Columnists

Monia Mazigh
The Occupy movement one year on: What is left?

| September 14, 2012
Photo: Elaine Bernard

In few days, on September 17, we will commemorate one year since the start of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement -- a movement that many said was inspired by the Arab revolutions and the Indignés movement of Europe. Many activists, including me, thought that this movement would have a long breath and might even bring social change to America and to the world.

One year later, can we still believe so? What worked and what went wrong?

Despite all the criticism and disagreement about OWS, it is obvious that the movement brought the notion of income inequalities to the political arena. Indeed, in 2008, after the financial crisis swept the U.S. and quickly travelled to Europe, the world was left with a very troubling question: what really happened?

Both economists and politicians tried to convince the public that this crisis would be another "simple bump in the road" that capitalism would encounter and eventually overcome.

Politicians came to the rescue of scrambling financial institutions with millions of dollars in bailout packages. Few people questioned the greed, the corruption, the speculation pushed to the extreme and the frivolity of institutions like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley. It was almost a taboo in Wall Street circles and in the political class of Washington to point fingers to these well-established financial houses.

But the activists of OWS broke the taboo! With their slogan "We are the 99%", they were able to target the financial system and declare that the actions and decisions of the bankers of Wall Street created the crisis and contributed to the widening disparities of incomes between the rich and the poor.

The OWS movement succeeded in bringing to public debate the issue of astronomical salaries received by the executive officers in these same troubled companies. Even personalities from the business world joined it. Warren Buffet started talking about taxing the rich. An unprecedented move in America, the cradle of the neoliberalism.

The debate reached Canada. A 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives showed that the top 100 Canadian CEOs were paid an average of $8.4 million in 2010, a 27 per cent increase over 2009, compared to $44,366 earned by the average Canadian, paid only 1.1 per cent more than in 2009.

The facts were already known to some experts, but it was the OWS movement that brought it to the eyes of the U.S. public and to many other countries like Canada and Britain.

Even President Obama who was elected with money from Wall Street financiers, found courage in this debate and on October 6, 2011, he declared (speaking about the OWS movement):

"I think it expresses the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country ... and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place."

Two Nobel Prizes in economics also sympathized with OWS: Paul Krugman and Joseph Stigltiz. Both economists supported the demands of OWS to reduce income inequalities.

Nevertheless, the OWS movement couldn't gain the heart and the imagination of all Americans citizens. The dream of the organizers was to create a peaceful revolution similar to the ones of Tunisia and Egypt -- take to the street, resist and demonstrate until the "dictator" falls were their tactics to achieve their ultimate goal. In Tunisia and Egypt, the tactics worked. On Wall Street, they didn't. The OWS movement was dismantled about two months after it started.

Some organizers blame it on the mainstream media. While CNN continuously broadcast images about a situation happening thousand of kilometres from the shores of America in Tahrir Square, Egypt, it didn't show the same enthusiasm and commitment for the plight of the demonstrators in the heart of New York. The American public was kept in the dark.

We have to admit though, that the dictators in question for both causes were not of the same calibre. Hosni Mubarak, the ousted dictator that the Egyptian protesters wanted out, was a real person. He had an infamous record. He gave orders to torture activists and to arrest opponents. He made millions of dollars while the rest of the population suffered daily to bring food to the table.

On Wall Street, there was not one real dictator, but rather a system established through the years that started to act as a dictator. The decision-makers of Wall Street did not torture or arrest people but they kept filling their pockets with dividend gains and bonuses, and when they went bankrupt, they received taxpayers' money to help them. America was on the way to turning from a democracy to a financial oligarchy.

It is precisely this lack of a "real dictator" that made the mission of the OWS movement impossible. Obama wasn't the culprit, neither were the proponents of the Republican Tea Party. The OWS organizers were up against a whole system and it wasn't easy to bring a change simply by taking to the streets and chanting slogans.

In Quebec, last spring, college and university students also were inspired by the Arab revolutions, and for months they conducted a campaign to force the Liberal government of Jean Charest to reverse his decision of increasing tuition fees for post-secondary studies. They received tremendous attention from the media in Quebec (very few from English Canada). They took the streets and created a lot of "noise" (banging on Casserole nights). The government didn't listen and instead passed a special law to stop the ongoing student strike. It took an election in Quebec and a new government to see the demands of the students taken seriously.

In the U.S., the OWS demands failed to become mainstream demands. In Quebec, the students succeeded in making the post-secondary education debate a national debate. They went even further by pushing the debate to include issues such as corruption, university funding, good governance and social justice.

Well, Quebec isn't America and America isn't Egypt. Media coverage and social media networks weren't the only factors responsible behind the success or failure of all the movements mentioned above. All these movements brought a new dynamic to the lethargic state of politics in every country they visited. It is up to the population to choose whether to embark on a journey of change or to remain idle.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and in 2011, a novel in French, Miroirs et mirages.

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