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Protest Planet: How a Neoliberal Shell Game Created an Age of Activism
Posted on Nov 12, 2011
By Juan Cole
Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, Rothschild Avenue
The success of the Tunisian revolution in removing the octopus-like Ben Ali plutocracy inspired the dramatic events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and even Israel that are redrawing the political map of the Middle East. But the 2011 youth protest movement was hardly contained in the Middle East. Estonian-Canadian activist Kalle Lasn and his anti-consumerist colleagues at the Vancouver-based Adbusters Media Foundation were inspired by the success of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square in deposing dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Their organization specializes in combatting advertising culture through spoofs and pranks. It was Adbusters magazine that sent out the call on Twitter in the summer of 2011 for a rally at Wall Street on September 17th, with the now-famous hash tag #OccupyWallStreet. A thousand protesters gathered on the designated date, commemorating the 2008 economic meltdown that had thrown millions of Americans out of their jobs and their homes. Some camped out in nearby Zuccotti Park, another unexpected global spark for protest.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has now spread throughout the United States, sometimes in the face of serious acts of repression, as in Oakland, California. It has followed in the spirit of the Arab and European movements in demanding an end to special privileges for the richest 1%, including their ability to more or less buy the U.S. government for purposes of their choosing. What is often forgotten is that the Ben Alis, Mubaraks, and Qaddafis were not simply authoritarian tyrants. They were the 1%, and the guardians of the 1%, in their own societies—and loathed for exactly that.
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Many on the left in Israel are also deeply troubled by the political and economic power of right-wing settlers on the West Bank, but most decline to bring the Palestinian issue into the movement’s demands for fear of losing support among the middle class. For the same reason, the way the Israeli movement was inspired by Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution has been downplayed, although “Walk like an Egyptian” signs—a reference both to the Cairo demonstrations and the 1986 Bangles hit song—have been spotted on Rothschild Avenue.
Most of the Israeli activists in the coastal cities know that they are victims of the same neoliberal order that displaces the Palestinians, punishes them, and keeps them stateless. Indeed, the Palestinians, altogether lacking a state but at the complete mercy of various forms of international capital controlled by elites elsewhere, are the ultimate victims of the neoliberal order. But in order to avoid a split in the Israeli protest movement, a quiet agreement was reached to focus on economic discontents and so avoid the divisive issue of the much-despised West Bank settlements.
There has been little reporting in the Western press about a key source of Israeli unease, which was palpable to me when I visited the country in May. Even then, before the local protests had fully hit their stride, Israelis I met were complaining about the rise to power of an Israeli 1%. There are now 16 billionaires in the country, who control $45 billion in assets, and the current crop of 10,153 millionaires is 20% percent larger than it was in the previous fiscal year. In terms of its distribution of wealth, Israel is now among the most unequal of the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Since the late 1980s, the average household income of families in the bottom fifth of the population has been declining at an annual rate of 1.1%. Over the same period, the average household income of families among the richest 20% went up at an annual rate of 2.4%.
While neoliberalism has produced more unequal societies throughout the world, nowhere else has the income of the poor declined quite so strikingly. The concentration of wealth in a few hands profoundly contradicts the founding principles of Israel’s Labor Zionism, and results from decades of right-wing Likud policies punishing the poor and middle classes and shifting wealth to the top of society.
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