Occupy Wall St has message for Kiwis

This weekend in about 950 cities around the world, a global movement of occupations rose in solidarity with the occupation at Wall Street in New York that began on 17 September.

On Saturday, there were occupations in six cities across New Zealand, with 3000 marching up Queen St to hold a General Assembly in Aotea Square in central Auckland. More than 50 tents housing at least 100 demonstrators have been set up, along with a kitchen, media centre, waste disposal and a welcome table. Occupations still hold in Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and New Plymouth.

It is easy to make hasty evaluations of these occupations. Indeed, many have been quick to dismiss the occupations as a confused rag-bag of left-wing, social and environmental causes.

It has been said that there is no clear message and no concrete demands from this movement that gleefully refuses to have any leaders or representatives. For many, then, this movement just makes no sense.

So what is this movement about? In part, the answer is quite simple. The Occupy Wall Street movement targeted the centre of financial power in the United States and indeed the world. In this sense "Wall Street" symbolises finance, the banking and financial services sector. So let there be no mistake - these occupations are opposed to the economic power of finance capital.

The global occupations also stress that finance capital and the banking industry are made possible by specific legal and governmental arrangements. They are aware that for at least 30 years governments throughout the world, under pressure from partisan pressure groups, have encouraged the rise of finance in an effort for capital to find ever more profitable homes. Occupiers are concerned that after the series of financial crises beginning in 2008, governments and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund have chosen to rescue banks and finance companies while imposing austerity measures on pretty much everyone else.

The Occupy movement is, however, not only about economic and political forces, but equally about ideas. It objects not only to the remarkable inequalities between and within countries, but also challenges the ideas that have up until now sought to justify those inequalities.

The movement is fighting the idea that unregulated capitalism somehow benefits everyone, and argues instead that it is a system involving systematic inequality that principally serves the interests of a small elite.

Against today's reigning economic, political and ideological constellation, the Occupy movement asserts the rights of the overwhelming majority. Hence the slogan of the global movement: "We are the 99%".

MANY people in New Zealand value equality, and think of this country as being egalitarian. The blunt reality, however, is that New Zealand has become one of the most unequal societies in the world, and is in the process of becoming increasingly so. Last week, Dame Anne Salmond called for a change of heart in our country, racked as it is with social and economic inequality.

A change of heart would, however, require changing the ways that we think. It would involve changing how we think about the 151 individuals in this country whose wealth expanded by $7 billion this year, while at the same time real incomes fell for almost everyone else. It would involve changing how we think about rising poverty and social deprivation. Such a change of thinking would enable us to see how 1 per cent can do very well indeed, while austerity and crisis are the fate of 99 per cent.

This movement is saying "enough is enough". It is challenging systems of economic and political elitism and the ideologies that have for so long sought to justify inequality. Earlier this year, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz identified the dangers of an economic system run "by the 1 per cent, for the 1 per cent".

For some, it will take a while to understand what this movement is about, or what kind of change might result. Clearly, a wholesale transformation of the global financial system is on the cards. At the same time, the movement is actively deploying alternative models of democratic decision-making, with general assemblies involving collective deliberation and consensus decision- making. It is also making a range of timely and potentially lasting proposals for a transformation in the way that we think about participation in society.

These occupations therefore issue a call for journalists and politicians to listen carefully and to think again.

It calls on us all to acknowledge the stark inequalities that have arisen, and the specific processes through which a remarkably small elite benefits from our current systems of finance, political decision-making and ideas.

In this growing and increasingly articulate movement, frustration at the injustices of the present motivates the call for serious change, the magnitude of which we have not been able to imagine for some time.

Dr Campbell Jones is senior lecturer in sociology at Auckland University.

The Dominion Post