The Arab Spring Versus Occupy Wall Street

*Another reflection from class. I rarely comment twice on a subject, but this piece is well-written and more reflective than the first. 

Going back to the readings from week 3 about the critiques of the vagueness and confusion caused by the term global civil society, I would like to offer some insights in the context of two recent transnational movements: The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

In this regard, I find Hardt & Negri’s (2000) interpretation in Empire useful for understanding these broader movements that are situated in regional contexts, but immediately leap to international awareness. They note:

“Furthermore, these struggles not only fail to communicate to other contexts but also lack even a local communication, and thus often have a very brief duration where they are born, burning out in a flash. This is certainly one of the central and most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much  celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable.” (p.54)

This is certainly true of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which encompasses a fragmented plethora of different issues like the critique of cut-throat capitalism, labour rights, indigenous rights, women’s rights, developing countries, income inequalities, and the list goes on. However, this movement has managed to displace media attention on the real human rights abuses in the Middle East’s Arab Spring, especially with the atrocities being committed in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Certainly, the transnational movement of the Arab Spring fits all the characteristics of biopolitical resistance and legitimate appeals to forming a civil society outside the state with the help of transnational linkages and foreign media presence. The occupation of Tahrir Square, the online presence of Egypt Twitter users, and the bloody repressions of protesters in the Syrian and Libyan regimes is proof enough of the universal nature of the democratic principle behind transnational movements. The Arab Spring is a legitimate part of global civil society with moral authority and political power that does not seek to impose itself on unwilling peoples, but seeks to inspire fellow peoples under authoritarian regimes to fight for the liberties that are essential to human development and progress.

However, in the case of Occupy Wall Street, I would certainly not label it as an instance of meaningful global civil society compared to the graver events occurring from the Arab Spring. In most democratic countries experiencing the protests, the police nor the army have tried to suppress these protests through brute force, unless the protesters themselves begin to perpetrate violence. As citizens in liberal democratic countries, the protesters are entitled to free expression, while the Arab Spring protesters do not enjoy the same luxury. Therefore, the Occupy Wall Street movement is NOT a case of sovereign-subject conflict due to the permissibility of their protests in open, democratic society. The subaltern is represented and heard at these protests, as well as “marginalized” groups like women, Native Americans, and other minorities.

As well, public space is always reclaimed in the name of some ideology, natonalist sentiment, or individual/group interest. With regard to the Occupy Wall Street protest, I think it is important to ask: For whom is Wall Street being reclaimed?(that is, for whose interests) rather than Who is reclaiming Wall Street? I think the successful ability of the Occupy movements to distract attention from the Arab Spring is perhaps the ultimate example of the discontented nature of global civil society as a concept. That is, Western priorities seem to have a greater and louder voice in these movements than other countries, which is problematic in my view. Capitalist greed should be the least of our problems when other countries in the world do not enjoy the civil liberties that can enable more equitable and free societies.

3 thoughts on “The Arab Spring Versus Occupy Wall Street

  1. I’m writing a paper on Hardt & Negri’s “Multitude” right now, and I highly recommend that you read it–#OWS and what you called the “fragmented plethora” of issues that those within the movement seek to address is the embodiment of what H&N call “biopolitical” grievances.

    Capitalism as a global economic system depends on the exploitation of the many for the profit-driven benefit of the few. This exploitation is manifest in hegemonic structures of power like sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism–on the micro scale of the individual, as well as the macro scale of the nation. The citizens of poor countries do not “enjoy the civil liberties” that the citizens of the most powerful countries in the world do because capitalism is driven solely by the imperative for profit, and as such *needs* poor countries to take advantage of. As long as we continue to exist within this oppressive economic system, there can be no hope of global egalitarianism.

    The grievances which incited the WTO protests, the Arab Spring uprisings, the Spanish Summer protests, and Occupy Wall Street are all cut from the same cloth; they share the same roots.

    It has *everything* to do with capitalism!

    Hardt & Negri wrote this brief piece about #OWS in October:
    http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136399/michael-hardt-and-antonio-negri/the-fight-for-real-democracy-at-the-heart-of-occupy-wall-street

  2. Thank-you for your comment, Katie.

    To respond briefly to one of the main premises of your argument, I do not fundamentally believe that capitalism itself is an exploitative practice, at least in its pure sense. I like to use Friedrich Hayek’s call to use better language: Catallaxy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catallaxy), that is, the Lockean sense of fair exchange for one’s labour and the responsible management of one’s finances, whether private or public. This idea that capitalism is exploitative has been a myth perpetuated by Marxists who were trying to make sense of the drastic technological changes and urbanization caused by the Industrial Revolution and the imperialist expansion by European powers which were actually exploitative.

    Ayn Rand also has some interesting ideas that contest this idea that capitalism has no benefits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ukJiBZ8_4k Capitalism does provide a standard of living that is both morally progressive and increases the quality of life, permitting humans to continue to be innovation and creative in an environment that fosters freedom and a variety of situations, in the words of the great Humboldt.

    I believe that the true biopolitical contestations are securitization practices at borders and political demonstrations against suppressive regimes like we are seeing in the Arab Spring and in Tiananmen Square. I believe that sweatshops and the race to the bottom are despicable vestiges of the imperialist age which need to be rectified. However, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have the option to return home, they have the option to go back to their jobs, they have the option to apply to the social services that their countries provide, and they have the option to elect out of office any official that does not address their needs. They are spoiled children compared to the Arab Spring protesters who do not have the luxury of doing so in the face of indefinite detention in jails and mass executions.

    Once again, thanks for reading!

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