Expert views of Occupy Wall Street

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War of ideas on Wall Street: Flickr/David_Shankbone.
The Occupy Wall Street protests that started in New York have proved contagious. Sit-ins and attempted occupations have spread to other major American cities including Chicago, Boston, Seattle, and Atlanta, as well as across the Atlantic to Europe, and to Hong Kong and other Asian cities, along with parts of Africa and Latin America.

On Saturday there were more internationally coordinated protests. Julian Assange addressed the crowd in London, while parts of Rome were trashed and scores of people injured in rioting after hundreds of thousands of marchers turned out. Sizable gatherings took place in many other European cities.

The ‘Occupy’ phenomenon was almost business as usual in countries including Spain, Greece, and Chile, where protests and dissent have long been raging against high unemployment and government austerity measures.

In a very modest manner, the revolt has even spread to Australia, despite what Donald Horne ironically dubbed the ‘Lucky Country’ having an unemployment rate almost half that of the US and a quarter Spain’s. Melbourne’s City Square and Sydney’s Martin Place have hosted small numbers of ‘occupiers’ over the last few days.

The Conversation asked a range of academics for their views on the protests. More will be added as they arrive.

A fundamental complaint in the face of austerity measures. Flickr/David_Shankbone

Murray Bessette, Assistant Professor of Government, School of Public Affairs, Morehead State University

Ever since the Tea Parties began in early 2009, liberals in America have been hoping for a similar political awakening on the left. The advent of the Occupy Wall Street Protests little more than a month ago in New York City, and their subsequent spread to several other cities in the United States, is seen by many as such a movement.

To a certain extent this understanding is accurate.

The Parties and Protests alike consist of individuals dissatisfied with the political status quo and with the failure of political elites not only to address their concerns, but also to formulate public policy in light of them. Both movements, moreover, are fundamentally populist, and have found themselves subject to efforts to guide them, to influence them, even to take them over by the very elites (the Republican Party on the one hand, the Democratic Party and their union allies on the other) who have failed to deliver to date. The one point of genuine agreement worthy of note is the common opposition to the current system of crony capitalism characterized by bailouts and subsidies for the politically connected.

It is not without reason, then, that liberals in America are hopeful that the Occupy crowd can energize and invigorate the left-leaning part of the electorate for the 2012 elections, just as the Tea Partiers did for the right-leaning electorate in 2010.

These hopes, however, will likely go unfulfilled.

Whereas the Tea Parties are rooted in conservative and libertarian ideas, the Wall Street protests reflect liberal and socialist ones. The Tea Partiers profess a consistent message promoting the idea of limited government: lower spending, less taxation, and fewer regulations. The Wall Streeters demands are diametrically opposed: more spending, higher taxes on the wealthy, and further regulation. Partiers call for a return to the founding principles that made America exceptional. Protestors call for revolution to make America like the states failing at the moment in Europe.

The Tea Party positions in every case are those that still resonate with the broad spectrum of the American public, they are those that most Americans still identify with freedom. The class-warfare advocated by the Occupy crowd has never resonated with more than the sliver of the American electorate that lies furthest to the left. While no one knows what the future holds, this ideological inconsistency with the American mind will prove for now to be an insurmountable obstacle to the expansion of the Occupy movement to anywhere near the size and political potency of the Tea Party.

Other end of the spectrum: aftermath of a Tea Party rally. AAP/Nicole Low

James Goodman, Associate Professor at the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre, University of Technology, Sydney

Australia is at a distance to much of this because of the mineral boom, and I think that’s reflected in the smaller protests we’re seeing here. I was at the one on Saturday [in Sydney]. Much of the talk has been about the rest of the world and not here, where we’re insulated by the mineral wealth.

The trajectory [within the US] is from the Seattle protests of 1999 against the World Trade Organisation summit. But the method of permanent occupation comes from Tahir Square in Egypt, and from Madrid, and Greece.

What’s interesting at the international level is that people are trying to regain lost territory from the financial crisis. The corporate packages and bailouts have led to austerity programmes aimed at what the protestors call the 99 per cent, and it’s the 1 per cent that caused it. Twenty per cent of world income went on bailouts, which caused government deficits and now we have reactions against the austerity programmes in Europe and the US.

What the protesters are doing is naming the problem as being the financial system rather than government spending. It’s really quite timely with the G20 meeting today [on Monday], because the deficits are creating a new round of financial instability and the danger of new bailouts.

Politically it’s very important, and it’s getting a surprising degree of momentum; there were only 30 to 40 people protesting in New York a few weeks ago and it’s grown to thousands.

Politically, it’s also very interesting. If you read the declaration of the NYC General Assembly [the umbrella group coordinating Occupy Wall Street], its principles have been around for a very long time; it’s a return to good old class politics. It has resonance; it’s a very populist message. It can appeal to everyone who has a gripe with financial markets – it grabs that discontent and channels it into a progressive agenda. This is having an impact and putting the focus on deficits rather than bailouts.

This is an answer to Tea Party populism. The Tea Party are arguing for greater individual responsibility, greater cuts in spending: more austerity, while the Occupy Wall Street protesters want more government expenditure on the ’99 per cent’ instead of the ‘1 per cent’.

