Tomorrow, the global protest movement will culminate into a worldwide day of action. What are the origins of the movement? And where is it headed?
Santiago Carrion is a writer and activist who has been involved with the Spanish youth movement since the very beginning. He is a member of the Take the Square and European Revolution working groups and writes for the FuturePress collective at WikiLeaks Central.
The past 17th of September, the world experienced almost unknowingly the first taste of the new global protest movement of our time. Initially this was the date marked as the beginning of the Occupy Wall St. movement (now a nationwide phenomenon), however it also served to launch an international campaign of protests in front of local banks and stock exchanges dubbed as ‘Anti-Banks Day’. For the first time, the rising global civil society movement, based on democratic assemblies and structured around an ever-growing network of activists, tested its capacity to rally people worldwide and not only in a national framework. They created task-forces for media strategies, both online and offline, set up independent live-streams and coordinated globally for spreading information. Consequently, the 17th was like an excuse to prepare for the main course on October 15th, which will be the consolidation of this structure, and will set the standard for its future success or failure.
It may be objected that this has already happened before, for example, during the massive worldwide demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to some calculations, from six to ten million people attended in over sixty countries over a couple of months. They were directed, however, towards a clear goal: to put an end to the obvious injustice being perpetrated against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, an injustice which is even more obvious from our current perspective. It was an honorable cause, way past the traditional left/right political spectrum and with a deeply rooted human element, making it easy for people to identify with. The upcoming 15th of October, on the other hand, is made up of millions of individual claims and proposals, maybe even as many as there are people who will march. The chosen slogan, ‘United for Global Change’, serves the purpose of demonstrating that it is the global civil society, conscious as ever of its power, that is acting to reclaim its right to guide a system that is crumbling on top of it. It also works to assert the “think global, act local” catchphrase: according to the most up-to-date source there will be simultaneous demonstrations and occupations in over 80 countries, more than 900 cities, and each one will have its own theme or proposal, be it the privatization of Universities in Chile, the continuation of nuclear energy projects in Japan after the catastrophe at Fukushima, corporate greed in the U.S., widespread corruption and the destruction of the welfare state in Greece, Spain and the UK, or the worsening deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil.
All of these different issues are a reaction to the same process, which can be loosely defined as an appropriation of politics worldwide via deregulatory financial practices, as well as a model for state administration based on market logic. These are the key ingredients of the globalized financial market, created in the 1990s through the new application of neoliberal economic ideas by world leaders, regardless, for the first time, of their classical political orientation. At the same time, people around the world are waking up to the fact that there is no mechanism for democratic control over these institutions, private and public. Political figures, who should be watching over their citizens’ well being, are poisoned by private interest, lobbying, campaign financing and pressure from powerful non-democratic institutions such as the IMF or the European Central Bank – the case of Greece is particularly illustrative of this last point.
The financial collapse of 2008 is a corollary to this process. It was openly caused by an out-of-control banking sector, and it has cost millions of people their savings and quality of life, while simultaneously producing million dollar bonuses for the elite of that same banking sector. Not one corrupt banker in the U.S. has done jail time, while at the same time thousands of protesters exercising their rights in demanding responsibility have had to face tear gas, batons and handcuffs. And this isn’t all: as the system is once again melting down, this time in the European markets, citizens are quite rationally demanding accountability. They understand costs have been socialized and the benefits privatized, and that this will happen again in the near future. This means that everyday the gap between poor and rich is widening, and not only in a global framework; inside developed countries such as the U.S. and the UK the gap has never been larger. The people stuck in this gap are now a largely precarious middle class, forced to work temporary contracts or underpaid jobs without a hope of being able to own commodities such as home or an automobile. These are only a few examples that explain the understandable indignation of the population. There are countless others: austerity versus millions spent in warfare, out-of-control environmental destruction or avoidable famine and poverty, again just to mention a few general cases.
They also serve to prove that in our extremely interconnected global society, the contradictions and inequality of the capitalist system have never been so exposed. Every day they are becoming harder to hide. Given the actual context, a reference to Wikileaks is inevitable. The crucial year of 2011 cannot be understood without taking into account ‘Cablegate‘, the 251,000 document cache leaked from the U.S. Diplomatic Service, which has shown the world the raw truth behind government practice. When finally revealed, the picture was definitely not pretty, in fact it seemed to confirm the worst forecasts. The barely legal persecution of the organization and alleged leaker Bradley Manning has only served to confirm their own credo: governments and corporations are afraid of the truth, they are afraid of transparency, because corruption is so widespread that the realization of this might just wake up democratic feelings among the population strong enough to put a end to it.
So yes, citizens know how their governments are acting behind their backs, they know who is too big to be jailed, they know how the system is run and for whom. What is more, they know that these facts are now self-explanatory and blatantly obvious. And worst of all, most countries’ reaction to symptoms of dissent has been the systematic abuse of citizens voicing their discontent. The same images have been repeated across the globe: unarmed protesters being killed in Tunis and Egypt, severely beaten up in Spain, tear-gassed in Greece and massively arrested in the U.S. Citizens being abused has been the common note in most protests, it seems to be more of a root cause than an effect.
This myriad of reasons, so complicated that it can only be summarized through feelings such as ‘indignation’, is what is behind the protest of the 15th. This is exactly why what will happen after is what is truly important. It is fairly easy to evoke these feelings and turn them into public demonstrations of discontent; it is a far subtler work, however, to find answers through concrete policies and institutional change. In other words, it is not about the day everyone is on the streets, it is about what will be done about the issues during the following weeks and months. For example, the 2003 anti-war protests did not serve their purpose and world leaders continued paying little attention and as of 2011, the allied military powers are still in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the time there were voices that suggested that this form of protest had expired, that it would never work again. This has clearly been contradicted in the last few months, but even so, if the failure is repeated nobody can guarantee civilian participation in these type of events anymore.
The change needed is deep and some might even say Utopian. It seems clear, though, that occupations, assemblies and public demonstrations are steps in the right direction. The first one serves the very useful purpose of creating central hubs of action, alike to hive minds, where people can work together and develop their skills and purpose in the movement. Public demonstrations challenge the governing authorities face-to-face and have a high chance of appearing in the media. Assemblies serve as a way to imbue proposals and strategies with a popular legitimacy that is hard to pass by; they also work well to voice the discontent of the largely ignored population. None of them, however, are an answer to the question. They are all definitely useful and necessary but they cannot go on forever without a clearer cut road towards the change everyone is shouting for. For example: nationalization of banks rescued from bankruptcy with public money? Yes, please. But how does theory turn into fact, into a situation better than the one we are in now? This dynamic works for every other proposal that has come up. Solving this gap is the true issue facing this very young civil movement (compare its age with any other movements of peaceful resistance, such as the African American civil rights movement, for example).
On this point there are many alternatives circulating: creating alternative banking systems handled by individuals, making free spaces for knowledge on the Internet to substitute privatized universities, or building the ideal crowd-sourced citizen media platform to challenge the mainstream. Some have even dared to mention the taboo subject of forming a political party with an international scope, perhaps aiming to create a completely novel system, a fusion of the anachronic representative system with new Wiki-technology, real democratic control and participation and a reformist sentiment. This idea will give many the goosebumps, but who knows if it will be necessary further down the road? Only then will it finally be seen if corruption lies inside people, or if they are corrupted by the dynamics of power. The 15th of October will be a massive demonstration of public sentiment, it will undoubtedly cause an impact on world leaders. Whether it will be strong enough for them to reconsider will be seen tomorrow. If not, then the hard task of shifting the focus of the whole movement is at hand. In either case, the following months will be defining, and are perhaps the most important ones yet.