Not quite together
Protests are proliferating across the world. Their aim is not obvious. Nor is how much they matter.
THE aims may be incoherent, but the common threads are clear. The protests that have mushroomed in over 900 cities in 80-plus countries over the past few days have voiced few practical demands, and in some cases they actually avoid making any. Participants favour the general over the specific. They think need matters more than greed. They like decisions by consensus, distrust elites and feel that capitalism’s pains and gains are unfairly shared. Beyond that, the horizon clouds.
In many cities (notably London, which has followed the example set by Occupy Wall Street in New York) the protesters have set up encampments that are meant to last indefinitely; in others they came and went. Defining where the wave of protests started is hard. Some point to Israel, where public unhappiness focused on the cost of food, housing and education. Spain’s indignados, or indignant ones, still going strong since their start in May, have a claim too. But the protesters’ brand (not a term they would all welcome) is most firmly linked to New York. Now in its second month, the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park (protesters prefer the old name of Liberty Park) is already a fixture on the tourist circuit. Visitors can start at the 9/11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Centre, then stroll up the hill for a picture with one of the hundreds of protesters. The camp also attracts well-wishers, including famous names like Salman Rushdie, Susan Sarandon and Naomi Wolf (who was briefly arrested this week).
In more than one sense, the protest can seem misplaced. Some of the biggest financial firms left Wall Street for midtown Manhattan years ago. Aside from the hallmark “We are the 99%”, the placards on display cover a huge range of causes, many of which have nothing to do with the underpricing of risk, moral hazard and other faults, real or imagined, of financial capitalism. Some want to tax the rich, others to decertify business schools. Hostile references to Wal-Mart and Starbucks outnumber those to any Wall Street firms.
The general tone is left-wing, though a lone youth with an “End the Fed” placard is described as a “Ron Paul person”, and the libertarian Republican presidential hopeful has at least a handful of supporters there. Doug Schoen, a pollster for the Democrats, surveyed 200 participants and found most were well to the left of the American mainstream. Virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would use violence if necessary.
But even marginal groups can have a big impact in the right circumstances. Some 35% said they wanted the Occupy Wall Street movement to do for the Democrats what the tea party (broadly detested among the protesters) had done for the Republicans. Whether such an upheaval would ever increase a party’s electability is another question.
For many, the main aim may be to have fun. But the protest is also notable for scrupulous adherence to the sort of democratic values that Alexis de Tocqueville, a French chronicler of America, loved. A general assembly meets up to twice a day to discuss proposals from working groups. Politicians are wary of persecuting such well-disciplined gatherings and the police have largely stayed their hand. They are happily earning overtime.
What exactly would winning mean?
The protesters have not said (and often seem not to know) what would make them declare victory and go home. The first practical proposal, to cancel military operations overseas to pay for a big public-works programme, caused a big row. The easiest way for the protest to develop may be through more civil disobedience. That stokes feelings of self-righteousness (and persecution) but does little to win wider support. Meanwhile, the protests’ political effect seems very uncertain. Protesters decry what they see as attempts by politicians, including Barack Obama, to curry favour with them. Union support, which could add muscle, is patchy. Unions like the Teamsters are visible in New York’s marches, but their offers of financial support are treated warily. In Spain the indignados have fanned fury with the Socialist government—thus helping the centre-right, which is set to win next month’s election.
In contrast with previous anti-globalisation protests, many of the latest ones seem to have started spontaneously. In some cases, what began as freelance events gradually linked up with protests in other cities and other countries as they gained momentum. That keeps technology-minded activists busy exchanging messages and tactics, but it does not amount to an orchestrated global push.
The scene across Europe is similar. A tent city outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, best known for royal weddings, is festooned with slogans, chiefly bashing bankers (though one offers “free hugs”). A friendly cathedral cleric persuaded police not to move the protest, at least for now (if it becomes an eyesore, views may change). Joanna Wilde, a chatty Australian who works in tourism, says she will stay “till we get what we want”—even if, as in America, what that might be is unclear. Her pal Jan wants “more equality and empathy”. Jamie Lee, a student washing cups in a makeshift kitchen, says the camp is “the beginning of the end of global capitalism”. A ten-point list of demands blasts tax havens and the influence of business over politics.
Protests in Germany (where a small tent city now nestles under the shadow of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt) are more middle-class and even more focused. They have unleashed an overdue debate on the country’s universal banks. A 20-year-old called Wolfram Siener bested two leading financiers on television. Wolfgang Sch?uble, the finance minister, said the protests should be taken seriously. Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, said banks and the financial markets had worked “massively against the common good”—because politicians let them. (He was in government until October 2009.) Attac Deutschland, a longer-standing anti-globalisation group, joined up with Occupy Frankfurt. They want to tax wealth and bank profits, and to break up big banks.
Italy is very different. Banks there have not needed bailing out. Discontent among young Italians stems rather from burning resentment at the lack of opportunity in an economy that has been at a virtual standstill for more than ten years. But that does not explain the violence. Minutes after the start of a peaceful march by several tens of thousands through the centre of Rome, masked protesters looted a supermarket, defiled a church, set cars alight and battled police in a square near a cathedral. A crude bomb planted outside a bank badly injured a peaceful protester who tried to move it to safety. Italy’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni, rightly noted that the clashes could have been lethal. A detachment of riot police narrowly escaped from an armoured van that was set alight by the protesters and exploded.
Some blame poor work by police demoralised by pay cuts. Mr Maroni wants tougher powers against protests and the mayor has banned marches for a month. Some blame communities of far-leftists who are mostly ex-squatters. One in Turin, called Askatasuna, carried a statement on its website that celebrated mass resistance and “sacred rage” against austerity.
Two dangers await the campers. One is capture by outsiders, either opportunistic or batty, who wish to revive Trotskyism or bash America. Such causes may draw more support from enthusiasts, but for the mainstream that merely worries about reckless banks and a sagging economy, they make the protests look tired and familiar, not new and fresh.
The second danger is that the protest consumes its own energy. Managing a large camp site in a city centre means mundane attention to detail, from toilets to rules on loud music, drugs, smoking and drinking. Keeping going will get harder as the weather chills. On top of that come the problems of managing proceedings in what is in effect a huge debating society, in which everyone has a say, and speeches are relayed by “human microphones”—chanted sentence by sentence by the participants. All that gets tedious after a while.
The protests’ vague message chimes with a public sense of unfocused dismay. But this is not yet having any clear effect on politics, or the wider course of events. Crucially, most protests lack the sort of support from organised labour that crippled Greece this week. Only if that changes can they be a threat to elected governments. The protesters can occupy world’s financial markets physically, but they have not shown they can spook them. However if doubts grow about the ability of governments in Spain or Italy to enforce tax rises and spending cuts, the result could be a collapse in lenders’ confidence. With more muscle behind them, the protesters could yet change the world, though the shift might not be to anyone’s advantage.
1. proliferate v. 扩散 2. consensus n.舆论 3. encampment n.宿营 4. underprice v.使价格定低的太多 5. disobedience n. 不服从 6. military adj. 军事的 7.cathedral n. 大教堂 8. detachment n. 分离, 分遣队 9. have effect on … 对……有影响