Each era uses different communications technology for protests: SMS in the Philippines and Twitter in Iran. The technologies offer different levels of engagement; I remember the 1996 Carnival Against Capitalism in Sydney and in those days it was almost an elite involved in the communications, but they used the media they had at the time.

Tea Party protesters demanded more austerity measures not less. AAP/AFP/Brendan Smialowski

David Smith, Lecturer in American Politics at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Those involved [in the protests] have a very vague agenda about business having too much influence in politics. In America there’s leftwing populism and right wing populism. The Tea Party is saying big government is the problem, while Occupy Wall Street is saying that big business is the problem. Left wing populism is smaller in scale than right wing populism. Gallup has been doing opinion polls in the US that overwhelmingly find that people feel concerned about big government rather than big business.

Yet, the Wall Street protests are tapping into an emotion, a feeling, that America is really going in the wrong direction and that big business has a major part in that. Right now more people are responding favourably to Occupy Wall Street than to the Tea Party; even with people on the populist right, big business is not popular. When people say, “Wall Street sucks”, even people on the right are agreeing, but they would start disagreeing when it came to what do to about it. While a lot of people see the protesters, what they’re seeing is the emotion and not the ideas. The right wing would say the pathologies of big business are caused by its collaboration with big government.

For America, this is not the most polarised time between left and right. The late ‘60s were more polarised, and more violently polarised, and they were a period of marked left and right wing populism.

It’s not a unique time, either, seeing a protest movement out on the streets. That’s what the civil rights movement was with its sit-ins and freedom rides. It’s stronger now than it has been for 20 years, but it’s not unique. But every time that there’s a protest movement that runs on any large scale, the protesters say it’s unique; they say that finally the sleeping giant of the American people has awoken. They always say that.

I don’t think the protests here [in Australia] will be the same; the people involved will be a fairly small, fairly contained, and fairly seasoned group of protesters.

Australia’s relatively strong economy meant the protests often focused on solidarity with other nations. AAP/AFP/Christopher Samuel

John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

The global occupations are defending what I call monitory democracy. That means nothing less than fair and free regular elections, but much more: the permanent public scrutiny and denunciation by citizens themselves of destructive arbitrary power.

The occupations are a creative remix of some old democratic tactics. They combine the peace vigil, the militant sit-in, the public demonstration, the trade union rally, the teach-in and the constitutional convention. They’re a syntagma; they turn streets and squares into multiplex public spaces where citizens vent their angers, reaffirm their equality, imagine new futures and grant unborn generations a voice.

Another way of putting it is to say that the assemblies are multi-media broadcast studios. They resemble lighthouses, early warning stations, a cry to the world. They remind us how easily democracy is destroyed by the arbitrary ‘thieving’ power of governments, banks and other businesses. Notice how demonstrators reject talk of ‘austerity’ and the ‘sovereign debt’ as political fictions, as ugly synonyms for extortion.

In effect, the protests are declarations of independence from ‘odious debt’, an insistence that there are times when debts are so foul to so many people that citizens collectively have the right to declare them null and void. But perhaps the most far-reaching significance of the occupations is that they force us to think about what ‘global democracy’ actually means.

Sure, it’s a utopia, but it’s a desirable and necessary ideal, a forewarning to the whole world that arbitrary cross-border power is dangerous, and must be tamed by the cross-border resistance of citizens and their representatives.

Protesters in Barcelona hurled garbage bags at the stock exchange. AAP/AFP/Cesar Manso

Stephen Bell, Professor and Head of the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland

In the sense the new protests are a public mobilisation of left activists [they are a left wing equivalent of the Tea Party], thus reflecting the Tea Party grass roots activism of the right and … in the sense that both are reflecting the more extreme ends of the political spectrum. [But] … the new activism is tapping into a broader left and centre-left constituency, whilst the Tea party sits more on the radical right.

The left in America has always been weakly institutionalised within the labour movement and the major political parties, including the Democrats. And the current protests still reflect a similar weak institutionalisation. The protests do however also reflect an older Progressive tradition in US politics that has long been hostile to the concentration of privilege and corporate power.

It is too early to tell [if the protests herald a special moment for democracy]. It depends on how things pan out. US politics has always been resistant to left protest and discontent. A culture of opportunity is still pervasive, though clearly weakening. Socialism has never been a feature of US political ideology. And it takes a lot to fuel popular left protests. The grim reality of the greed and incompetence of Wall St., combined with massive economic inequality, flat or declining wages for the majority, economic recession etc. is finally starting to bite. This should be an opportunity the President could run with, partly to help counter to the social activism of the right.

Australia has a much stronger economy, less inequality and our financial system was well managed and did not collapse, [so such protests are unlikely to catch on here]. Plus the Coalition is way ahead in the polls, so inequality fuelled politics overseas is not likely to resonate as strongly here, despite the fact that inequality amidst the two speed economy is becoming more of an issue.

What do you think about the push to make the world more equitable? Will these protests achieve anything and, if so, what? Are left and right wing populism on a collision course? Please comment below.