A Comparison of Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring
Introduction: The American Autumn
On September 17th, 2011, hundreds of protesters waving signs that read “We are the 99%”and “People Not Profits” converged on Manhattan’s Financial District (Scherer 44). The Occupation had begun. Over the next months, commentators would rave that the spirit of Tahrir Square had arrived in New York, describing the Occupy Wall Street movement as the counterpart to the wave of Arab Spring revolutions that began in February 2011. Van Jones, former white house aid and leader of the American Dream Movement, went so far as coin the term “the American Autumn” to describe the Occupy Wall Street protests (Jones in Hampson 1). Here, this term is particularly significant because it builds the myth of a global social movement that began with the democratic revolutions of Arab Spring. This perception of Occupy Wall Street as a continuation of the Arab Spring uprisings has been embraced by the American media.In particular, the media and academics alike explain the rise of Arab Spring and the ‘American Autumn’ through the advent of new social media technologies, including Twitter and Facebook. The premise is that social media inspires revolutions by facilitating the spread of ideas and making social protest easier to coordinate. Here, the underlying assumption is that technologies like Twitter have globalizing and democratizing power.
As a whole, the construct of the American Autumn created in the media can be summed up in Rick Hampson’s description of Occupy and Arab Spring as a “a new age of insurrection, in which aggrieved people ---enabled by social media and inspired by young people in North Africa, Western Europe and New York – protest what they see as what’s wrong with the world.” (1). In this way, the social movement known as Occupy Wall Street has been romanticized in the American media as an awakening of the disadvantaged classes. More significantly, this awakening is portrayed as a global one, in which the masses have risen up to demand greater economic equality and democracy.
However, the depiction of the Occupy Movement as the American counterpart of the Arab Spring is controversial. On one hand, the styling of Occupy Wall Street as an ‘American Autumn’ accurately reflects the inspiration that Occupy protesters draw from the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions. Indeed, Occupy’s non-violent tactics and the occupation of Zuccotti Park in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan are modeled after the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square. However, the similarities between the two movements end here. In particular, Charles Bix argues that the revolutions that began in Tunisia and Egypt were not limited to protests against the economic desperation, rising food prices, and vast unemployment amongst the educated youth; they were political revolutions that overthrew entrenched, corrupt dictators (330). In contrast, the Occupy protests are more of a symbol of the frustration amongst the “99%” over the growing divide between rich and poor than a revolution. For example, Occupy protesters often criticize the fact that the wealthiest 1% of Americans are seven times richer than they were 30 years ago while during the same time span the wealth of the average citizen has stabilized or decreased; the average CEO now earns 300 times more than their average employee (Dowd 27). However, despite protesting this income inequality and corporate corruption, the Occupy movement has no specific demands and does not seek to overthrow the existing financial or political system. In this sense, Occupy is a symbol of the American public’s discontent, not a revolutionary movement. For this reason, I will argue that it is unfair to put Occupy protests on the same level as Arab Spring uprisings and inaccurate to describe them as a single, global movement.
Indeed, styling Occupy Wall Street as an American Autumn appropriates the issues of the Arab Spring revolutions as well as the dignity associated with protesters who risked their lives for democracy. This is done to popularize and lend significance to the American Occupy movement. However, I believe this approach devalues the sacrifices of Arab Spring revolutionaries. Specifically, there are two myths within the construct of the American Autumn that are especially problematic. The first is the ‘myth of the 99%’, which argues that the Occupy protesters and the Arab Spring revolutionaries are on the same side of a global struggle against inequality. However, this perception of events ignores the different stakes involved in the movements by placing the Occupy activists on equal standing with Arab Spring revolutionaries who risked their lives and freedom fighting authoritarian governments. Instead, I will argue that the stakes that protesters confront during their activism change the nature as well as the efficacy of the movement. The second myth I will argue against is that of the ‘Twitter Revolution’, in which American social media technology rather than citizens are given credit for inspiring the Arab Spring revolutions. I will argue that this perception of events ignores the societal factors and erroneously assumes that Internet is used and perceived the same in all protests and across societies. Instead, I will argue that neither Arab Spring nor Occupy Wall Street subscribe to the prototype of the Twitter Revolution, but are rather people’s movements that are inherently different from each other. However, before I disprove these two myths, I will begin my analysis by explaining why they are so prevalent. Particularly, I will argue that the myths of the 99% and the Twitter Revolution derive from underlying assumptions about globalization that stem from the America’s tendency to view itself as a source of democracy and freedom.
The Origin of The Myth of the 99%
Despite its humble origins as a small tent encampment in a lower Manhattan park, the Occupy Wall Street movement has come to see itself as a symbol of something much larger than a local protest against fat cats on Wall Street. Instead, Occupy Wall Street has been portrayed in the media and by its own rhetoric as a global phenomenon. For example, Andrew Sullivan of Newsweek describes the Occupy movement as a worldwide awakening, where “the global public, more aware than ever of what is going on in the world, and more able than ever before to share ideas” have risen up against “the vested interests of the powerful who stand in the way of their dreams” (38). The Occupy movement’s slogans displayed on their website and facebook page, including “solidarity forever!” and “the revolution continues worldwide!”, further contribute to the portrayal of Occupy Wall Street as a ground-breaking movement that aims to change unfair disparities between socioeconomic classes around the world.
Indeed, the popular watchword of the Occupy movement, “We are the 99%”, appeals to a sense of collective identity that can be applied to oppressed and frustrated citizens everywhere, and especially the protesters of the Arab Spring. In fact, I will argue that the rhetoric surrounding Occupy Wall Street has created the myth that Arab Spring and the so called ‘American Autumn’ are part of a global movement toward equality and democracy. Moreover, I will argue that this ‘myth of the 99%’ derives from underlying American assumptions about globalization and the tendency of the United States to view itself as an agent of democracy.