Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy 2 months birthday, OWS!

Its two months today that Occupy Wall Street had occupied Zuccotti Park in New York. And after strong reluctance from the big media (it took most of big US networks more than a week to cover the story) the movement has successfully occupied the news channels for the last weeks.

New York’s mayor duly used the two month anniversary of the movement to finally evict them from their initial site. Ironically though, that decision seems to just have added that other bit of publicity the movement could handily use. By the time of writing, between 15,000 and 35,000 people, depending whose estimate you want to believe, are currently marching in the streets of New York. Mike Bloomberg still does not disappoint as the most effective PR agent of the Occupy movement.

I had a strange déjà vu today when stumbling over one bit of news. Obviously, the evicted protesters in New York are flocking to church buildings to get food and shelter, and to be secure from police harassment. The last time when churches were the only safe haven for civil unrest was when people in East Germany took to the streets in the summer of 1989. Those famous ‘Monday demonstrations’ and their organization started in churches (note: this was before facebook and twitter). By November 9th that year, the wall had finally fallen. And with it the regime that held the country in its grip for some 40 years.

Certainly in Toronto, where the Occupy movement has camped in St. James Park, co-owned by the Anglican Church, a similar pattern is visible. Even though support currently seem to falter, initially the church was one of the crucial supporters of the protest, supplying them with vital access to amenities.

This historical parallel is more than just a co-incidence. Like the demonstrations in 1989, the Occupy movement is only loosely organized, has some rather sweeping demands and has little sense of translating their agenda into the institutional setting of how our society is governed. All they have is a legitimate issue. They are concerned with the fact that governments no longer represent the people, the ‘99%’, and that wealth is blatantly unfairly distributed. It all sounds so familiar to me, up the chants to remain non violent by OWS protesters, very much like the famous ‘Keine Gewalt’ (‘no violence’) choruses which became the signature slogan of East German protestors 22 years ago.

Like communism, the current form of capitalism has created a governance system, where some very few are perceived to control societies and where large parts of the population feel disenfranchised and curtailed in many ways.

The crucial difference to today’s US seems to be that in most US cities the reaction of the police is rather uncompromising and violent. Events in Oakland or the pepper spraying of an 84 year old lady in Seattle are just a tip of the iceberg. In some ways the starkest prove that these protestors have a point is the remarkable police presence. When I visited Zuccotti Park in late October my guess would be that the ratio of police to protesters was at least 2:1.

If it is true that OWS is ‘not productive’ (Michael Bloomberg), why do we need so many police there? The fear of the establishment is palpable. New York just serves as the test tube for this: the Mayor Bloomberg, himself firmly in the ‘1%’, symbolizes the seizure of corporate interests of the political process. To become the ‘democratically’ elected mayor he spent $250m out of his private wealth.

Drawing the parallel to the fall of communism 22 years ago, one big difference seems to be that there is no ‘Gorbachev’ figure. There is no strong, prominent, visible leader on the other side, who understands the legitimacy of the issues and, as Michael Gorbachev at the time, refuses to use the power at his disposal to crush this movement.

This said though, some of the ‘1%’ understand the movement and take it seriously. As business school professors, we occasionally have to go to events where we rub shoulders with these guys. Just yesterday, I was totally flabbergasted listening to one of Canada’s real estate tycoons arguing that this movement is serious and here to stay and that it is something business leaders better take seriously.

It is difficult to predict where this movement is going. At the moment, the fact that it has stayed non-violent has certainly helped to make people sympathize with it that do not ordinarily go out on the streets demonstrating. The other element is the core issue of the movement. It seems that the blatant inequality of wealth and the co-optation of governments by business interests are the common denominator of the protests.

In some ways we have nothing to add to our earlier comments. There are strong parallels between the green movement starting off in the 1970s with pretty similar features. David McTaggart and the other founders of Greenpeace where hardly taken seriously by the establishment back then. But we all know which impact that movement had on politics, business and civil society.

So again, Happy Birthday Occupy Wall Street! And many happy returns!
Photo by David Shankbone, reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence.

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