This was written on Nov 14 (before NY and LA eviction) for some other purpose. I saved it planning to do a longer comprehensive piece, which didn’t happen.
The Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Morocco were hailed in much of the democratic world. However the Occupy Wall Street protests, which till date have spread to 100 cities in the United States and 1500 globally have met with mixed response.
The Arab people are fighting for democracy, and thus their resistance must be respected and supported. But the OWS folks, proudly leaderless and having framed no concrete demands are vulnerable to all manner of criticism, even from those expected to be supportive. Bill Keller, the former editor of arguably one of the most influential newspapers in the world, the ostensibly liberal, New York Times derides, “the Occupiers have been pandered to (“Love your energy!”); patronized (“Here, I’ve drafted you a list of demands …”); co-opted by unions, celebrities and activists for various causes; demonized by the right; arrested and tear-gassed in some cities; and taken lightly by the likes of me”.
However the uprisings in the Arab nations, the OWS demonstrations and even the wave of anti-corruption protests that swept India this year are all ultimately an expression of people’s resistance to disenfranchisement. Whether it’s those fighting for democracy or those who find themselves powerless in face of a system that’s been hijacked by the illegitimate nexus between the financial and political elite (the metaphorical 1%), the underlying sentiment is a demand for fair play and the right of self-determination.
The question – now that the status quo has been rejected – is what is the alternative conception and how will be it achieved? Events in the Arab world are not a success yet. Tunisia has been the most encouraging with over 90% turnout of registered voters in the last election. Perhaps, initially the most exhilarating of all, Egypt, is now mired in military rule and sectarian strife. Other Arab spring countries are in the midst of state repression and internal turmoil. The OWS movement in its eighth week has resisted outlining a unified set of demands, and seems to want the process (general assemblies in occupy sites) to define the outcome.
This is appealing however change can come only if the process goes beyond the occupation sites, and into the society. In any case reform for socio-economic-political equality requires a sort of permanent movement, which must be rooted not in occupation (of Tahrir Square or Wall Street), but organization.
Organization mandates engagement with the immediate. Even though the nature of systems today will necessitate reform on a global scale, the first set of alliances and resistances must be local. The “system” too is too complex to be reformed in one shot through a single set of demands. The strength of these popular resistances is that they have brought together disparate groups, but in the non-antagonistic demands (against a dictator, against the metaphorical 1%), some alliances will splinter, and need to be rationalized and/or resolved.
Organization means too acceptance that there will be no revolution, that there isn’t a one “big idea”, which will yield an egalitarian happy healthy world for all. People in history have argued that “democracy” and/or “free market” is the one big idea however popular protests have swept countries along the continuum of democracy, development and capitalism – from authoritarian to established democracies; from poor and developing to rich and so called developed countries; from erstwhile welfare states to overtly free market. In fact the very nature of democracy defies the notion of a big revolutionary idea since it’s impossible to democratically push through an idea for universal acceptance in a short period of time.
At the heart of all resistance is a desire for self-determination – the need to influence the trajectory of one’s own life. In this the protests mushrooming within and across countries are a hopeful sign. However given the “wax and wane” nature of pressure politics, the occupiers should perhaps attempt to define interim achievable demands in each local area before the protests fizzle out. In the long term, the OWS protests could be used to create a public policy platform for the thousands of local level organizations spurred by it.