A question nagged at Occupy Wall Street and its myriad imitators, the most exciting social movement to emanate from the United States in more than a decade, for much of the fall. “What are your demands?” journalists persisted in asking. “What do you want?”
The ceaseless digging for an answer was a reflex for an American corporate media that long ago melded minds with government and big business. The Occupy protesters are a nuisance, a noisome racket and a distraction from the quotidian tasks of running the world. Their presence, moreover, is a continuous impediment to the media’s standard wrap-up of stories about crisis: All is well. Everything will soon return to normal. Asking the protesters what they want, then, was akin to asking what it would take to make them go home. Would pledges to undertake a few reforms have sufficed? Several such tweaks of the system? Or did the Occupy campers intend to shiver in tents as winter deepened, stubbornly refusing to specify the emoluments the state could offer?
“We are our demands,” the Occupy spokespeople maintained in response to the increasingly querulous probing. They were sure that the pressure to draft a list of desiderata was a trick, the prelude to promises of investigatory panels staffed by graybeards whose reports would gather dust, because the media would have pronounced the protests over. But the Occupy demonstrators are not old news. And all is not well.
The Occupy movement calls urgent attention, first and foremost, to the staggering maldistribution of wealth in the US and, by extension, the world. The “1 percent” whom the protesters decry — the richest Americans — control some 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to widely cited numbers crunched by sociologist William Domhoff. The “99 percent” in whose name the demonstrators speak must divvy up the rest, with the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers fighting over a mere 7 percent of the country’s accumulated net worth. And, as reported in the vital Left Business Observer, the bulge at the top of the graph is growing fatter: According to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, in 2009 the wealthiest 1 percent saw their income jump by 100 percent, with 12,000 super-rich households (the top .01 percent) raking in 215 percent more than the year before. This rate of growth in America’s most rarefied precincts was almost 30 times higher than the rate for the bottom 90 percent of the population. The rich are getting richer, and fabulously so, while the majority looks on helplessly as their assets stagnate or lose value. And many Americans, of course, have no assets at all.
The incredible upward gush of wealth is no “market failure,” no accidental grit in the machine of contemporary capitalism, but the logical result of four decades of conscious policy to let the market operate unfettered. In the America of 1967, the Gini index — a common scale of wealth distribution in which 0 is complete equality and 10 utter inequality — hovered around 3.9, a level comparable to Norway and Sweden at the time. In 2011, after 44 years of neoliberal measures in the US and social democratic ones in Scandinavia, the Gini indexes had diverged, with the US over 4.5 and Norway and Sweden under 3. The Gini coefficient in the US has reached heights not seen since the tail end of the Great Depression. In today’s world, it is closer to the indexes of Latin America than those of Europe (though Japan is comparably unequal).
In the Arab world, site of the year’s inaugural revolts against decadent elites, Gini indexes are lower, with populous countries like Egypt and Algeria weighing in at 3.4 and 3.5, respectively. The comparison is obviously inexact: In absolute terms, both income and per capita wealth are much greater in the US, and the mind-boggling plenty at the top of the US pyramid skews the index upward. But the Arab revolts, as well, were driven partly by the fury of the many that the benefits of economic growth went disproportionately to the few. The culprit: Three decades of neoliberal structural adjustment policies and the moneyed crony castes they spawned. Arab Gini numbers have not worsened dramatically in the last ten years, but poverty has, proof that the index captures inequality very imperfectly. It does not measure quality-of-life indicators, like access to useful education or decent health care. Nor does it account for taxation policies, which widen wealth gaps in most Arab countries, relying as they do on customs, duties and value-added taxes that take a larger bite from the income of the working classes. Income taxes, where they exist, are regressive and widely evaded by the well heeled, another facet of Arab economics that rings a bell for Americans.
Animated by shared grievance, Arab and American agitators for social justice have forged inspiring people-to-people ties in the crucible of the 2011 upheavals. In the spring, protesters in Wisconsin rallied against attempts to gut collective bargaining rights for state workers with signs evoking the spirit of Tahrir Square and likening their Republican governor, Scott Walker, to the deposed Egyptian president, Husni Mubarak. Kamal ‘Abbas, the veteran pro-democracy campaigner at Cairo’s Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, replied with a YouTube message to the Wisconsinites on February 20. “Today is the day of the American worker,” he said, standing before a collage of photographs of young men and women killed in the anti-Mubarak uprising, “as yesterday was the day of the Egyptian worker.”
