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Protest Planet: How a Neoliberal Shell Game Created an Age of Activism
Posted on Nov 12, 2011
By Juan Cole
The Indignant Ones
European youth were also inspired by the Tunisians and Egyptians—and by a similar flight of wealth. I was in Barcelona on May 27th, when the police attacked demonstrators camped out at the Plaça de Catalunya, provoking widespread consternation. The government of the region is currently led by the centrist Convergence and Union Party, a moderate proponent of Catalan nationalism. It is relatively popular locally, and so Catalans had not expected such heavy-handed police action to be ordered. The crackdown, however, underlined the very point of the protesters, that the neoliberal state, whatever its political makeup, is protecting the same set of wealthy miscreants.
Spain’s “indignados” (indignant ones) got their start in mid-May with huge protests at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Plaza against the country’s persistent 21% unemployment rate (and double that among the young). Egyptian activists in Tahrir Square immediately sent a statement of warm support to those in the Spanish capital (as they would months later to New York’s demonstrators). Again following the same pattern, the Spanish movement does not restrict its objections to unemployment (and the lack of benefits attending the few new temporary or contract jobs that do arise). Its targets are the banks, bank bailouts, financial corruption, and cuts in education and other services.
Youth activists I met in Toledo and Madrid this summer denounced both of the country’s major parties and, indeed, the very consumer society that emphasized wealth accumulation over community and material acquisition over personal enrichment. In the past two months Spain’s young protesters have concentrated on demonstrating against cuts to education, with crowds of 70,000 to 90,000 coming out more than once in Madrid, and tens of thousands in other cities. For marches in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, hundreds of thousands reportedly took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona, among other cities.
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The word “union” was little uttered in American television news coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, even though factory workers and sympathy strikes of all sorts played a key role in them. The right-wing press in the U.S. actually went out of its way to contrast Egyptian demonstrations against Mubarak with the Wisconsin rallies of government workers against Governor Scott Walker’s measure to cripple the bargaining power of their unions.
The Egyptians, Commentary typically wrote, were risking their lives, while Wisconsin’s union activists were taking the day off from cushy jobs to parade around with placards, immune from being fired for joining the rallies. The implication: the Egyptian revolution was against tyranny, whereas already spoiled American workers were demanding further coddling.
The American right has never been interested in recognizing this reality: that forbidding unions and strikes is a form of tyranny. In fact, it wasn’t just progressive bloggers who saw a connection between Tahrir Square and Madison. The head of the newly formed independent union federation in Egypt dispatched an explicit expression of solidarity to the Wisconsin workers, centering on worker’s rights.
At least, Commentary did us one favor: it clarified why the story has been told as it has in most of the American media. If the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were merely about individualistic political rights—about the holding of elections and the guarantee of due process—then they could be depicted as largely irrelevant to politics in the United States and Europe, where such norms already prevailed.
If, however, they centered on economic rights (as they certainly did), then clearly the discontents of North African youth when it came to plutocracy, corruption, the curbing of workers’ rights, and persistent unemployment deeply resembled those of their American counterparts.
The global protests of 2011 have been cast in the American media largely as an “Arab Spring” challenging local dictatorships—as though Spain, Chile, and Israel do not exist. The constant speculation by pundits and television news anchors in the U.S. about whether “Islam” would benefit from the Arab Spring functioned as an Orientalist way of marking events in North Africa as alien and vaguely menacing, but also as not germane to the day to day concerns of working Americans. The inhabitants of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan clearly feel differently.
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