This is what democracy looks like!
– Protest chant in Seattle (1999)
We are the 99%!
Many observers have rightly drawn parallels between Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and previous social movements. The Anti-Globalization or Global Justice movement, which came to world attention with the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, is most akin to OWS. As Naomi Klein put it at Zuccotti Park on October 6, 2011, “That was the last time a global, youth-led, decentralized movement took direct aim at corporate power.” Mass protests and direct action shut down the WTO meeting in Seattle. Comprised of different groups – anarchists, radical unionists, environmentalists, peace activists (across borders) – anti-globalization activists organized creative and militant protests at meetings of the World Bank, IMF and G8. They challenged neoliberal policies that were decimating labor standards and the environment, took on corporations that were becoming more powerful than governments, and made the case that another world is possible.
Similarly, direct action is the modus operandi for today’s OWS activists, many of whom come directly out of the Anti-Globalization movement.1 By targeting Wall Street – a fixed place and reviled symbol of capitalism run amok – Occupy activists have fingered the role of the 1% in creating inequality and as culprit of the 99%’s collective ills. In a few short weeks, OWS made a burning issue what everyone already knows: unregulated financial capitalism crashed the global economy and caused immiseration of millions. Most importantly, OWS has given everyday people a sense that they can do something about their conditions. By reclaiming public space for the common good, OWS has captured mainstream political discourse and sparked radical imagination, giving many people renewed optimism about the possibility of progressive change.
New social media and participatory decision-making have been key tools in organizing both these movements, which have been jet-propelled by young people. Just as young people pushed leadership in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements forward, so they did for the global justice and OWS movements, which in turn, have compelled established “liberal” institutions (unions, NGOs, elected officials) to take action alongside or in support of movement activists.
To be sure, both the Anti-Globalization and OWS movements have been largely white and middle class. Accordingly, they have been challenged by people of color and the poor to find ways to be truly inclusive and representative. To their credit, both movements from the start have been consciously committed to being deeply democratic, employing strategies designed to achieve such praxis.2 The general assembly, working groups, spokes-councils, the people’s mic, and leaderless (leaderful), “horizontal” (not hierarchical), consensus-driven, transparent decision-making are their hallmarks. They aim, through prefigurative practice, to create a radical egalitarianism. In short, they live at the intersection of democracy and socialism, to which this journal has been dedicated since its inception.
This essay traces linkages between the Anti-Globalization movement and OWS, focusing on the United States. In so doing, I point to parallels regarding origins, members, targets, tactics and challenges.
Parallels between 1999 and 2011
After November 1999, any reference to Seattle immediately conjured up images of protesters shutting down meetings of the WTO. Seattle became shorthand for a “new” social movement. Today, Zuccotti Park and OWS have blazoned themselves into the public mind, setting another new benchmark.
Movement activists may not have a well-formulated program but they certainly know their opposition, and they have helped to expose a dirty secret: Capitalism is a global system that benefits the rich and keeps the majority of the world’s population mired in poverty and pain. As they have gained public attention, they have helped debunk the lie that unregulated markets would be the tide that lifts all boats. Instead, movement activists assail the trickle-up economics practiced by the 1% at the expense of the 99%.
Seattle was sparked by – and subsequently sparked – protests in dozens of cities on every continent. Anti-Globalization activists attacked the corporate-led version of globalization and also worked to build a different kind of ‘‘global village,” one that prioritizes human need and the environment over corporate profits. So too, the occupation of Zuccotti Park, undertaken for similar reasons, followed the “Arab Spring” and the “European Summer” and quickly spread to dozens of communities.3
The Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Zapatista uprising were important precursors to the Anti-Globalization movement. The Zapatistas explicitly challenged neoliberalism, launching their movement on January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA took effect. The Zapatistas articulated a sharp critique of the impact these policies had on indigenous peoples in Mexico. In response, they organized a powerful community-based and egalitarian revolt using innovative tactics and sophisticated communications technologies. The Zapatistas and other groups in the Global South convened meetings of organizations similarly opposed to neoliberal policies, creating People’s Global Action (PGA), a network to facilitate organizing across borders. PGA grew out of a 1998 meeting in Geneva of over 400 representatives of grassroots organizations and NGOs from 71 countries to launch ‘‘a world-wide co-ordination of resistance against the global market.”4 PGA was the simultaneous counter-party/protest to the 50th-anniversary ball in Geneva celebrating the multilateral trade system that established the IMF and World Bank, and to the second anniversary of the WTO. The self-described “hallmarks” of the PGA include a “confrontational attitude,” a “clear rejection of the WTO and other trade liberalization agreements,” a call for “non-violent civil disobedience and the construction of local alternatives by local peoples as answers to the action of governments and corporations” based on a philosophy of decentralization and autonomy, and a clear rejection of “patriarchy, racism, religious fundamentalism and all forms of discrimination and domination.” Protests against similar policies – including GATT (which created the WTO) and the IMF and World Bank, which help manage global corporate capitalism – erupted in Indonesia, India, Brazil, Caracas, Geneva, London, Australia, Zimbabwe, and numerous other places. These events indelibly changed the meaning of both globalization and the movement, positioning them on the larger political map, particularly in the Global North. The protests in Seattle were merely the next in an increasingly long string of actions.
