In this year of protests, is it really fair to compare the grievances of the Occupy movement to the courage of the Arab Spring?
Around this time last year, foreign-policy pundits, including me, were writing about the WikiLeaks cables. That was the big story of 2010: the truth of how U.S. diplomacy actually operated in the world. We could not have imagined -- well, I could not have imagined -- that the great story of 2011 would have absolutely nothing to do with U.S. actions, good or bad. That story, of course, was the struggle by millions of people in the Middle East to throw off generations of tyranny. It may still end badly, but the Arab Spring has been the most thrilling spectacle since the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1991, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Around this time last year, foreign-policy pundits, including me, were writing about the WikiLeaks cables. That was the big story of 2010: the truth of how U.S. diplomacy actually operated in the world. We could not have imagined — well, I could not have imagined — that the great story of 2011 would have absolutely nothing to do with U.S. actions, good or bad. That story, of course, was the struggle by millions of people in the Middle East to throw off generations of tyranny. It may still end badly, but the Arab Spring has been the most thrilling spectacle since the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1991, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
But where does that leave the United States, the center of global events, the indispensable nation? Are we just spectators of the glorious theater of liberation, as we are spectators of so much else in this new world of emerging, non-Western powers? That just doesn’t seem fair. In recent months, a new narrative has arisen that sees the Arab Spring as only one, regional instance of leaderless mass protest against political and economic injustice — a global movement that began in Tunisia, spread across the Arab world, leaped to Europe and then landed in the United States in the form of Occupy Wall Street before finally moving onto Russia. "This year," as my friend Kurt Anderson wrote in an adroit essay introducing Time magazine’s choice of "The Protester" as Person of the Year, "do-it-yourself democratic politics became globalized, and real live protest went massively viral." That’s true, as well as consolatory from the point of view of American national vanity, but I’m not convinced that it’s as important as Time thinks it is.
The Arab Spring was a revolution, not in the classic sense of an upending of the class system, but in the distinctly modern form of a whole people rising up against a corrupt and autocratic leader and his cadre, as happened in the Philippines in 1986, or the "color revolutions" in the Balkans and the former Soviet states more recently. Those leaders had so effectively walled off the Middle East from the democratizing forces sweeping the globe that Arabs appeared to be unable or unwilling to seize their own destiny. In fact, as Jean-Pierre Filiu writes in The Arab Revolution, "Arabs are no exception, but the resilience of their ruling cliques has been exceptional." The revolution — again, no matter what the ultimate outcome — put a dramatic end to the Arab exception, and rejoined the Arab sphere to the world around it. That is an event of supreme importance.
How did this happen? The incremental change that Western leaders had urged upon Arab leaders had proved to be a dead end and an infuriating snare; it became all too clear that real change could only come from below, and only through mass pressure. What we have witnessed over the last year is millions of individual acts of courage and determination in the face of very grave danger. That’s why the Arab Spring has been not only so important, but so enthralling. These individual acts, in turn, were enabled and coordinated by new technologies — Facebook, Twitter, and others forms of social media. Those media didn’t cause the revolution but they did greatly accelerate it, and impart the very specific, and very contemporary, shape of the leaderless mass movement.
And this distinctively democratic form of street protest, with the dignity of acting as individuals joined to the special euphoria of acting in a great mass, did indeed spread abroad — the first export of the new Middle East. Protesters took to the streets in Spain, then Greece, then Israel, then New York and, very quickly, other American cities. Many of these demonstrations had something of the look and feel of the Arab Spring, with protesters pitching tents in public spaces and shouting, "The people want. . ." — whatever it is the people wanted.
So, yes, the form of protest spread; but what about the content? Is it the deepest aspects of the Arab Spring, or the more superficial ones, that have migrated to the West? It’s true that protestors in both cases argued that the system is rigged against them, but that’s very close to a sine qua non of protest itself. If you thought the system worked, you would just choose your preferred representative to argue on your behalf and go back to work. Anderson writes that the demonstrators of 2011 objected to "hell-bent megascaled crony hypercapitalism." That is a good description of what bound together activists in New York and Madrid, but not in Tahrir Square or Pearl Square, in Bahrain. In the Arab world, cronyism is rampant but capitalism does not run amok and in fact only barely escapes the paralyzing clutches of the state. The Arab world is pre- what the Western world is post-.
But I won’t belabor the obvious. Of course, the Arab world has no democracy and the West does, so the one protest is immensely more urgent, and braver, than the other. Egypt needed a revolution; the United States could use some reform. But it’s also true that the protestors in Egypt and Tunisia knew very well what the fundamental solution to their problems was, and those in Zuccotti Park did not. And this persistent, even insistent, vagueness has proved to be a problem. The question of what Occupy Wall Street "means" has always been a chimera. Do protesters want to end "hypercapitalism," or capitalism itself? Do they want to make big corporations behave better, or do they think big corporations themselves are bad? It’s impossible to say. Even if we accept that the essence of the movement is that the "99 percent" is getting shafted by the "1 percent," what does that tell actually us? The Tea Party, a leaderless mass movement from the pre-Arab Spring era, loathes Wall Street but also loathes taxes, and so objects to increasing tax rates for the very rich. Do they not count as part of the new zeitgeist?
Perhaps the real problem with Occupy Wall Street is less that it is indistinct as that it is inadequate. What gets people into the streets is rank injustice — a brutal dictator, a pointless war. Bankers getting away scot-free after helping to wreck the economy is a pretty gross injustice, too. But that doesn’t go to the core of America’s economic problems. The United States, unlike Egypt or Libya, does not have a true bad-guy problem, although it would be gratifying to see the con artists high and low discover the inside of a jail cell. The United States doesn’t even have an injustice problem, though of course there’s injustice aplenty. The U.S. problem is that it can no longer find the political will to muster the resources it needs to be competitive in the world. It cannot, or rather will not, make serious investments in infrastructure, research, education, and training. And it cannot do this because it raises too little revenue — thanks in part to the anti-tax mood sparked by 2010’s grassroots revolutionaries, the Tea Party and broadly embraced by mainstream Republicans — and because it spends too much of that shrinking pool of revenue on entitlements, thanks in part to the Democratic party and its special interests. The grotesque spectacle of the recent budget negotiations shows how deeply the U.S. is stuck.
Occupy Wall Street has already done some good by stiffening President Barack Obama’s spine on taxes, and giving some muscle to his rhetoric on the economy. It may even tip the presidential election in his favor. So far, however, the movement has not had an effect on American politics that begins to approach that of the Tea Party. Recent polls have found that Occupy Wall Street’s popularity is fading, and has now sunk below that of the Tea Party. If the movement is ever to deserve being mentioned in the same breath as the Arab Spring, it will have to find a language that appeals to a broad swath of Americans, while its leaders — there will, alas, have to be leaders — must devise a more coherent and pragmatic program that actually promises to help pull America out of its funk.
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.