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How to occupy the world

The leading tagline of the Occupy Wall Street movement reads: “Protest for world revolution.” This is an ambitious claim. In most respects it seems to ring quite true: the movement has successfully taken root not only in cities and towns throughout the United States but also in major urban centres around the world. On October 15 Occupy Wall Street’s success inspired a broad wave of coordinated occupations across Europe. I was a founding participant in the one that began in London.

But the Occupy movement has been notably absent outside of the United States and Europe. Not for want of trying, of course: in southern Africa, where I am from, small groups of committed activists tried to instigate occupations in a few key regional cities, but without much success. In South Africa, a society divided by violent inequalities that proceed directly from neoliberal policy, Occupy managed to attract only a few dozen souls — a poor showing for a country known for one of the highest protest rates in the world.

What accounts for the failure of Occupy to capture the imagination of the global South, which comprises precisely the people whose lives have been most brutally affected by the recent global financial crisis? And in what sense can Occupy claim to be a world revolution if it leaves out — and in some cases even alienates – the vast, non-white majority of humanity?

Occupy is “international” at the moment only inasmuch as it exists in many different countries at the same time. But each of the occupations is primarily concerned with particular local or national issues. For instance, Occupy Wall Street is focused on corporate personhood, the Glass-Steagall Act, and collateralised debt obligations, while Occupy London is worried about tuition fees, the National Health Service, and Thatcher’s 1986 financial deregulation bonanza.

Yes, the occupations communicate, and yes, they stand in solidarity with one another. But they are not united around concerns that are recognisably global in scope.

True, Occupy protesters and their sympathisers have helped sound the alarm on issues of international concern like fossil fuels and climate change, as we saw recently at the COP17 meetings in Durban. But as it presently stands, the Occupy agenda is rather provincial — even Eurocentric. Its radical elements aside, most of the movement’s American and European supporters simply want to reclaim their rights to live decent, dignified, middle-class lives.

Western affluence and the global system

There’s nothing wrong with this goal, in and of itself. But middle-class affluence in the West depends on a system of extraction that produces and perpetuates tremendous poverty in the global South. This was true under European colonialism, when the gap between the richest and poorest countries increased from 3:1 to 35:1, and it obtains even more so in this era of neoliberal capitalism, during which — according to the Human Development Report — that gap has reached an unprecedented 74:1.

According to World Development Indicators, in 2005 the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population — a proportion that includes almost all of the Occupy protestors — accounted for 76% of total private consumption. The wealthy nations of Europe and North America have an inordinate degree of control over the world’s resources, which they command through international financial institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Occupy Wall Street correctly criticises the fact that an increasing proportion of these spoils has gone to the top 1% of US society since the mid-1970s. But it is not enough to want to redistribute that wealth back to middle-class Americans. Even if the Occupy movement does manage to fix the financial sector, stabilise the economy and redress social inequality in the West, these violent, imperialist modes of accumulation will still remain in place.

The process of extraction from global “periphery” to global “core” is what sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has called “the world-system”. Since the 1980s, one way of facilitating extraction within the world-system has been through “structural adjustment” loans from Western governments to post-colonial countries. Debts from these loans are leveraged to forcibly liberalise markets, privatise resources, cut social services, and curb labour and environmental regulations to create business opportunities for multinational companies and facilitate the flow of wealth to the West.

Western corporations realise huge profits by taking advantage of these policies. They externalise the costs of production to the global South where they can get away without paying for the labour they exploit, the resources they extract, and the pollution they leave behind.

Forced liberalisation has plunged poor countries into economic collapse, slashing average per capita income growth in half after 1980 and leading, in some cases, to negative rates. Economists estimate that poor countries have lost $480-billion per year as a result of structural adjustment, while multinational corporations have stolen as much as $1.17-trillion (from Africa alone) through loopholes created by market deregulation since 1970. The upshot of this has been raising inequality and deepening poverty while worsening health, mortality and literacy rates in much of the global South.