The parallels to OWS are as numerous as they are unmistakable. Mass protests and rebellions in Europe, the Arab World, Latin America, and Africa bear a remarkable resemblance to the precursors to and catalysts of the Anti-Globalization movement. OWS activists repeatedly make explicit connections to Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Italy, Greece, and so on. As the “official” OWS website states, “We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”5
Another parallel precursor is seismic change in the political economy. The economic change wrought by neoliberal globalization during the decades preceding Seattle and during the decade leading up to OWS – particularly the Great Recession – elevated and exposed key targets (WTO, banks) in new ways, and also galvanized progressive groups in the struggle for global justice.
Technology and convergence
Changing technology is another lens to see parallels and connections. New communications technologies proliferated and facilitated the rapid mobility of capital and people across borders; waves of corporate mergers consolidated industries and market shares among fewer and more powerful multinational conglomerates and banks; supra-national institutions and international trade agreements were established with new powers that usurped national and state sovereignty (such as NAFTA, the European Union, and the WTO). These changes provided identifiable targets for movement activists. These new macro-forces and institutions highlighted the power of elites and the lack of available mechanisms for grassroots participation in decision-making. Movement activists strategically focused attention on these institutions precisely because they have significant impact on local conditions.
At the same time, the new technologies – Internet, video, digital media transmission, cellular phones, pirate radio – provide activists better means to communicate, which facilitates “do-it-yourself” organizing for new generations of movement activists.
These changes encouraged convergence among protest movement organizations. Labor, civil rights, feminist, gay and lesbian, environmental and traditional left groups – as well as national liberation movements – were deeply affected by economic restructuring, and forged alliances within the Anti-Globalization and OWS movements. Established organizations gained traction via the movements. Movement activists acquired legitimacy and funding, for example, from alliances with labor unions and existing NGOs. Tactics and skills of earlier social movements – from nonviolent civil disobedience to militant direct action – are transferred and adapted to new conditions. A similar adaptation of moral and democratic arguments takes place. Established organizations re-examine their goals and explore fresh ways to achieve them. Coalitions in name only have taken on life, and dozens of new coalitions have been formed, with new energy.
Both movements have employed and developed innovative forms of participatory decision-making, which they see as intimately linked to achieving radical democracy. OWS has drawn from several methods popularized in the Anti-Globalization movement, such as the general assembly and “spokes-council” models, which were pioneered in Porto Alegre, Argentina, Chiapas, and Seattle. Everywhere, they seek real democracy.
For the Anti-Globalization movement, “spokes-councils” allowed coalitions of groups to meet at “convergence centers” to strategize and coordinate actions, but with the close support and frequent input of members of each group. The spokespersons – or representatives – from each group attend coalition meetings to exchange information and plans. In general, only the spokesperson is empowered to speak on behalf of a group, but members of each group may sit behind their spokespersons to help assure accountability. While joint plans may emerge, not all groups are bound by any “decision.” Groups may choose between different levels of participation in any common action. This model allows groups to collaborate while at the same time remaining autonomous. Spokes-councils may meet frequently to continue dialogue and provide updated information to their constituent groups, often by means of new communications technologies. The decisions of spokes-councils have a high degree of input and support, which facilitates rapid and effective action. Proponents of the spokes-council model contend that it is better designed than were the consensus models of the 1960s and 70s to make quick consensus-like decisions during shifting protest conditions.
