Monday, September 17, 2012

Thoughts About Occupy Wall Street in Global Politics

St. Mike's Students gather in Zuccotti Park in 2011
My research and teaching focus on comparative politics, paying particular attention to political movements that seek greater opportunities for equal participation in decision-making.  So when Occupy Wall Street was launched one year ago in Zuccotti Park, one of my first considerations was how this new movement fit into the other forms of activism I study and teach about around the world.  Only a few months before, for example, my students were learning about transitions to democracy and democratic revolution as the Arab Spring was launched in Tunisia and spread across the region (here).  They were both intrigued and daunted by so much energy put into political change by men and women their own age, and we wondered why youth in the US had not begun to ask questions of their government.

Occupy London joins Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street would ask questions.  But it was not until the park had been cleared of the movement's encampment that I was able to join St. Mike's students from SLAM and Prof. Bill Grover from our department on a one day trip to investigate the movement for ourselves.  We found a park still alive with energy and organizing, though police kept a careful watch on anything that looked like "occupying" - which included the distribution of pizza.  And true to what we had heard, the movement was just as much about participation in decision-making as it was about substantive transformation of the economic system.  In the US, these activists see a revolving door between government and business that enriches politicians and empowers economic interests.  Almost as counterpoint, the park was alive with meetings throughout the day, some to consider an emerging issue or to address something happening in the moment, others as activists, including those working on food justice (below), marched across Manhattan to join those gathered in the park.  At the end of the evening, Occupy Wall Street held the daily forum for addressing concerns and finalizing an agenda.  The group sitting in the picture above is from that last meeting, after it was announced that they had traveled from Occupy London to join the movement on Wall Street.
Food Justice Activists March on Wall Street

As a teacher and scholar, I was particularly impressed by the participation of food activists.  One of the strategies necessary in any political movement is the development of a broad coalition, so our students were able to see first hand how that worked through the diversity of people in the park and the coming together of a wide range of concerns for a shared agenda.  And since one aspect of my teaching and research is on food politics, I was able to connect with new people and reconnect with others I had already met.

Also important to my work is the recognition that Occupy Wall Street is one manifestation of local movements around the world.  Early in 2011, in Madrid for a conference, I went to one of the initial "occupations," in the Plaza de la Puerta Del Sol (right).  Young people frustrated with governments of the left and the right gathered across Spain in their own uprising, demanding greater participation and an end to a politics controlled by what they considered to be out of touch politicians and a closed party system.  The economic crisis had pushed the Spanish economy over the brink, with nearly a quarter of all Spaniards and half of all young people unemployed.  The Spanish occupy movement calls itself Los Idignados (the outraged or indignant), fed up with a system of corrupt, closed door politics and greed that they saw as both the cause of the global financial crisis and as the instigation for a response to the crisis that favored bank bailouts over the needs of families and youth.

Delhi Anti-Corruption Demonstration 
Nearly a year later and half a world away, I would happen upon another demonstration on the streets of Delhi when in India with a St. Mike's Environmental Studies student trip.  As we walked in the neighborhood around our hotel on our last morning in the country, we saw small groups of protesters marching through the streets, carrying a variety of banners, signs, and images, and many of them dressed in white or bright saffron, the colors of anti-corruption activists Anna Hazere and Baba Ramdev.  Indians were gathering to mark the first anniversary of Baba Ramdev's satyagraha or "truth force," launched with a hunger strike in 2011 to call the government to account for corruption, money laundering, and the widespread use of off shore bank accounts by India's elites.  These accusations include the management of the Commonwealth Games and a new scandal in the energy sector called Coalgate.  Using methods of activism modeled on those of Gandhi, such movements were pushing the government to adopt strong Lokpal legislation, which would create an independent anti-corruption office.

Dr. Vandana Shiva (right)
Later that day, we met with global food activist Vandana Shiva at a cafe in Delhi founded by the organic farm program she launched in India and where we had just spent 10 days learning about local farming, the role of women in agriculture, and the preservation of traditional seeds.  Dr. Shiva is also one of the founders of the global peasant and farmer movement called La Via Campesina.

What brings these movements together is not their political orientation, partisanship, or economic policy.  Certainly, they share similar concerns about inequality and the processes of global economic change, and in particular they are suspicious about the role of banks and other large institutions.  But they primarily unite around the belief that democratic societies should empower citizens, especially in countries with rich democratic traditions where we still see the kinds of forces that close down political participation and favor an entrenched governing elite - of whatever party or political persuasion - that squeezes out broad participation in decision-making.  For these movements, the primary cause of inequality is the fusion of economic and political power, and the often corrupt nature of power itself.  So what was intellectually compelling in Zuccotti Park one year ago was the emphasis on participation, taken to the point that the movement has more often been criticized for failing to lead rather than for any specific policy agenda they might have presented.  Similarly, the movements in India and Spain, though different in leadership and substantive life philosophies, share the view that the current blend of economics and politics has pushed citizens to the side, far from their democratic institutions. 

In response, these movements seek to demonstrate the possibility of democratic political action and a citizenship informed by education and thoughtful of the means as well as the ends.  In trying times like ours, when so much in politics comes from the exploitation of hate and violence for immediate advantage, these movements of young and old provide the best examples for learning about politics as a hopeful project, in their strengths as well as their weaknesses.

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