Finding the right targets

Western affluence and the consumer lifestyles of the “99%” in the United States and Europe depend on the plunder of other places and people. This is one of the reasons that people in the global South tend to feel alienated by Occupy. Firstly, they don’t see why they should support a movement of Westerners who want to regain levels of affluence that depend at least in part on the extraction of their countries’ labour and resources. What’s more, the locus of the economic decisions that affect them is not ultimately their national governments, but the institutions in Washington, DC and Geneva that determine economic policy from afar; it doesn’t make much sense to occupy locally when the power lies elsewhere.

Occupy’s vision for world revolution will only catch on in the global South once the movement extends its purview to encompass these concerns and begins to challenge inequality between nations as much as within them.

We cannot rely on “development” to accomplish this. Not only does development serve as a façade for the global extension of neoliberalism, it also rests on a purely absurd premise. The notion that everyone in the world should enjoy the equivalent of Western middle-class living standards ignores the fact that the planet simply does not contain enough resources for each person to consume as much as, say, the average American. Instead of “developing” the global South, we need to un-develop the West; we need to subvert and dismantle the flows of tribution that underpin Western affluence.

Occupy must realise that even huge wins at home will not necessarily translate into changes in the world-system or even changes in the role of the US. Given that neoliberal capitalism is organised on a global scale, any real change will require a movement that is global in scope. Never has there been a better time to challenge the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF’s policies on trade, debt, austerity, structural adjustment, resource extraction and sweatshops.

Targeting these institutions is crucial because they determine Western access to labour and resources in the global South. The United States controls the levers of this system, since voting power in the World Bank and the IMF is apportioned according to each nation’s level of financial ownership. With about 17% of the shares, the United States has enough to singlehandedly block major decisions, which require 85% of the vote.

At the WTO, market size determines bargaining power — so rich countries almost always get their way. On top of this, rich countries control key decisions by using exclusive “green room” meetings to circumvent the consensus process. If poor countries choose to disobey trade rules that hurt them, rich countries can retaliate by using the WTO’s courts to impose crushing sanctions.

Change in the world-system can only happen once these institutions are democratised and de-corporatised. This will require building alliances with the global justice movement and anti-globalisation campaigns in postcolonial countries that have been working on these issues for decades (such as La Via Campesina, an organisation of 200-million peasants worldwide). Neoliberalism was crushing people there long before it hit white, Euro-American youth.

Alliances with the global south

Another reason that Occupy has not caught on outside the West is that the leaderless, consensus-based horizontalism that has made the movement so popular in North America and Europe doesn’t work as well where most people can’t network through the internet. Instead of fetishising this tactic for its own sake, we need to be pragmatic about reaching out to established parties, unions and other institutions — even if hierarchical — that actually have the ability to organise the rallies that an international movement needs. We reject traditional tactics at our own peril.

It’s easy enough to explain why the global South hasn’t joined Occupy. But why should we care? Firstly, because the extractive processes that underpin Euro-American affluence cannot be fully understood from within the “core”. Our goals need to be informed by conversations and alliances with activists in the global South. Secondly, because challenging these powerful and deeply entrenched interests will require serious pressure from all corners of the world-system. If we want to bring about “World Revolution,” we have to be able to mobilise the world.

Occupy might do well to glean a few lessons from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Like the world-system in microcosm, apartheid capitalism allowed a white minority to accumulate massive wealth by extracting cheap labour and resources from a disenfranchised majority. A number of white people rejected this system and became key activists in the anti-apartheid movement. But their efforts would have come to naught without their African counterparts, who mobilised mass resistance by going door-to-door in the townships, building the capacity for the strikes and boycotts that brought the apartheid state to its knees.

A truly global movement is not out of reach. Indeed, it has never been more possible than it is today. This is our opportunity to occupy the world. We dare not miss it.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author

  • Jason Hickel

    Having spent the first half of his life in Swaziland, Jason earned a doctorate at the University of Virginia and now holds a fellowship at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on development, globalisation and labor, with an emphasis on Southern Africa. He lives in constant fear of being sniffed out for his counter-revolutionary penchant for bourgeois wine and jazz. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhickel.