to devise any more formidable strategy, those in OWS who proclaimed that their movement was leaderless, without demands, and not in need of a mass base, and became self-absorbed by their movement, had already relegated themselves to a minuscule historical footnote. Those leaderless, youth-inspired, cross-class mass movements of protest and violence in the EU, Brazil and Turkey, and the countries of the Arab Spring that have issued demands and contested power accomplished many significant things, despite being short-lived. By contrast, OWS in First World America was a sad little joke. The United States shared the political/economic/social configuration of much of the EU, yet with a much more youthful demographic due to ongoing immigration. OWS only gained the potential to become a mass movement when it relinquished its affected, self-conscious character, when it started to work with labor, both organized and unorganized, community occupations, squatting and anti-foreclosure efforts, anti-corporate/bank campaigns, efforts to help threatened schools and libraries, debt forgiveness, campaigns to monitor police abuse, even work in communities of color. By then, Occupy Wall Street was dead.

When Naomi Klein compared the Anti-Globalization Movement with Occupy Wall Street (NYT, 10-10-11), she realized that the former’s protest tourism targeting world summits was unsustainable in the wake of 9/11. Yet her praise for the latter was patently idiotic. Klein’s delight “that this movement doesn’t have a list of soundbite-ready demands and media-ready spokespeople” was extremely simple minded. And OWS’s choice of a “fixed target,” with “no end date on their presence” was a dead end. Occupy Wall Street has been relegated to the dustbin of history. I have no plans to change my column header to an Occupy theme anytime soon.

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