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We Are Here, Now Change the Subject

Sina Odugbemi's picture

According to the distinguished  political scientist, Sidney Tarrow, Occupy Wall Street -- and I suppose similar movements breaking out in much of the industrialized West --  are 'We are here' movements. For now, all they saying is: 'Recognize us!' As he points out, 'We are here' movements can either fizzle out or morph into something more powerful and insistent. It is too early to tell what will happen in this case. What he is clear about is that Occupy Wall Street is a wake-up call to the governing elite, one that members of that elite had better heed. The entire Foreign Affairs piece is worth reading.

But one impact of this 'We are here!' movement has already happened. Before Occupy Wall Street and associated movements erupted, the policy debate in much of the West was dominated almost entirely by deficit cutting and austerity talk. Savage cuts in all and every public service had become hugely fashionable. Commentators and politicians were adopting the practiced callousness of army generals: when you decide to take a hill in the course of a battle you don't focus too much on the body count. Yet those are sons and fathers, real human beings, who will have to die in order for the hill to be taken and secured. Generals are trained not to worry about that. This too has become the practice of the Austerity Class: just cut the budget as ruthlessly as you can, don't think about who will be hurt.

The evidence suggests that the terms of debate are changing. Two recent media content surveys (see here and here) show that whereas in the period before this 'We are here!' movement erupted, the unemployment crisis and economic inequality rarely got covered in the media. The focus? Debt and deficits. Now, all that has changed. There is a sudden spike in coverage of the unemployment crisis and economic inequality as well as debate and discussion. Even the Vatican is speaking up and sounding radical. The lesson: citizens who don't squeal and yell when hurt get ignored by governing elites...and that includes the media.

In the immortal words of the anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Douglass: 'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.'

Picture: Flickr user Kimberlyki

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