At some point recently, we entered a “movement moment”, a period of time where long-term strategic campaigns merge with spontaneous, organic social upheaval and manifest in the streets with rebellious joy.
Such moments can bring about radical, revolutionary changes in short periods of time, as displayed in the Arab Spring and now, perhaps, in the Global North’s emerging winter.
Major protests are gripping some of the most powerful countries in the world, namely the United States, England, and Italy; an ongoing uprising is taking place in Greece; some of the largest demonstrations since the 1973 military coup have taken in Chile; and long-established dictatorships have fallen or are about to fall all over northern Africa and the Middle East.
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In the United States, a sense of grassroots democratic engagement is spreading across the country to the surprise of many long-engaged community organizers and radicals, and conversations questioning the moral and theoretical basis of financial capitalism have become quite regular among ordinary people.
Late in the third week of October, amid the largest protests since the fall of the military junta in 1974 in which a massive crowd attempted to storm Parliament, the Greek government finalized austerity measures laid out for the “Troika”, the name given to the joint power structure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union, and the European Currency Unit.
In Brussels over the October 21st weekend at a now-extended emergency meeting focused on how to save financial capitalism in light of the Greek debt crisis, the European Union announced a new round of bail-outs for many of Europe’s big banks, citing national governments as one of the main sources of revenue. When the Irish state struck a similar agreement with the Troika last year, they looted the pension funds of public employees across Ireland.
As the EU met in Brussels, 2,000 people filled Dublin’s Dame Street in front of the Central Bank of Ireland and the IMF’s office to join the “Occupy Dame Street” encampment.
But contrary to many corporate media-statements suggesting otherwise, what has unified people across the world is not just solidarity with the protests on Wall Street or with the Arab Spring. While there is certainly an undeniable lineage between these movements, what has caused such upheavel is a shared situation; many of these countries are facing economic conditions that a critical mass of the people has collectively deemed unacceptable.
But this debate is nothing new. In fact, many of the economic paradigms and institutions being combated right now were the same ones being combated a decade ago in what was dubbed by the media as the “anti-globalization” movement and by those of us involved in it as “the movement of movements”. If first caught the public’s eyes in the Global North in Seattle at the end of 1999 when the World Trade Organization’s summit was shut-down by 50,000 people.
“Anti-Globalization” Comes Home
Shortly before the once-prized economy of Argentina collapsed at the end of 2001, a “European Summer” saw massive protests across Europe against “neoliberalism”, the corporate economic system behind what is commonly called “globalization.” Emphasizing the privatization of public services and resources and the removal of environmental and human rights regulations deemed “barriers to trade”, neoliberal globalization was widely recognized as the key factor exacerbating the gulf between rich and poor on a global scale.
These protests were the largest and most brutal events that this movement experienced in the Global North; with In Gothenburg, three protesters would be shot by the police, and in Genoa, 21 year-old Carlo Giuliani would be shot twice in the face and then run over by a police truck, killing him instantly.
The echoes of these events can still be heard throughout Europe, especially among those who experienced the traumatic police repression or served jail time for their role in the events. A few weeks ago, I saw a beautiful stencil memorial to Carlo in a hallway of one of Austria’s last political squats – just one reminder that the political memory of these uprisings is very much part of the fabric of the European autonomous left.
But there’s a much louder echo being heard in Europe right now, the echo of corporate-globalization itself. And as in the last decade, a rage that has built up over many years is beginning to emerge in the form of a mass, loosely coordinated social movement.
In Europe, young and old alike have been facing the dissolution of what had long been considered staples of western European countries; England’s health care system is on the privatization block; the right to squat abandoned houses is being stripped in England and The Netherlands; the International Monetary Fund has tightened its grip on Greece, Ireland, and Portugal with increasing austerity measures, and tuition rates for students across the continent are rising dramatically.
Alongside these economic conditions, increasingly militarized restrictions to immigration into what has been dubbed “Fortress Europe” stand as a drastic reminder that money and products, but not people, travel freely into and out of neoliberal economies.
What is happening is that “globalization” is coming home to the countries that helped create it. The rich economies of the global north, which long relied on the exploitation of southern peoples and economies, are coming under the same restrictions they once imposed on the rest of the world.
Though many poor people in these countries have long suffered from domestic exploitation, the present wave of budgets cuts threatens to expose both the poor and middle-classes to harsher realities, unifying them in a social movement that is now attempting to maintain this often-fragile alliance.
What we are seeing now is the emergence of a similar political discussion to the days after Seattle, only this time we have turned inward in the Global North: we are now not just talking about solidarity with the Global South, rather we are addressing issues both global and local, as we are feeling the harsh effects of a global economy designed for a minority of the world’s wealthiest people.
Rise of the Indignados
It is in this climate that tensions in Europe have been brewing, so when the Arab Spring broke out across North Africa and the Middle East, the spirit quickly spread across the Mediterranean to the countries of southern Europe.
In Tunisia, a generation of young people educated in universities had found themselves with few job options. In 2008, they watched the government of Ben Ali kill protesting miners in the southern city of Gafsa, and student organizations and bloggers began publicly agitating for major changes.
Protests reached a peak at the end of last year, and when hundreds of thousands refused to stand down against the guns of the Tunisian military, the dictator Ben Ali fled the country.
