Over the past week, the perception of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests in the United States has shifted from most considering it an inconsequential sideshow to a movement that has the potential to affect the race for the presidency in 2012.
Commentators have not hesitated to draw parallels between this popular outpouring of anger against banks and corporations and the Tea Party movement, which was also initially dismissed as irrelevant to actual politics and policymaking before it came to be taken seriously as an entity that exercised real political power, most notably in the 2010 midterm elections.
As protestors have demonstrated staying power and a willingness to engage the police, interest in OWS has increased. Local labor unions in New York have joined forces with the protestors and satellite protests are being organized across the US. Less-than-nimble crowd control mechanisms employed by the police has only stimulated media attention.
Established progressive organizations are no doubt evaluating ways in which to tap into the discontent that is driving these protests.
In this, OWS is strikingly similar to the protests against endemic corruption in India over the past year. The anti-corruption demonstrations had a modest beginning in October last year before coalescing behind Anna Hazare to transform into a genuine, broad-based movement that forced action from the central government.
The most recent iteration of the movement found support from sections of the opposition, with speculation that the Bharatiya Janata Party was instrumental in funding Hazare’s campaign against the Congress-led UPA government. Similar support for OWS, albeit from the Democrats, looks likely if the protests continue to gain traction.
The similarities between the Hazare-led anti-corruption movement and the Tea Party movement that emerged as a serious force in 2009-10 are even more obvious. It is clear enough that OWS, the Tea Party and Hazare are reactions to specific economic conditions in India and the US.
Poverty, unemployment and inequality have led to insecurity, and this insecurity has manifested in the form of these protests. Where OWS is distinct from the Tea Party and the anti-corruption movement is in its - some say deliberate - lack of concrete goals or demands.
Although the Tea Party may have begun as a collection of voices that did not always share the same priorities, it succeeded in shifting the right’s politics further to the right, inducing paralysis in American policymaking at the federal level. It created a space for dissatisfied conservatives to share their concerns and more, pushed them to take political action to remedy what they saw as government perfidy.
In much the same way, the anti-corruption movement led by Hazare provided a public space for different actors to vent their frustration at the corruption of the Indian state, ultimately demanding action from politicians on a specific issue (the Jan Lokpal Bill). Hazare himself has moved from displaying contempt for politicians to attempting to influence electoral outcomes beginning with the bypoll in the Hisar Lok Sabha constituency in Haryana.
Over the past 12-18 months, governments across the world have been blindsided by the depth of opposition they have encountered from their people. Quite apart from the Arab Spring, we have seen protests in the United Kingdom, Greece, Germany and Chile, in addition to the US and India.
A common characteristic of these protests are the tactics they employ. These movements appear less interested in engaging in dialogue with legislators, but are instead involved in a game of brinksmanship with the very authorities they are protesting against, as if daring them to take action against a group of civilians, knowing that the media is watching with a keen eye.
The notions of compromise and give-and-take do not appear to be on the table, boxing officialdom into a corner in terms of plausible response. This is a new kind of protestor, one who is not only aware that the world is watching, but is in fact counting on it to force legitimacy and cooperation from government.