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  Volume 10 |Issue 43 | November 18, 2011 |


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A man holds a sign in New York City.
Protesters march down Yonge Street in Toronto.


Sushmita S Preetha

Three months ago, had you told me of a two-month long grassroots protest on the streets of the financial capital of the world, I would have asked you to get a grip on your imagination. Wake up, my dear comrade, I would have said, smell the victorious stench of rampant and unapologetic capitalism. Breathe in its serpentine fumes and admit defeat: resistance, in this neoliberal world order, is unfeasible, albeit impossible. The free market is the mantra of the day; the world belongs, not to us, but to big, greedy corporations – and there is nothing that we, the 99%, can do about it.

But that defeatist attitude is a thing of the past. The intrepid protestors who took to the streets of the Financial District on September 17th have given hope to billions of people around the world about the possibility of a different world order – a world order in which the richest 1percent are not “writing the rules of an unfair global economy.” The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that began two months ago in Zuccotti Park, a one block public park in the middle of Manhattan's Financial District, has now spread to over 100 cities in the United States with actions in over 1,500 cities globally. Initially dismissed as a clichéd hippie fest with no solid goals (an early CNN story about the OWS was titled, “Seriously?!”), the grassroots movement has now captured the full attention of the media, politicians and financial giants around the world, if not always with the desired results.

A sign reading "Wake Up From This American Nightmare" is seen in New York City. Photo: AFP

OWS is a highly ideological, people-oriented, non-hierarchical and non-partisan movement. It has categorically maintained that it is “party-less, leaderless, by the people and for the people.” Despite criticisms from both the left and the right, it has refused to conform to traditional power structures, arguing that its non-hierarchical nature is intrinsic to its values and the protest's message. All decisions of the movement are democratically made, through a consensus-based collective decision-making method, called “people's assembly”. OWS holds a General Assembly (GA) everyday for the 'community,' a term that includes the OWS occupiers, frequent attendees, residents in the neighbourhood and also anyone belonging to the 99%. Because all decisions made are consensus-based, the meetings can be painstakingly long and, to some extent, inefficient, but the OWS is learning how to balance their ideological imperatives with efficient mobilisation of resources. It refuses to be co-opted by liberal politicians, labour unions or individuals and groups with their own vested interests; it clearly states, “Those seeking to capitalise on this movement or undermine it by appropriating its message or symbols are not a part of Occupy Wall Street.” OWS belongs to those who have given their time and energy to building the movement – to all those who want to work collectively towards shared goals, not to those who want to own the movement.

Despite the fact that OWS has been in the limelight for almost two months now, there are still confusions and criticisms about what its goals and demands might be. A lot of this uncertainty is induced by the media, which seems to believe that demands must come in the form of formal bullet-pointed lists rather than as grassroots grievances in the form of chants, slogans and protest marches. The Occupiers themselves seem divided on the question of whether there should be a specific set of demands. Many veteran Occupiers think that an explicit list would be counterproductive, while others seem to believe that concrete demands can give the movement added momentum.

For those willing to listen, OWS has been very clear from the very beginning that it wishes to challenge the corporate forces of the world that are responsible for inequality, human indignity, racism, ecological imbalance, consolidation of power and unencumbered corruption. For now, OWS has a loose set of goals outlined in the Liberty Square Blueprint, a wiki style-document edited by some 250 Occupiers and still undergoing changes. "This document outlines our vision, goals, and strategy to best support the global movement, which will inevitably succeed," notes the introduction to the current draft. "Demands cannot reflect inevitable success. Demands imply condition, and we will never stop. Demands cannot reflect the time scale that we are working with."

The blueprint's 11 core "visions" for the movement include broad concepts such as embracing open-source technology, ending all wars, eliminating "discrimination and prejudice," and reappropriating "our business structures and culture, putting people and our earth before profit." One wonders, however, if the changes the Occupiers wish to see are in fact possible within the existing capitalist structure. If capitalism is, by definition, oppressive and exploitative, what does it mean for the Occupiers to demand the end of discrimination and injustice? If the changes they want cannot occur without an upheaval of the current system, argue the far left, what they need is not a concrete set of demands but a revolution.

But the truth is that the usual leftist rhetoric and anarchist practices have not completely seduced the Occupiers (much as they might have been influenced by them). OWS certainly has a revolutionary zeal, but the revolution it envisions is markedly different from the ones in the last century. In many ways, OWS marks the emergence of a new and distinctive form of social movement. As renowned media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff, notes: “We are witnessing America's first true Internet era-movement, which – unlike civil rights protests, labour marches, or even the Obama campaign, does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular end goal.” He argues that despite the fact that there are numerous goals, complaints and demands, OWS is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. “As the product of the decentralised networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it's like the Internet,” he concludes.

For the last two months, we have tried to comprehend this movement based on our own understandings of past movements. Perhaps now it's time to understand and accept it on its own terms. It really is too soon to conclude whether OWS is a success or a failure, but one certainly hopes that it can have a lasting impact on national and international policies and trigger resistances against neoliberalism throughout the world. We can already see the power of OWS in motivating the masses to take a collective stance: on 6th November, an estimated 12,000 physically surrounded the White House to urge rejection of a proposed climate-killing oil pipeline. They expressed solidarity with the Occupy movement, with "OCCUPY EARTH" signs and "We are the 99%" chants.

All over the world, people have joined the Occupiers in solidarity for a just and democratic world order. People have identified local problems and placed them within the larger global context in major cities in over 82 countries. But why have we Bangladeshis, been so reluctant in making the crucial connections between the present socio-political and economic scenario in Bangladesh and the neoliberal global order? Why haven't we begun to question the deregulation of our financial markets, privatisation of the health and education sectors, increase in inequality and deradicalisation of our civil society? Now is as good a time as any to critically analyse our own social and political locations vis-a-vis the 1percent and challenge the unhindered dominance of corporate multinationals, bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and financial institutions.



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