This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
On the streets of Moscow in the tens of thousands, the protesters chanted: "We exist!" Taking into account the comments of statesmen, scientists, politicians, military officials, bankers, artists, all the important and attended to figures on this planet, nothing caught the year more strikingly than those two words shouted by massed Russian demonstrators.
"We exist!" Think of it as a simple statement of fact, an implicit demand to be taken seriously (or else), and undoubtedly an expression of wonder, verging on a question: "We exist?"
And who could blame them for shouting it? Or for the wonder? How miraculous it was. Yet another country long immersed in a kind of popular silence suddenly finds voice, and the demonstrators promptly declare themselves not about to leave the stage when the day—and the demonstration—ends. Who guessed beforehand that perhaps 50,000 Muscovites would turn out to protest a rigged electoral process in a suddenly restive country, along with crowds in St. Petersburg, Tomsk, and elsewhere from the south to Siberia?
In Tahrir Square in Cairo, they swore: "This time we're here to stay!" Everywhere this year, it seemed that they—"we"—were here to stay. In New York City, when forced out of Zuccotti Park by the police, protesters returned carrying signs that said, "You cannot evict an idea whose time has come."
And so it seems, globally speaking. Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, Madison, New York, Santiago, Homs. So many cities, towns, places. London, Sana'a, Athens, Oakland, Berlin, Rabat, Boston, Vancouver... it could take your breath away. And as for the places that aren't yet bubbling—Japan, China, and elsewhere—watch out in 2012 because, let's face it, "we exist."
Everywhere, the "we" couldn't be broader, often remarkably, even strategically, ill defined: 99 percent of humanity containing so many potentially conflicting strains of thought and being: liberals and fundamentalists, left-wing radicals and right-wing nationalists, the middle class and the dismally poor, pensioners and high-school students. But the "we" couldn't be more real.
This "we" is something that hasn't been seen on this planet for a long time, and perhaps never quite so globally. And here's what should take your breath away, and that of the other 1 percent, too: "we" were never supposed to exist. Everyone, even we, counted us out.
Until last December, when a young Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself alight to protest his own humiliation, that "we" seemed to consist of the non-actors of the twenty-first century and much of the previous one as well. We're talking about all those shunted aside, whose lives only weeks, months or, at most, a year ago, simply didn't matter; all those the powerful absolutely knew they could ride roughshod over as they solidified their control of the planet's wealth, resources, property, as, in fact, they drove this planet down.
For them, "we" was just a mass of subprime humanity that hardly existed. So of all the statements of 2011, the simplest of them—"We exist!"—has been by far the most powerful.
Name of the Year: Occupy Wall Street
Every year since 1927, when it chose Charles Lindbergh for his famed flight across the Atlantic, Time magazine has picked a "man" (even when, on rare occasions, it was a woman like Queen Elizabeth II) or, after 1999, a "person" of the year (though sometimes it's been an inanimate object like "the computer" or a group or an idea). If you want a gauge of how "we" have changed the global conversation in just months, those in the running this year included "Arab Youth Protestors," "Anonymous," "the 99 percent," and "the 1 percent." Admittedly, so were Kim Kardashian, Casey Anthony, Michele Bachman, Kate Middleton, and Rupert Murdoch. In the end, the magazine's winner of 2011 was "the protester."
How could it have been otherwise? We exist—and even Time knows it. From Tunis in January to Moscow in December this has been, day by day, week by week, month by month, the year of the protester. Those looking back may see clues to what was to come in isolated eruptions like the suppressed Green Movement in Iran or under-the-radar civic activism emerging in Russia. Nonetheless, protest, when it arrived, seemed to come out of the blue. Unpredicted and unprepared for, the young (followed by the middle aged and the old) took to the streets of cities around the globe and simply refused to go home, even when the police arrived, even when the thugs arrived, even when the army arrived, even when the pepper spraying, the arrests, the wounds, the deaths began and didn't stop.
And by the way, if "we exist" is the signature statement of 2011, the name of the year would have to be "Occupy Wall Street." Forget the fact that the place occupied, Zuccotti Park, wasn't on Wall Street but two blocks away, and that, compared to Tahrir Square or Moscow's thoroughfares, it was one of the smallest plots of protest land on the planet. It didn't matter.
The phrase was blowback of the first order. It was payback, too. Those three words instantly turned the history of the last two decades upside down and helped establish the protesters of 2011 as the third of the four great planetary occupations of our era.
Previously, "occupations" had been relatively local affairs. You occupied a country ("the occupation of Japan"), usually a defeated or conquered one. But in our own time, if it were left to me, I'd tell the history of humanity, American-style, as the story of four occupations, each global in nature:
The First Occupation: In the 1990s, the financial types of our world set out to "occupy the wealth," planetarily speaking. These were, of course, the globalists, now better known as the neoliberals, and they were determined to "open" markets everywhere. They were out, as Thomas Friedman put it (though he hardly meant it quite this way), to flatten the Earth, which turned out to be a violent proposition.
The neoliberals were let loose to do their damnedest in the good times of the post-Cold-War Clinton years. They wanted to apply a kind of American economic clout that they thought would never end to the organization of the planet. They believed the US to be the economic superpower of the ages and they had their own dreamy version of what an economic Pax Americana would be like. Privatization was the name of the game and their version of shock-and-awe tactics involved calling in institutions like the International Monetary Fund to "discipline" developing countries into a profitable kind of poverty and misery.
In the end, gleefully slicing and dicing subprime mortgages, they financialized the world and so drove a hole through it. They were our economic jihadis and, in the great meltdown of 2008, they deep-sixed the world economy they had helped "unify." In the process, by increasing the gap between the super-rich and everyone else, they helped create the 1 percent and the 99 percent in the US and globally, preparing the ground for the protests to follow.