Occupy Wall St is no Arab Spring

Last updated 05:00 10/10/2011
Occupy Wall Street
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Demonstrators opposed to corporate greed on Wall Street march in the Financial District in New York.

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It's hard to imagine a comparison more trite than that made between the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The former involves millions in the Muslim world revolting against dictators and autocrats. For decades, police states have squashed dissent and violated human rights.

OPINION: The latter is a small protest against consumer capitalism. The Wall Street protesters don't like executive salaries, industrial agriculture, drug patents and personal debt. They're annoyed with corporate influence on politics and society.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has spread to 100 American cities. It seems no press report on it is complete without reference to events in the Middle East.

On ABC's Q&A last Monday, journalist Mona Eltahawy said the American movement was directly inspired by the Arab revolts. That's not just trite; it's insulting.

It's hard to detect much of a relationship beyond their shared use of Twitter and Facebook.

When Arab revolutionaries talk about their human rights being violated, they refer to murder, torture and looting. The Occupy Wall Street crowd refer to having to repay college loans or a mortgage.

Yet the comparison is made, just as it was with the London riots. We now know that three-quarters of the rioters had existing criminal records. Commentators claimed the riots were a social revolution like Egypt. They were just opportunistic lawlessness.

If Occupy Wall Street is nothing like the Arab Spring, what is it? The protest was conceived by counterculture magazine Adbusters. It shares the mag's unfocused anti-capitalist ennui. And its belief corporations play the US government like a cheap violin. Occupy Wall Street is mostly occupying the wrong place. The bank bailouts were obscene. Yet it seems the protesters think government should spare no expense keeping the economy afloat. It's hard to work out what their critique is - apart from saying bankers are rich.

If the protesters are truly incensed about the taxpayers' money given to bankers, they'd be better off blockading the White House. ''We Want The Sacks Of Gold Goldman Sachs Stole From Us'' stated one placard. Stole? Those sacks were handed over willingly by the political ''representatives of the people''.

Their other prominent complaint concerns the widespread housing foreclosures. But those foreclosures are the result of decades of legislators and bureaucrats chipping away at lending standards in pursuit of social goals. Again, Washington is to blame. Instead, Occupy Wall Street talk simply about standing up to the ''dictators of capital''.

Sure, juvenile social rebellion is common. But many journalists and commentators are eager to believe 2011 is a year of discontent - that the financial crisis has led to a global mutiny against ''neoliberalism''.

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Celebrities give the protest a carnival atmosphere. Danny DeVito. Susan Sarandon. Alec Baldwin. Michael Moore, of course. Another supporter, Rosanne Barr, said she'd use a guillotine on Wall Street's ''worst of the worst''. Barr's rhetoric could come from the Arab Spring, but from the dictators' side.

Many people imagine great economic crises must spark great social revolts. In the past few years, economic growth in the Middle East has been slow but still among the highest in the world. Middle Eastern protesters are angry about tyrants, not student debt and other people's salaries. By comparing themselves with the Arab Spring, all the Occupy Wall Street crowd demonstrate is that people in the First World have nothing like the problems of those living under autocracy in the Third.

Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.

Twitter @chrisberg

This comment piece first ran at nationaltimes.com.au

- Fairfax Media


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