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From Tunisia to Oakland, How a New Age of Activism Was Born

On both sides of the world, young activists are reacting to a single stunning development: the extreme and expanding gap between a very wealthy few and the rest of us.

| Thu Nov. 10, 2011 3:43 PM EST

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 percent, including their ability to more or less buy the US 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 percent, and the guardians of the 1 percent, in their own societies—and loathed for exactly that.

Last April, around the time that Lasn began imagining Wall Street protests, progressive activists in Israel started planning their own movement. In July, sales clerk and aspiring filmmaker Daphne Leef found herself unable to cover a sudden rent increase on her Tel Aviv apartment. So she started a protest Facebook page similar to the ones that fueled the Arab Spring and moved into a tent on the posh Rothschild Avenue where she was soon joined by hundreds of other protesting Israelis. Week by week, the demonstrations grew, spreading to cities throughout the country and culminating on September 3rd in a massive rally, the largest in Israel's history. Some 300,000 protesters came out in Tel Aviv, 50,000 in Jerusalem, and 40,000 in Haifa. Their demands included not just lower housing costs, but a rollback of neoliberal policies, less regressive taxes and more progressive, direct taxation, a halt to the privatization of the economy, and the funding of a system of inexpensive education and child care.

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 percent. 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 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 percent. Over the same period, the average household income of families among the richest 20 percent went up at an annual rate of 2.4 percent.

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.

 

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 percent 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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