‘Occupy’ protests: Not Tahrir yet

Demonstrations in the US and Europe are important, but Egyptian style revolution is still an unlikely prospect.

Protesters believe there are alternatives to economic austerity and neoliberalism [GALLO/GETTY]

‘Hummus party!’

So texted Synthian Sharp, self-described ‘tech dork’, singer of the band Exit Ophelia, and General Assembly facilitator for the newly established “Occupy OC” (Orange County) encampment in Irvine, CA at around midnight on day four of the occupation.

I had sent an SMS to Synthian to see how he and the dozen or so die-hard comrades who are at the heart of the local occupation were holding up, given that the City of Irvine was preventing them from sleeping at their camp, forcing them literally to stay awake all night and move around the sidewalk in order to avoid being forced to leave or even arrested.

I was relieved to receive Synthian’s upbeat SMS, considering he and his comrades were on their fourth night of sitting on old blankets and beach chairs at one of Irvine’s busier intersections. Not quite the level of challenges faced by protesters in Tahrir, Bourgiba Street or The Pearl, to be sure. But it’s as close to a revolution as Orange County has witnessed in generations, if ever.

Indeed, the “OC”, whose level of wealth and conspicuous consumption made the subject of at least two television series in the past five years, isn’t just one of the wealthiest counties in America. It’s the Garden of Eden of the West Coast conservativism that swept across the US with the election of Richard Nixon as President in 1968, and has defined the country’s political culture ever since.

A suburban occupation

It’s not just the local political culture that makes Irvine a less than ideal place to stage an occupation. It’s also geography and urban planning. Occupy OC is, as of now, the only non-urban “Occupy Wall Street”- inspired occupation in the United States.

And yet, the number of people who came for the first day’s rally and march – by some counts well over 1,000 – set a record for an OWS opening, according to activists with the group.

As was to be expected, once the opening weekend turned into the ensuing work week, the number of people on site at any one time dwindled significantly, to as few as a dozen. Despite the fall-off, however, Irvine’s leadership is none too keen on having protesters camped at City Hall. And so since day-one, the police have forced the entire encampment to be packed up and removed at 10:00 each night, only allowing it to be reconstructed at 6:00 the next morning.

The City of Irvine won’t allow die-hard occupiers to sleep on the edge of the sidewalk, even though it wouldn’t violate any municipal ordinances. So to ensure that the Occupy OC Encampment takes root, at least a dozen volunteers have to be willing to stay awake all night, while one particularly noble supporter arrives with his truck every evening at around 9:30 to break the “village” down, only to bring everything back eight hours later to be reconstructed by dead-tired occupiers.

After one week of doing so, the City apparently decided to ratchet up the pressure, so on the morning of the first week’s anniversary, workers turned on the lawn sprinklers multiple times after the occupiers had reset the village, soaking computers and other media equipment used to give the public real-time updates of the situation at the village. Despite the damage, a good crowd had gathered by the time of the weekly march, with more families and children than had come any of the previous days.

The death of TINA

In the Arab world, protesters have faced down tanks, snipers, helicopters and camels to stake their claim to public space. Fortunately, OWS activists have not faced similar levels of violence. But they have faced down pepper spray, kettling, police commanders with unresolved authority issues towards women, and in Irvine, where well-manicured lawns are something of an obsession despite the naturally dry climate, angry sprinklers. Their ability to continue defying these attempts to repress and expel them will ensure the viability of the OWS movement.

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Indeed, by holding their ground against the various attempts to force their encampments to disband, protesters are helping to chip away at the already frayed hegemony of the neoliberal ideology that has governed America for the last two generations. In so doing, they are offering the rest of the country the inspiration and example of change that President Obama promised to bring, but has so thoroughly failed to deliver upon.

One of the cornerstones of neoliberal ideology, as professed by Thatcher, Reagan and most every Western leader since them is that that “There Is No Alternative” to the neoliberal order; “TINA,” as Thatcher used to say. This argument has long been repeated by Western client regimes in Cairo, Tunis, Amman and other Arab capitals, who have survived for decades precisely by convincing their Western patrons and a good share of their own citizens of the same thing.

But a decade after the World Social Forum movement announced that “another world is possible”, TINA is finally being revealed to be a lie. The Arab spring gave proof to that, inspiring occupiers across the United States and Europe to imagine another future. In so doing, the OWS protests have helped their fellow citizens break through the wall of fear that has allowed the system to function so well for the last two generations.

Centre of the storm

The City of Irvine is one of the stranger towns in the United States. It has little of the feel of a normal urban space, even though its population is over 200,000 and it was recently chosen by CNN as the fourth best American city in which to live. It has been described as a “master planned utopia,” but this description only holds true if you think that placeless grids and largely cookie cutter architecture constitute good planning and the best possible way for people to live together.

Irvine is in many ways a perfect avatar of the neoliberal system writ large against which the OWS movement is protesting. There is no city centre, no civic heart, no “old town” to give a nostalgic flavour of a time gone by, and little sense of urban identity. It is, in a word, placeless and without meaningful identity. Yet, once you live here, it’s extremely hard to leave a microcosm of the proverbial Hotel California, for the neoliberal age.

And it’s surrounded by even wealthier suburbs and some of California’s most expensive beach front developments, whose McMansion’s, expensive private schools and corporate restaurants create “la bella vita” for the management of many real estate, technology and financial services companies whose corporate headquarters occupy Irvine’s self-styled “financial district”.

Cities like New York or Los Angeles have long histories of social protest and significant working class and progressive populations. But Irvine’s unique history and dynamics make it a far more important test case for the future of the OWS movement. If OWS can take root in here, there’s a good chance it will become a powerful force in American politics, and perhaps even compete with the far better financed and far more partisan Tea Party movement.

But if the OWS can’t take root in a Democratic city that’s home to a major university, with its broadly liberal population of professors and tens of thousands of students directly affected by the disastrous policies of Wall Street, then there’s not much chance it will penetrate deeply into far more conservative “middle America” and give the well-financed Tea Party, never mind corporate America, a run for their money.

A few good omens

Despite the precipitous drop in attendance after the opening weekend, Occupy OC has already revealed some positive indicators about the broad appeal of the OWS movement. Much of it has to do with the ingeniously broad appeal of the movement’s “We are the 99 per cent” slogan. After all, it quite literally includes 99 per cent of the population as potential allies, even in a wealthy town like Irvine.

When drivers of Mercedes, BMWs, Lexuses and even Porsches are slowing down to honk their horns in support of sign-waving protesters, as I’ve witnessed in three days of periodic sign-holding, it’s clear something is changing in Orange County. Even members of the upper middle and wealthy classes are starting to come around to the notion that an economy driven by war and unaccountable financial services and banking sectors is unsustainable, not just for the working and middle classes, but for them as well.

And indeed, the protests here have brought not just progressives, hippies, and union members to the “village”. Republicans, religious people and the very denizens of corporate America who should be opposed to any attempt to regulate corporate capitalism have also participated in the daily marches and rallies.

But most surprising are the numbers of long-term unemployed people, many with college and even professional degrees, that you meet at the village. It is downright frightening to meet so many people who look and act like they’ve just stepped out of a nice corner office in one of Irvine’s semi-sky scrapers explain that they haven’t had a steady job in several years and are literally at the end of their economic rope, with little hope for anyone to catch them when they completely drain whatever savings they have left.

Americans, in short, are starting to experience what citizens of Tunisia, Egyptians, and the developing world more broadly have had to live with for decades: a government of elites who are enriching themselves and their corporate friends at the expense of citizens. They are literally stealing the country blind, leaving only the shell of a country in the wake of their greed and duplicity, along with a military that has arrogated a huge share of the country’s wealth to its domain and a prison system ready to house – for a profit – anyone who threatens the system.

The rise of Neoliberalism

To understand the significance of the dynamics surrounding Occupy OC and Occupy Wall Street more broadly, it’s necessary first to understand precisely how remarkable and unlikely has been the neoliberal and neoconservative capture of the hearts and minds of middle America during the last three decades. From the New Deal era till through 1970s here, there was a broad social compact between government, labour and business that helped create and sustain the remarkable prosperity of the post-war era.

During this period, the main way that conservative elites – included so-called southern Democrats – won the loyalty of voters was through appeals to racial, ethnic, or religious solidarity. They couldn’t try to create the extremes of wealth and disparities that exist today because the social compact wouldn’t allow it.

The structure of America’s political economy, whose success was tied to maintaining a balance between the interests of business, workers and the state that mediated between them, helped ensure that the country’s growing wealth was distributed evenly enough to enable the fabled “American dream” to become a reality. 

Greed and power of the financial instituions are to be largely blamed for the current economic crisis [GALLO/GETTY]

The changes in the world political economy, as well as the computer, communications and transportation revolutions that heralded the age of contemporary globalisation, shifted the balance of power decidedly in the favour of corporations, who have literally bought off government and in so doing, been able to continuously weaken the power and earnings of workers.

Thus real wages have remained stagnant or declined despite the huge growth in America’s GDP for the last three decades (and even today, the regular increase in the number of people earning more than $1m per year), while pensions, healthcare and other benefits have all shrunk during this period. This as corporate profits and executive salaries have soared, producing the one per cent scenario against which the OWS movement is protesting.

A brilliant strategy

In order for neoliberalism to succeed, the economic elite had to pull off an incredible trick: to convince millions of Americans – first labelled, in the 1980s, as “Reagan Democrats” – actively support policies that clearly went against their economic interests. At the same time, the policies of conservative and economic elites were geared to expropriating more wealth than ever before, they had to convince the very people whose wealth they were siphoning off that they actually represented their most basic interests and values.

How did they do this? Through a brilliant two-fold strategy. First, they solidified a culture of materialism and hyperconsumption based on the ideology of ‘Greed is Good’, in which achieving wealth and power and looking out for number one – always resonant with American myth of rugged individualism and self-reliance – became defining markers of American identity and its increasingly bling-obsessed culture.

The corporate elites, from manufacturing to the culture industries, managed to convince most Americans that they both could and should hope to achieve the same wealth as possessed by the super rich. The problem was that the very structure of the neoliberal economy redistributes wealth away from most Americans and towards the top.

The gap between how Americans were being told they should live and how they could afford to live created a huge amount of cognitive dissonance that helped fuel the rise in consumer debt, as tens of millions of Americans used credit card and home equity to live more like the rich whom they were incessantly told they could and should try to be.

But people aren’t that easily fooled; soon enough they would start to understand that the economy was shifting in a way that privileged the few at the expense of the rest of the country. How to keep the broad swath of “middle America” from rebelling against a system that was siphoning off a huge share of their wealth to enrich the top tier?

This is where the second half of the strategy comes into view. With one side of their mouths, elites told Americans that maximising wealth and power was the defining culture value in America, even as the neoliberal policies they imposed on the country made doing so increasingly difficult for the large majority of Americans. But out of the other side of their mouths, they told Americans that wealth didn’t matter, that religious faith and conservative social values such as being anti-gay and anti-abortion, and patriotism and support for the military, were what defined “real” Americans.

It was this argument that allowed the wealthy in this country to eat their cake and still have it; to foster one ideology that justified the increasing skewing of wealth towards the proverbial “1 per cent” (in reality, it’s more like 12 or 13 per cent, but slogans work precisely by intensifying reality for political effect), while at the same time deploying another ideology that said both that wealth didn’t matter and that the very people who could help bring the majority of working Americans a better standard of living-the government, unions and other progressive forces-were the greatest danger to the “American way of life.”

Occupy Wall Street activists remain defiant

Through this double discourse, America’s corporate elite convinced tens of millions of Americans whose most basic economic interests their policies were utterly opposed not merely to acquiesce to their policies but actively support them. Barack Obama won Higher Office in good measure because he offered an alternative to this narrative that made sense to millions of voters who had previously believed in TINA. But once it turned out he was as in hock to Wall Street as every other politician, TINA came back, and the Tea Party movement could use social values and attacks on government to fatally weaken his presidency.

Now, however, it appears that people are finally waking up; most important, they are doing so from the grassroots upwards, not from the top down as happened with Obama or the corporate-run Tea Party. If the OWS movement can peel more of the top 10 per cent of population away from the top one per cent, help them understand that their lives and their children’s futures will be served better by throwing their lot in with the bottom 90 per cent than the top one per cent, the entire edifice of neoliberalism, which was always a house of cards, could well begin to collapse.

At least in Irvine during Occupy OC’s first week, the odds don’t seem too bad.

Becoming Egyptians

The rise of a grassroots level of intelligence that is much harder for corporations and politicians to manipulate is a signature achievement of the OWS movement and mirrors the dynamics that produced the Arab Spring. Indeed, Americans are starting to act like their counterparts in the Arab world, finally standing up for themselves because, essentially, no one in power will do so for them. The Irvine civic centre is not yet Tahrir, but sitting on the sidewalk sometime past midnight on day four, eating hummus and pita, strumming a guitar and talking politics with fellow occupiers, there was at least a hint of the tremendous feeling of empowerment and solidarity felt in Tahrir during those heady last 10 days of the February intifada.

With children leading chants during the day, young people at the helm of the organising efforts, older protesters (“fogies” as they’re affectionately referred to) bringing experience and patience to the proceedings, and increasing numbers of people with literally nothing else to do with their time realising this is the place to be, Irvine might just be ground zero in the war between the one per cent and the rest of America.

As we watch the American government continue to intervene politically, diplomatically and militarily to prop up or tear down regimes based on their allegiance to the larger neoliberal system, it’s clear that in the same way that events in the Arab world have profoundly influenced the emerging protest movement in the US, the outcome of the OWS movement will strongly influence the balance of power in the Arab world as well.

Today, perhaps more than ever before, we really are living in a global village.

Update: On October 25, I along with well over 100 supporters of Occupy-OC attended the Irvine City Council meeting, where over seven dozen of us spoke for over four hours to the Council. At the end of the marathon session, for the first time ever the City Council not only made an emergency motion to add an item to the agenda – whether to allow protesters to camp on public property as a form of free speech – but then proceeded to vote unanimously to allow them to do so.

Republican Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway declared, “While I disagree with almost everything you say, you’ve made it clear that this is an issue of free speech.” Mayor Protem Beth Krom went further, saying that Occupy Irvine seemed like the best organised and most unified of all the occupations, and is a model other occupations to follow.

Of course, it’s easy to be organised and unified when you’re still small. There is no doubt if the movement grows here in Irvine the same issues will occur that have occurred in the larger occupations. But in perhaps this most unexpected of places, a true sense of civic solidarity, between leaders and citizens, is emerging. As organiser Synthian left the building after the meeting, Irvine’s mayor, Sukhee Kang, stopped him and asked whether the occupiers had enough blankets, or whether he should get them some.

From sprinklers to blankets in four days. That’s the potential of people power.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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