On Either Side of the Atlantic, Protesters Find Power in Vagueness

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Occupy Wall Street protestors and union members stage a protest near Wall Street in New York, October 5, 2011. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images)

Their dilemma isn’t new, isn’t easy, and may eventually require tough choices that will impact the very existence of their movement: How can the growing ranks of the motley anti-Wall Street protest prod an entire system to change when most of the U.S.’s economic establishment, political class, and a significant portion of its population depend on and defends the status quo as a principal pillar and ideological ideal of U.S. capitalism itself? And how does a movement rooted in a wider environment of lost confidence and impatience with politicians bring about such politically-charged change without running the risk of being compromised as so many co-opted activists have before?

More immediately, meanwhile, how do people now expressing their indignation over economic injustice across a rising number of U.S. cities square their own daily reliance on the same system they want to overturn? These are just some of the fundamental questions that will arise for Occupy Wall Street participants as they seek to transform their initial victories of gaining the attention (if not respect) of observers around the globe into the monumental achievement of re-writing the rules and accepted deontology of American business and finance.

(PHOTOSThousands mass against Wall Street.)

As they advance their demands, Occupy Wall Street supporters will be called on to answer the above questions and others like them in a way that general slogans (even ones most of us can very much get behind) just can’t satisfy. And finding responses to them probably won’t be any easier than it has been for people leading similar protests in Spain, Greece, Portugal, France and other countries, whose socio-economic models continue generating huge amounts of cash for a lucky few, and tightened belts, darkening horizons, and sclerotic decay for far wider swaths of the public. Because if protest-happy 2011 has taught the world anything so far, decrying the outrageous, unfair and increasingly frequent perversions of all modern economies is the easiest part of denunciation; identifying viable solutions (much less pushing them through) is another matter entirely. Still, some experts in the art see hope in the ability of demonstrators on both continents just to get large numbers of people marching.

“The essential thing is to organize and nurture the movement so it endures, remains active and visible, and succeeds in convincing to outsiders and (political) leaders that neither it nor the problems it decries will go away until positive steps are taken,” says Julien Bayou, 30, who has organized a number of associations in France battling issues ranging from the abusive treatment of younger workers and interns, lack of student housing, skyrocketing food prices, and other socio-economic problems. “One-shot demonstrations are easy, but ineffective—even when size or unrest make them spectacular. You have to keep them going, continue drawing attention to your cause, and have proposals and demands to your main issues ready when public officials agree it’s time to talk.”

With an estimated 5,000 people having gathered to march on Wall Street in New York yesterday—and with similar open-ended protests multiplying across other American cities—it seems clear the anger and outrage driving the over-arching movement isn’t likely to fizzle out soon. And as Ishaan’s post yesterday noted, evidence in Europe suggests the discontent now on display in the U.S. may run very deep, and have pretty long legs to keep it moving ahead. The los Indignados movement in Spain has been running strong since it began in mid-May, and has sparked similar opposition to social, political, and status quos around Europe since. Not only have such popular, open-ended demonstrations failed to peter out as European leaders first hoped, they’re now getting a second wind of encouragement at seeing their American cousins also take to the streets.

(PHOTOS: Protesters in Greece call a nationwide strike.)

The motivating sources of that anger are similar around Europe and across of the Atlantic: rising unemployment, falling income, and reaction to austerity measures taken to counter enormous sovereign debt–debt built up by the same politicians now slashing budgets with excuses that markets leave them no choice. That’s a logical (albeit disingenuous) political ploy, given the public fury at seeing the same finance market protagonists who brought the global economy to the brink of collapse in 2008 now profiting wildly from debt crises they helped create. More generally still, there’s growing conviction among average citizens—especially younger people—that the pain, deprivation, and opportunity-shorn futures they now face after having played by the educational and career rules are a consequence of the game itself having been changed—and rigged against them—from on high. The message has been clear, if very broad: the system isn’t working anymore for those on the lower half of the pyramid, meaning the people at its top had better do something to remedy that—or risk seeing the entire structure brought down in a heap.

Still, the voices heard from Greece, Spain, and indeed now from New York are effective at convincingly decrying the general excesses, indecency and injustices in Western economies, but they’ve largely failed to detail remedies for the complex, interwoven, often intentionally impenetrable financial system. Unlike the civil rights movement or the drive to end the Vietnam war in the U.S., for example, “citizen protests” on either side of the Atlantic today don’t advance the same kind of clearly defined objectives that an even larger portion of mass public opinion can embrace and see itself achieving in finished form. Surprisingly, however, the vagueness is intentional and viewed as more adapted to the macro-challenges being faced.

“Initially the movements in Spain and Greece circulated manifestos with demands for improving education and the employment situation, and reforming the economy and financial markets to benefit a broader portion of society,” says Bayou, who has participated in Spanish and Greek protests, and is also a member of what he calls France’s smaller “Indignant” contingent. “Eventually those movements decided to adopt more general positions denouncing the way the economy and political system had stopped working for the average citizen, and rebelling against the status quo. They broadened the message to generate wider support.”

That, for now, appears to be the tack Occupy Wall Street and fellow protestors in the U.S. are taking in order to broadcast the simple message that the current economic and financial order simply cannot continue. Despite the deep and vested interests protesters are up against, Bayou says the mere fact so many people are out in some many streets across the globe is a sign that politicians who’ve been refusing to get the message up to now will continue ignoring it at their own peril.

“These kinds of protests form when people feel their political choices have been ignored or betrayed by people they voted to office, and have left them no further recourse in airing their concerns than to take to the streets,” Bayou says. “In countries like France, people are angered at the results of a rightist government applying rightist policies–meaning they’re not angry they got what they asked for, but disgusted with the results of it. As a result, most French people today are  more inclined now to express their discontent during upcoming elections, rather than the streets as their only option. In countries like Spain and Greece, by contrast,  people are angered because leftist governments are applying rightist policies–creating the feeling the public’s voice and will were ignored, and leaving them no outlet for expressing their unhappiness than the street until their anger is noted and acted upon. The depth of their unhappiness is in some ways reflected by the tenacity of their protests.”

If that analysis is correct, it suggests it’ll probably be a long, loud year in lower Manhattan between now and the 2012 presidential election.