They say that when America catches a cold the rest of the world gets pneumonia. Even a mild recession in the US is able to send ripples of influence throughout the globe which balloon into tsunamis of change for third world countries. And yet, recent events have turned this statement on its head. A street vendor in Tunisia, by setting himself on fire when bullied by the regime’s police, set in motion a chain of events which eventually worked their way back to the very epicenter of US financial power. From that initial act of immolation, a shared sentiment of indignation spread to Tahrir square, hopped over the Mediterranean to the “Indignados” at Puerta del Sol in Madrid, and eventually jumped the Atlantic to Zucotti Park, placing itself right under the mighty halls of Wall Street. It is one of those rare moments in history when events at the neglected “periphery” of capitalism profoundly shake the previously unassailable financial and political hegemony of institutions such as Wall Street.
And yet, many say, there is not much in common between these worldwide protests other than a sentiment of indignation. The Economist recently labeled the OWS and European Indignados movements as protesters merely venting their “rage against the machine”, simply reacting to inequality and denied opportunity. Moreover, these movements are often portrayed as heterogeneous groups, articulating disparate demands ranging from the environmentalist to the anarchist, and incapable of producing coherent political programs or leaders. Although these critiques may have a point they should not be understood as inherent weaknesses of these movements, on the contrary they are the source of a novel strength and resilience. Within these collages of disparate identities we find much more than mere indignation: we find a common logic of democratic re-appropriation expressed through the reclaiming of a public space -a space in which to collectively construct alternatives to an unsustainable system embodied by Wall Street.
Let us take for example the Indignados movements in Europe and compare them to the Occupy movements in the US. A brief look at European demands reveals a greater concern for the protection of those public services which are presently under attack by austerity measures devised by unaccountable supranational institutions. Another popular demand is an end to the lavish privileges that many European politicians have bestowed upon themselves. On the other side of the pond, throughout the Occupy movements, a common demand is the end to the influence that big corporations and Wall Street exert on the democratic process. Despite differences in their claims -which reflect local and national contingencies- there is much more that ties the Indignados and OWS together in a truly global framework for change.
Both the Occupy movements and the European Indignados share similar organizational strategies which are non-hierarchical, horizontal and which aim at achieving the broadest consensus possible when collectively taking decisions in assemblies. Both have also embraced a staunchly non-violent stance in regards to police repression. Many of these strategies were first adopted by the Spanish Indignados and eventually exported to OWS. In fact the Spaniards, taking from the Egyptians, demonstrated how powerful the form of protest of indefinite occupation of a public square actually is -not only in its organizational successes but more so in what it represents symbolically.
The act of occupying has a specific logic behind it. Firstly, it is the reclaiming of a public space in which difference and social plurality may be expressed. The celebration of difference in these movements shows us that society is intrinsically different and plural on ethnic, political, cultural, economic and spiritual levels and that these differences have a sacrosanct right to be expressed and represented. The occupied square provides an inclusive platform of democratic representation for difference which has been systematically excluded and silenced by our present political system.
Secondly, the occupied public square is a space of transparency. Every decision is taken openly, publicly and collaboratively. There are no deals being made behind closed doors as all assemblies record what they deliberate and make it available for all to see online. This is in stark contrast to the unaccountable, obscure and far-removed ways our political and economic institutions are run and reminds us that transparency is a pre-requisite for democracy.
Thirdly, the occupied public square is a space in which to construct an alternative to the status quo through the exercise of direct and participatory democracy. It provides the space in which we can confront each other so as to come up with new ideas to challenge the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism which feeds upon the democratic deficit it is responsible for.
Every movement is different and will produce different claims. But what makes these movements truly global is not a common shopping-list of demands. What links Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol and Zucotti Park is that shared feeling of denied basic dignity which spurs the will to construct spaces and organizational methods which defy the “business as usual” paradigm. It is that constructive will to re-create our financial and political institutions so that difference is adequately represented, where there exists an effort for transparency and accountability, and where collective decisions are taken in a more participatory manner. This shared will creates the empathic channels through which events at the periphery of the first world are finally able to influence even the most powerful institutions on earth. Today, when Tahrir square catches a cold, Wall Street shudders.