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Protest Planet: How a Neoliberal Shell Game Created an Age of Activism

Posted on Nov 12, 2011
ericwagner (CC-BY)

A protester raises an endorsement of the worldwide Occupy movement at Occupy San Francisco.

By Juan Cole

(Page 3)

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 global reach and connectedness of these movements has yet to be fully appreciated.  The Madrid education protesters, for example, cited for inspiration Chilean students who, through persistent, innovative, and large-scale demonstrations this summer and fall, have forced that country’s neoliberal government, headed by the increasingly unpopular billionaire president Sebastián Piñera, to inject $1.6 billion in new money into education. Neither the crowds of youth in Madrid nor those in Santiago are likely to be mollified, however, by new dorms and laboratories. Chilean students have already moved on from insisting on an end to an ever more expensive class-based education system to demands that the country’s lucrative copper mines be nationalized so as to generate revenues for investment in education. In every instance, the underlying goal of specific protests by the youthful reformists is the neoliberal order itself.

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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By prosefights, November 19, 2011 at 8:31 pm Link to this comment

Fracking mess?

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By prosefights, November 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm Link to this comment

msm bs?

“People understand now that Iran is determined to reach nuclear weapons,” Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” in an interview to be aired tomorrow. “The countdown toward nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists will start, even if it takes half a generation. But more than this, they will use the nuclear umbrella to kind of intimidate neighbors all around the Gulf to sponsor terror.”

Think electricty generation?

Scary stuff?

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By prosefights, November 15, 2011 at 9:01 pm Link to this comment

Scary stuff.

Sunday November 13, 2011 07:29

The US leader was rebuffed when he demanded private guarantees that a strike would not go ahead without White House notification, suggesting that Israel no longer plans to ‘‘seek Washington’s permission’‘, sources said.

Romney said that if “crippling sanctions” and other strategies fail, military action would be on the table because it is “unacceptable” for Iran to become a nuclear power.

Gingrich agreed, saying that if “maximum covert operations” and other strategies failed there would be no other choice. First, though, the United States consider “taking out their scientists,” and “breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable,” Gingrich said.

Field trip.

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By gerard, November 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm Link to this comment

Neoliberalism—neoconservatism—just two examples of making up words to cover up lies. Neither -ism is or was new.  Both were efforts to deceive working people (lower and middle classes) in order to siphon off more public money into private bank accounts. Both are based on capitalism. Both hate the “common peope,” the “masses”, the majorities in every country on earth. Both despise democracy. It is inevitable that such “systems” breed what Cole calls “activism” which could more accurately be called “revolt.”  Naturally. What else is left for people at the bottom of the ladder when a few at the top own everything?
  Meantime, those at the top know what is coming, and instead of acting reasonably, they act unreasonably and employ armies and police forces to “fight off” the “masses” of “underdogs.” (Vocatular tells it all!)
  Recent uprisings are historically unique. The “underdogs” are refusing blood-and-guts civil wars. Something tells them in the depths of their young hearts that there has to be a better way.  They look to nonviolent methods practiced by the Mahatma in India and theoretically explored by sociologists like Gene Sharp.  They see possibilities.  They have imaginations. They are willing to explore alternatives. 
  More power to them!  If the human race has a future, it will be with them, not with the “neocons” and the “military-industrial complexes” and the Wall Street thieves and the perennial prophets of “blood in the streets.”

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By prosefights, November 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm Link to this comment

The most infamous quote, “Israel must be wiped off the map”, is the most glaringly wrong. In his October 2005 speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad never used the word “map” or the term “wiped off”. According to Farsi-language experts like Juan Cole and even right-wing services like MEMRI, what he actually said was “this regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.”

Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.

We’re after our stolen #22,036.

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By Solidarity_withthe_Masses, November 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Do not confuse neoliberal with liberal. “Neoliberal” is the official term for
economic/fiscal policies & approaches that we often refer to as “Reaganomics” or
“Trickle-Down Theory.” (This article also explains why I hate that Reagan-lovers
have been “teaching” our children that Ronald Reagan was a hero… he’s only a
hero to the wealthiest in that he convinced the world that
neoliberalism/reaganomics benefits everyone. psh!)

There is nothing liberal about neoliberalism.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 14, 2011 at 4:55 am Link to this comment

Thank you, Prof. Cole for a BRILLIANT article that untangles and clarifies the progressive protest movements around the globe, connecting the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Chile, OWS and amazing, Israel.

I have long argued in this space that Israel is NOT the problem but that the Likud and the power of the Right and religious fanatics, including the settlements, is.  Prof. Cole clarifies this superbly, and, even though they know EVENTUALLY they must, Israel’s movement, for now, is staying away from the mistreatment of the Palestinians.  If they can take back Israel, and return it to the progressive, liberal state it was intended as, then they’ll be able to bring about a just peace with a new Palestinian state.  The Likud’s predatory, deceptive and illegal actions virtually ENSURE another Intifada—and I believe those bastards want EXACTLY that.  Just as Bush used 9/11 to roll out the Patriot Act, they’ll continue to provoke Arab violence and then use it to suppress Israeli dissidence.

Neo-Liberals and Neo-Conservatives are not the same thing, thought it’s sometimes hard to tell. As Neo-Conservatives are NOTHING like true Conservatives (a nearly extinct breed), so Neo-Liberals are nothing like Liberals.  A Neo-Liberal is no more a liberal than a butterfly is butter or a fly.

Interestingly, Prof. Cole also shows how unions HAVE been a key to ALL the movements, but how the now-reactionary Murdoch-type press has suppressed that key information, so the link between Wisconsin and the Arab Spring (and OWS) isn’t made in the press.

Bravo, Juan! Well done!

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By Stilley Periodical, November 13, 2011 at 9:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

neoconservative is an ideological position of free markets and deregulation.

neoliberal is a calculated position of capitalists to take power from people and move it to corporations.

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By Marian Griffith, November 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Outside of the USA liberal means something different. They would call the american neocons neoliberals.

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By Fearless, November 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment
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By charro, November 13 at 10:20 am

“Neoliberal?? Don’t you mean ‘neoconservative’?”

Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism are often used interchangeably due to their frequent intersecting and convergence as justifications for imperialism.

Neoliberalism, to my understanding, promotes the utmost privatization of capital and resources as means to most efficiently achieving its goal of liberalized free trade. 

Neoconservativism, to my understanding, seems to be a more socially-driven ideology which tends to champion the US’s role in spreading democracy throughout the world, often through resolutely unilateral action and/or assistance.

Neoconservativism seems to be used as a thin veil for neoliberal motives. In my opinion, neither justify aggressive intervention.

Funny how Juan Cole derides neoliberalizism given his wholesale endorsement of NATO’s criminal bombing of Libya to privatize the country’s oil and banking.

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By charro, November 13, 2011 at 10:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Neoliberal?? Don’t you mean “neoconservative”?

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By balkas, November 13, 2011 at 8:31 am Link to this comment

as i have been suggesting for yrs, it is best to chuck away all isms and just ask
for healthcare, free education for all, and the right TO KNOW.
young people [99.9999% of them] on the right, left, center or wherever cld unite
on these issues and never let go of them no matter what the 0001 to 30% of
americans say, do, or think.

for now ignore catholicism, mosheism, islamism, socialism, capitalism,
communism, liberalism, baptism, lutheranism, social ‘science’, scientology,
psychiatry, sociology, political ‘sciences’, monetarism, any ideology whatever,

this ends millennial history/mystory for all time; never ever allow its return or
rerun!  tnx bozhidar balkas vancouver

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