Why Is Occupy Wall Street Going Global?

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The protests have met greater support among European leaders, one of whom said, "The young people have a right to be furious."

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Demonstrators march past the Brussels Stock Exchange with a banner reading, "Raise lower incomes!" / Reuters

The Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York City a month ago gained worldwide momentum over the weekend, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in nine hundred cities protested corporate greed and wealth inequality. Protesters from London to Sydney echoed the anti-capitalist, populist rhetoric of the Occupy movement in what was deemed a "global day of protest".

The unrest comes amid a mounting European sovereign debt crisis, which has contributed to ongoing market volatility and fears of another global economic recession. Governments around the world--particularly in the indebted eurozone periphery--have implemented harsh austerity programs, making economic growth all but impossible. In the United States, anger at Wall Street bankers seen as responsible for the global financial crisis--and at the government, for bailing out the banks with taxpayer money--is exacerbated by a persistently dismal job market.


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In the United States, the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above 9 percent; in the United Kingdom, it has risen to above 8 percent; and in the eurozone, it continues to hover around 10 percent. Protesters question why bankers and financial heavyweights--what the protesters call the "1 percent"--are earning more money than ever, while average workers--the "other 99 percent"--are struggling to make a living wage.

Critics of the Occupy protesters say they are naïve and incoherent; others accuse them of being anything from Communists to anarchists. However, many proponents see the Occupy movement as a nascent populist counterweight to the Tea Party movement. The Occupy protesters "represent a genuine spark of grassroots political action--a chance, finally, to redeem the promise of Obama's 2008 campaign," write John B. Judis and Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic. However, Cornell University professor Sidney Tarrow cautions against seeing the Occupy movement through the lens of the Tea Party: The former has few policy plans and is comprised of a "shifting configuration of supporters".

Still, President Barack Obama--who received sizable campaign contributions from Wall Street in 2008--sought to tap into the movement's energy this weekend, gently lending it credence (Bloomberg)."The unemployed worker," he said, "can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there."

European leaders were more unequivocal in their support of the weekend protesters, openly sympathizing with widespread anger at the continent's big banks. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said he was taking the protests "very seriously," while incoming European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said, "The young people have a right to be furious." In the UK, Foreign Minister William Hague acknowledged, "in the banking system a lot has gone wrong." The protests in Europe have an even greater sense of urgency than in the United States, as policymakers call for recapitalizing European banks to avoid sovereign debt contagion from Greece.

While the Occupy protesters and their offshoots may not articulate a clear set of policy objectives, "their mere existence shows that people are determined to think globally about routes out of this crisis," argues the BBC's Paul Mason. Writing in the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart comments that the movement is gaining strength as a result of its "global nature." While that doesn't mean the protesters have a "clear critique of unregulated capitalism yet, let alone a concrete agenda for reform," it signals that the left "finally is forcing those questions onto the public agenda."

By contrast, Will Marshall argues in the New Republic, that the Occupy protesters will only exacerbate ideological tensions and partisanship in American political life. Marshall says the protests are being hijacked by the "usual congeries of lefty fringe groups," which undermine the important message that the United States is becoming increasingly economically unequal. Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper dismisses the protesters as "hooligans" and "criminals," lumping together a minority of violent opportunists with the majority of peaceable demonstrators.

However, as the Occupy movement becomes more global, its supporters are becoming more politically diverse. As Erik Tarloff writes in the Atlantic, the lack of political cohesion is perhaps irrelevant. "What does matter is that popular refusal to tolerate the current state of affairs appears to be reaching a tipping point."


This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Christopher Alessi is an Associate Staff Writer for Council on Foreign Relations.

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