From the outset, the Occupy current has evinced its very clear admiration for the ethic and achievements of the Arab revolts, particularly Egyptians in Tahrir Square, who have responded in kind. Esraa Abdel Fattah, a founder of the April 6 youth movement that helped to coordinate the momentous January 25 demonstrations, spoke to the original Occupy protesters at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in November, along with a Tunisian activist from Sidi Bouzid and an Iranian Green Movement member. Egyptians — albeit in small numbers — demonstrated outside the US embassy in Cairo in solidarity with the Occupy campers assaulted by police in Oakland. On November 19, Occupy DC mounted an action with Egyptian visitors against US military aid to Egypt, reflecting the Tahrir revolutionaries’ opposition to the repressive moves of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). There have been missteps, too. Occupy’s general assembly in New York voted to allocate $29,000 to send election monitors to Egypt, a gesture that many Egyptian activists, distrustful of the elections’ integrity, did not appreciate. Earlier, Occupy Wall Street retracted a tweet expressing support for a relief flotilla headed for Gaza, eliciting the heated criticism of activists declaiming that yet again the Western left had lapsed into confusion and cowardice over the question of Palestine.
But overall these displays of friendship between American activists and Arab revolutionaries mark the first time since the September 11, 2001 attacks that people in the Middle East have shown real empathy for the “99 percent” in the US. Although many Americans rallied on behalf of Arabs in in the interim, chiefly to stop the Iraq war in 2003, the 2011 moment feels significantly different. There is a sense that everyone is engaged in the same struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice,” to rehearse the anthem of Tahrir Square, rather than confronted by an impending tragedy where Arabs will be victims and Americans guilty, if greatly concerned bystanders. Yes, such paeans to togetherness are the long-standing lingua franca of aspiring global movements, most of which founder, and no, love does not conquer empire, but the Occupy movement’s soundtrack is not “Kumbaya.”
It is a reversal of conventional East-West relations for a groundswell in the Arab world to be seen by Westerners as a model for how to effect change. This swapping of roles is not unprecedented, of course, but the agile, media-savvy, non-violent youth of Tahrir Square is much more readily emulated than the gun-toting guerrilla, the icon of the 1960s and 1970s. The practices to be adopted are not limited to the realms of organizing and self-representation. The makeshift clinics and kitchens at Zuccotti Park, the impromptu political education sessions, the painstaking collective decision making, the pervasive sharing of ideas and resources, from pamphlets to blankets — all of these activist folkways have precedents in the world-famous plaza in downtown Cairo. None of these devices were necessarily invented at Tahrir Square, but it was there that they brought down a dictator.
As the question about demands grew more pressing among the Occupy protesters themselves, several leaders evoked the memory of Tahrir to buttress their position that fashioning a political program was a mug’s game. The genius of Tahrir was its spontaneity and openness to contingency, from the foundational ruse misleading the police as to the protesters’ gathering place on January 25 to the improvised helmets protecting protesters from regime goons to the sanitation crews that spread out across the city to scrub walls and sweep up dirt in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster. The revolution’s transcendence of the Egyptian opposition’s usual political divides — secular versus Islamist, liberal versus leftist — fostered a unifying, warm-hearted, family-like atmosphere that made the extraordinary creativity of the square’s culture possible. The revolutionaries’ praxis was their politics: During the 18 days between the initial occupation of Tahrir to Mubarak’s resignation, as Ahmad Shokr has written in these pages, Egyptians built a prototype of the society they wanted to live in.
The analogy to Zuccotti Park is powerful, but it has some glaring shortcomings. It may be true that the Occupy groupings would never have gelled or would have quickly dissolved if vocal elements had imposed a detailed, hard-and-fast program. Their purpose is to bear witness to injustice — and to see what develops. In Egypt, however, as in Tunisia beforehand and Syria and Yemen afterward, the initially modest aims rapidly developed into a single, concrete goal: the end of one-man rule. As illustrated best by subsequent events in Egypt, the simplicity of this demand was a weakness in one sense. It lent the revolutionaries a unity that proved invincible until the demand was met. After Mubarak fell, so did the mask over the many disagreements that had been hidden. Some in the Occupy movement reason that their ranks cannot be thus demoralized if they decline to set forth a demand in the first place.
But it is hard to keep people organized behind utopian visions, or the numbers of self-identified anarchists and socialists would not be so tiny. The deepest lessons of Tahrir Square are two. First, in the heat of the moment, ordinary people are emboldened to do extraordinary things when they have the experience of facing down power. Once Egyptians had broken through the cordons of riot police trying to block them from the central location of Tahrir, the police state’s grip on their imagination was gone, and Mubarak’s goose was cooked. Second, over the long haul, the masses are brought into the political sphere when they have tasted victory. To many, post-Mubarak Egypt looks like a cacophony of competing and often irreconcilable claims upon the state treasury, but it is really the continuation of the uprising in a thousand neighborhoods and workplaces. Having chased Mubarak out of the presidential palace, Egyptians are now seeking a share of “bread, freedom and social justice” for themselves, their families and their colleagues. The SCAF and its allies will be hard pressed to shoehorn these unruly legions into the placid frames they like to think that Egyptians inhabit.
Ironically, the mid-November evictions of Occupy Wall Street and other encampments from Zuccotti Park and locales elsewhere seem to have led the movement to move past the question of demands. The state may not afford these citizens a space in which to grow a wholly organic political project. If there is not one space, there can be many: Occupy outposts are on the move, marching to places with resonance for particular groups and lodging that group’s particular complaints. The Occupy DC demonstration at the Egyptian Defense Office is a case in point.
But, even if the evictions are the beginning of the end for Occupy, the movement has left its mark. The chattering classes, after being compelled by polling data to take the protesters seriously, have reverted to their usual condescension and scorn for activism on the left, with a November 16 Washington Post headline asking if the Zuccotti Park gathering was “an occupation or an infestation.” Nonetheless, Occupy’s language has permeated the dominant discourse. “57 Members of Congress Among Wealthy 1 Percent,” read the headline above the fold in the same day’s edition of USA Today. Politicians and the press know very well that disgust at the maldistribution of wealth is broad and deep.
The Occupy protesters have also proposed a genuinely alternative mode of interaction with the world outside US borders, succeeding where President Barack Obama dismally failed. With regard to the Middle East, the shows of solidarity among activists have long since surpassed the fleeting good will generated by Obama’s ballyhooed June 2009 speech in Cairo. Those feelings went sour because Obama’s approach to the region has been anything but alternative, even amidst the Arab revolts and his more enlightened advisers’ wish to realign US interests with stated American values. Obama stuck with Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali to the bitter end, and continues to back any number of other autocratic leaderships, including the Bahraini royal family, whose square-clearing midnight raid in mid-February (down to the cited pretext of “cleanup”) is a more troubling echo of the Arab uprisings in Zuccotti Park. The administration’s opportunistic stance against Libya’s Qaddafi, coinciding as it did with the crushing of the Bahraini pro-democracy movement and other Saudi-backed maneuvers of counter-revolution, was hardly a strategic departure. And then, of course, there is the question of Palestine, where Obama has likewise endorsed the unjust and intolerable status quo.
For the Occupy movement, Arabs are agents, not an audience. Like their Arab counterparts, the Occupy activists have undergone a radical loss of faith in the establishment and have come to regard “change you can believe in” as nothing but a marketing ploy. In New York on November 17, Ahmad Mahir, another April 6 founder, thrilled the assembled crowd by declaring, “We are all Egypt.” For the people-to-people contacts of 2011 to retain their mutuality, American activists need to grasp the ways in which that statement is true, but also the ways in which it is false. The US government was a key prop of the authoritarian rule that Mahir and his cohorts overthrew and Washington remains a guarantor of the new-old order that the SCAF is erecting. Foreign policy is not made democratically anywhere, but American citizens have a lot more say in their government’s overseas orientation than do Egyptians in theirs. Occupy it.