The movement in Tunisia inspired Egyptians, and they too soon took to the streets, waging highly publicized battles for control of Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
While Egypt was roaring, students, union workers, and community members refused to leave the Capitol building in Wisconsin. Opposed to Tea Party governor Scott Walker’s introduction of harsh legislation targeting unions, education funding, and healthcare subsidies, hundreds – and at times thousands – would remain inside for almost a month and build a vibrant protest community inside.
The Indignado movement in Spain arose next, bringing thousands of people out for weeks-long protests in squares across the country. They found their strongest base in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya.
Hundreds of Indignados recently marched for two and a half months from Spain to set up camp outside of the EU summit in Brussels.
Many people across the world watched YouTube videos of police attacking Indignados in the Plaça on May 27, which fueled international support for the movement and inspired the call for Occupy Wall Street.
Visiting Barcelona last week, I talked with several Indignados and learned about their movement. I told them about my time in Madison, Wisconsin during the occupation of the Capitol there and about the ways in which that movement organized, related to political parties and how some of its participants now reflect on the events.
A friend and Indignado participant took me to the Plaça Catalunya, where hundreds of Indignados had made their homes for a month in the shadow of the old telephone exchange building used the by the anarchist CNT during the war years in the late 1930s. Here she and another participant tell me of the movement’s many dynamics and of the violent police encounters that greeted their peaceful encampment.
On June 15, two weeks after bloody attacks by police, over 2000 Indignados blockaded the Catalan parliament, forcing the government to use helicopters to access the building. Four days later, hundreds of thousands marched across Spain, under the banner “We will not pay for their crisis!”
Meanwhile, neighborhood councils sprung up throughout the city and existing ones took on work related to the protests. Since then, a network has been maintained to physically defend families facing foreclosure and eviction throughout Barcelona.
Soon thereafter in Greece, coming on top of years of militant street protests, massive square occupations were launched following the Indignados model, bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets of Athens this summer. “They were opposed to all political parties and to the established unions,” a Greek friend tells me, pointing out the inherent radical democracy proposed by such gatherings. “They were very broad, involving both the poor and the middle classes.”
Portugal too had square protests emerge after the Indignados took the Plaça, and recently Lisbon saw a march of up to 130,000 people against EU and IMF austerity measures. “The government pretty much does what the IMF says,” a friend in Portugal explains to me upon my arrival in one of Western Europe’s poorest countries.
Collective Movement Spaces
Though it reads like a mystical story of upheaval, to say that the protests in Europe or Wisconsin were “inspired by” the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia is only half true; they were inspired by the successful protests, but they were also pushed forward by similar conditions being imposed on them by many of the same institutions.
There can be no denying that there is a strong, energetic relationship between the Arab Spring and all of these movements that have emerged since then. However, it is a relationship that mostly exists through consciousness rather than direct communication, and has manifested as a series of movements that are globally understood to be linked, much like the “movement of movements” of the “anti-globalization” years.
Though the Indignados knew little of the Wisconsin protests, their movement bore many similarities to it in terms of organization, demands, disagreement over vague or direct purpose, size, and relations with the community.
In both Madison and Barcelona, a few hundred people remaining in a fixed location with little previous organizational connections brought hundreds of thousands of people together on multiple occasions. In both cities, a shared space became an epicenter of cultural and social change.
And in both cities, after a little over a month, the protests disintegrated with a mixture of success and shortcoming. In reflection, participants from both movements feel everything from celebration to confused defeat, some believing their actions did not push hard enough, others seeing them as the early stages only for future events.
Shortcomings aside, the Indignados, the movement in Wisconsin and the protests now spreading from Wall Street expose a new, directly democratic, non-dogmatic politic, one that has been clearly inspired by movements of the last ten years, but which also includes a wide variety of people with a range of political affiliations and visions.
Perhaps the main characteristic of all of these movements, and their main strength, is the creation of social spaces in which movements can host dialogue and experience fast-paced social changes and collective transformation. This is why Tahrir Square became a symbol, and why the Capitol in Wisconsin and the Plaça Catalunya became sites to defend and celebrate.
Whereas many movements struggle constantly to find collective space, usually through the hosting of regular marches or demonstrations, the establishment of such spaces as the encampments in the Plaça Catalunya or at Occupy Wall Street, allows for a more rapid sense of power to develop, often leading to a more horizontal arrangement of power within a movement.
They also create space for real debate and dialogue around issues of power and privilege. A number of essays and videos discussing race, sexism, class privilege, and homophobia within the “occupation movement” have gone viral over the last two weeks.
Interestingly, almost all of these have been written with a sense of urgency, not to discredit the occupations, but to urge those participating to push them to new levels, to move them beyond their traditional comfort zones, to help them grow by ensuring they take on issues that have historically killed emerging social movements in the United States.
Such collectively organized spaces, with their rejection of traditional leadership models and their emphasis on the empowerment of their participants, have the capacity to become key focal points of transformation for this generation. That is, if their participants are able to recognize their shared power and learn from the needed critique mentioned above.
Perhaps they will, as has Egypt’s Tahrir Square, become both the symbols and sites of global revolt against the neoliberal economies of the corporate-era.
Of course, there are still many battles ahead, but it is certain that what happens next in New York may be influential throughout the world. It seems accurate to say that right now, the whole world really is watching.