How the Occupied Became the Occupiers
by Tom Engelhardt
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% 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%, 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%,” and “the 1%.” 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 U.S. 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% and the 99% in the U.S. and globally, preparing the ground for the protests to follow.
The Second Occupation: If the first occupation drove an economic stake through the heart of the planet, the second did a similar thing militarily. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the “unilateralists” of the Bush administration staked their own claim to a global occupation at the point of a cruise missile. Romantics all when it came to the U.S. military and what it could do, they invaded Iraq, determined to garrison the oil heartlands of the planet. It was going to be “shock and awe” and “mission accomplished” all the way. What they had in mind was a militarized version of an “occupy the wealth” scheme. Their urge to privatize even extended to the military itself and, when they invaded, in their baggage train came crony corporations ready to feast.
Once upon a time, Americans knew that only the monstrous enemy — most recently that “evil empire,” the Soviet Union — could dream of world conquest and occupation. That was, by nature, what evil monsters did. Until 2001, when it turned out to be quite okay for the good guys of planet Earth to think along exactly the same lines.
The invasion of Iraq, that “cakewalk,” was meant to establish a multi-generational foothold in the Greater Middle East, including permanent bases garrisoned with 30,000 to 40,000 American troops, and that was to be just the beginning of a chain reaction. Soon enough Syria and Iran would bow down before U.S. power or, if they refused, would go down anyway thanks to American techno-might. In the end, the lands of the Greater Middle East would fall into line (with the help of Washington’s proxy in the region, Israel).
And since there was no other nation or bloc of nations with anything like such military power, nor would any be allowed to arise, the result — and they weren’t shy about this — would be a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana more or less till the end of time. As the “sole superpower” or even “hyperpower,” Washington would, in other words, occupy the planet.
Of course, Iraq and Afghanistan were also more traditional occupations. In Baghdad, for instance, American consul L. Paul Bremer III issued “Order 17,” which essentially granted to every foreigner connected with the occupation enterprise the full freedom of the land, not to be interfered with in any way by Iraqis or any Iraqi political or legal institutions. This included “freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq,” and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be “subject to registration, licensing, or inspection by the [Iraqi] Government.” Nor in traveling would any foreign diplomat, soldier, consultant, or security guard, or any of their vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to “dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees.” And that was only the beginning.
Order 17, which read like an edict plucked directly from a nineteenth century colonial setting, caught the local hubris of those privatizing occupiers.
All of this proved to be fantasy bordering on delusion, and it didn’t take long for that to become apparent. In fact, the utter failure of the unilateralists came home to roost in the form of a SOFA agreement with Iraqi authorities that promised to end the U.S. garrisoning of the country not in 2030 or 2050, but in 2011. And the Bush administration felt forced to agree to it in 2008, the same year that the economic unilateralists were facing the endgame of their dreams of global domination.
In that year, the neoliberal effort to privatize the planet went down in flames, along with Lehman Brothers, all those subprime mortgages and derivatives, and a whole host of banks and financial outfits rescued from the trash bin of history by the U.S. Treasury. Talk about giving the phrase “creative destruction” the darkest meaning possible: the two waves of American unilateralists nearly took down the planet.
They let loose demons of every sort, even as they ensured that the world’s first experience of a “sole superpower” would prove short indeed. Heap onto the rubble they left behind the global disaster of rising prices for the basics — food and fuel — and you have a situation so combustible that no one should have been surprised when a single Tunisian match set it aflame.
Note as well that, as their policies went to hell in a hand basket, the first and second set of occupiers walked off with their treasure and their selves intact. Neither the bankers nor the militarists went to jail, not a one of them. They had made out like bandits and continue to do so. They took home their multi-million dollar bonuses. They kept their yachts, mansions, and (untaxed) private jets. They took with them the ability to sign million-dollar contracts for bestselling memoirs and to go on the lecture circuit at $100,000-$150,000 a pop. They had, in the case of the second occupation, quite literally, gotten away with murder (and torture, and kidnapping, etc.). In the process, the misery of the 99% had been immeasurably increased.