Democratic practice in movements is crucial but not easily achieved. As seasoned activist L.A. Kaufman cogently put it, “The consensus process has considerable virtues, but it also has flaws. It favors those with lots of time to spend in meetings. Unless practiced with unusual skill, it can lavish excessive attention on the stubborn or disruptive.”6 The same can be said of the general assembly (GA) which lies at the heart of the Occupy Movement. Brooke Lehman, a founder of the Direct Action Network and participant in both the Anti-Globalization and OWS movements, described the general assembly in Zuccotti Park this way: “It is an exercise in prefiguring the world we are all struggling to create. It awakens us to our potential as political beings and reignites our faith in humanity. And yet those most intimately involved with the day-to-day realities of the occupation find the functionality of the GA as the sole decision-making structure to be severely limited.”7
The Occupy movement organizes itself into working groups that are connected via the GA. The types of working groups, which vary from location to location, can range from legal, food, medical, media to facilitation, art, and education. Essentially, they seek a means where all can have a say without privileging those who have time and skills; to balance access with efficiency. As Marina Sitrin put it: “Our communication between and among the working groups is not yet seamless, but we continue to work at it, and as we grow and change, our forms of organization necessarily will change as well. New structures are constantly being explored, so that we may create the most open, participatory, and democratic space possible. We all strive to embody the alternative we wish to see in our day-to-day relationships.”8
Challenges and promise
The Anti-Globalization movement won important if modest gains – from discrediting neoliberal ideology and promoting notions of global justice, to the enactment of debt reduction, anti-sweatshop policies, and environmental regulations. But it faded as an organized force for a number of reasons. Global summits are transient, and chasing them proved burdensome. The frenzy of hyper-patriotism and militarism that followed 9/11 sidelined it, especially in North America, and changes in police technologies and tactics have further hampered activists. In Latin America, however, the Anti-Globalization movement bore greater fruit, contributing to the rise of several progressive regimes.
Both the Anti-Globalization movement and OWS have comprised a broad array of individuals and groups – which has been a source of both strength and fragility. Various groups in the movements hold different ideologies, posit different goals, target different institutions, and employ different tactics. Some of these differences can be quite divisive. Conflicts have also occurred along cultural, ethnic, racial, class, gender, and sexual orientation lines.
The potential of OWS is huge, but its challenges are formidable. Internal conflicts are sure to grow. Periodic street clashes with police can produce battle fatigue and do not always lead to the development of ongoing relationships, common agendas, and community-building. If OWS can overcome the “free-rider” problem – non-active “members” who currently do not actively participate but gain benefits from the actions of active members – it may become a mass movement with considerable clout. But if the divisions persist or broaden, its potential will sputter and evaporate like that of many before it.
Moreover, because OWS poses the most serious challenge to elites in decades, the swift and sustained attacks on it will likely continue. Repression is an effective deterrent. Infiltration and disruption have a proven track record. Cooptation – by unions, NGOs, Democrats – remains a challenge. The list goes on.
Nevertheless, if OWS and sympathetic organizations can broaden their constituency bases, if marginal groups and potential coalition partners can be brought into the movement, OWS has the potential to be one of the most transformative movements in history.
As Benjamin Shepard has written, OWS is reclaiming public parks for the common good.9 OWS has created space for victims of the current crisis of capitalism, to find solace, to heal, to support each other, to build community, and to hope. There is a spirit of care inside these liberated zones that is infectious. Peace and love are back on the agenda. OWS insists that we can afford to build a decent, inclusive society – while at the same time respecting the real limits to what the earth can take. OWS is creating the change it wants to see. It may be inefficient, frustrating, even a bit dangerous, but it also allows for the emergence of something in the act of protesting which otherwise would not be possible. Like the Anti-Globalization movement, OWS essentially posits a sustainable egalitarianism.
Anti-Globalization activists often quoted Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, who stated, “The future’s name is autonomy; its route is struggle; its engine is youth; its brain is experience; and, it has a heart with an indigenous history.” OWS may turn out to be what real democracy looks like.
1. Writers for the 99%. Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. New York: OR Books, 2011. Voices from the 99 Percent: An Oral History of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, ed. Lenny Flank. St. Petersburg, FL: Red & Black Publishers, 2011.
2. Writers for the 99%. Occupying Wall Street.
3. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, ed. Sarah van Gelder. San Francisco: BK Books, 2011. The 99%: How The Occupy Wall Street Movement Is Changing America, ed. Don Hazen, Tara Lohan, Lynn Parramore. New York: Alternet Books. 2011.
4. People’s Global Action, ‘‘What Is PGA?’’ www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/en/.
5. “OccupyWallSt.org is the unofficial de facto online resource for the growing occupation movement happening on Wall Street and around the world.”
6. L.A. Kaufman. “The Theology of Consensus.” Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America. London: Verso, 2011.
7. Brooke Lehman (aka Brook Muse). “From GA to Spokes-council.” N+1, Occupy! #2 Gazette. www.nplusonemag.com/GAZETTE-2.pdf.
8. Marina Sitrin, “One No, Many Yesses.” Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America.
9. Benjamin Shepard. Blogs on OWS at www.benjaminheimshepard.com; Writers for the 99%. Occupying Wall Street.