The Third Occupation: The most significant and surprising thing the first two globalizing occupations did, however, was to globalize protest. Together they created the basis, in pure iniquity and inequity, in dead bodies and bruised lives, for Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street. Their failures set the stage for something new in the world.
The result was a Chalmers Johnson-style case of blowback, the spirit of which was caught in the protesters’ appropriation of the very word “occupy.” There was a sense out there that they had occupied us long and disastrously enough. It was time for us to occupy them, and so our own parks, squares, streets, towns, cities, and countries.
The urge to right things is, in fact, a powerful one. Gene Turitz, a friend of mine who took part in the demonstrations that briefly shut down the port of Oakland, California, recently wrote me the following about the experience. It catches something of the mood of this moment:
“The mayor of Oakland, a former progressive, blasted the economic violence that was being perpetrated by the Occupy movement shutting down the port. No word about the economic violence of banks stealing people’s homes through foreclosures, or the economic violence of [sports] team owners demanding the city build new stadiums for their teams or they will move to another city, or of corporations threatening to move if this or that is not done for them. That’s just the way things are done. You do not want the ‘violence’ of thousands of people peacefully showing that things must change to make their lives better.”
Or in two words: we exist! And possibly in the nick of time.
The Fourth Occupation: This is both the newest and oldest of occupations. I’m speaking about humanity’s occupation of Earth. In recent centuries, can there be any question that we’ve been hard on this planet, exploiting it for everything it’s worth? Our excuse was that we genuinely didn’t know better, at least when it came to climate change, that we just didn’t understand what kind of long-term harm the burning of fossil fuels could do. Now, of course, we know. Those who don’t are either in denial or simply couldn’t care less.
And here’s just a taste of what we do know about how the fourth occupation is affecting the planet: thirteen of the warmest years since recordkeeping began have occurred in the last 15 years. In 2010, historically staggering amounts of carbon dioxide were sent into the atmosphere (“the biggest jump ever seen in global warming gases”); extreme weather was, well, remarkably extreme in 2011 — torrid droughts, massive fires, vast floods — and, in the Arctic, ice is now melting at unprecedented rates, which will mean future sea-level rises that will threaten low-lying areas of the planet. And as for that temperature, well, it’s going to keep going up, uncomfortably so.
Potentially, this is the monster blowback story of all time.
And here’s just a taste of what we know about business as usual on this planet: if we rely on the previous occupiers and their ilk to save us, then it’s going to be a long, dismal wait. Don’t count on energy giants like Exxon or BP or their lobbyists and the politicians they influence to stop climate change. After all, none of them are going to be alive to see a far less habitable planet, so what do they care? Torrid zones are so then, profit sheets and bonuses are so now, which means: don’t count on the 1% to give a damn.
If it were up to them — a few outliers among them excepted — we could probably simply write the Earth off as a future friendly place for us. And the planet wouldn’t care. Give it 100,000, 10 million, 100 million years and it’ll get itself back in shape with plenty of life forms to go around.
We’re such ephemeral creatures with such brief life spans. It’s hard for us to think even in the sort of modestly long-range way that climate change demands. So thank your lucky stars that the first and second wave occupiers created a third payback occupation they never imagined possible. And thank your lucky stars that movements to occupy our planet in a new way and turn back the global warmers are slowly rising as well.
Like the attempted occupations of the global economy and the Greater Middle East, each spurred by a sense of greed that went beyond all bounds, the occupation of our planet is guaranteed to create its own oppositional forces, and not just in the natural world either. They are perhaps already emerging along with the Arab spring, the European summer, and the American fall, not to speak of the Russian winter. And when they’re here — as the fifth occupation of planet Earth — when they stand their ground and chant “We exist!” in anger, strength, and wonder, maybe then we can really tackle climate change and hope it isn’t too late.
Maybe the fifth occupation is the one we’re waiting for — and don’t for a second doubt that it will come. It’s already on its way.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: For those of you who haven’t yet read the TomDispatch piece by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, “The Making of the American 99%,” I urge you to do so, and don’t miss Juan Cole’s “Protest Planet” as well, which offers a striking explanation for how the 1% was created globally. The two of them together helped me understand our changing world better. I would like to thank my wife for the phrase “occupy the wealth.”]
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt