The ‘Occupy’ movement winning hearts and minds – even in the ‘Lucky Country’

Day 1 Occupy Sydney. Photo by Peter Boyle.

Before October 15, when the first Australian occupations following the example of Occupy Wall Street began even some of the activists involved them wondered to themselves if it would work. After all this was the “Lucky Country” which escaped the Global Financial Crisis.

But a couple of thousand, mostly young, people rocked up to launch Occupy Melbourne in City Square, and another thousand launched Occupy Sydney in Martin Place in the heart of that city’s financial district. Hundreds launched Occupy Brisbane in Post Office Square.

Most who visited these makeshift campsites were infected by the sense of excitement summed up in the slogans “We are the 99%” and “This is our moment”. All around the world, people were seizing the moment to revolt against the tyranny of the richest 1% which had grown intolerable.

Surely this was nothing but flash-in-the-pan mimicry by a small minority in overwhelmingly contented Australia, sneered the cynics.

But these three Occupy campsites continued for more than a week in Melbourne and Sydney, and 18 days in in Brisbane before they were violently closed down by police. Since there have been several attempts at re-establishing campsites in these cities and protest marches against the evictions have have drawn a couple of thousand in melbourne and Sydney. In addition, Occupy Perth started up on October 28 and it lasted several days under increasing police pressure. Other cities, including Occupy Hobart and Occupy Adelaide, followed.

An Essential Report survey released October 31 found that  29% of Australian polled support the Occupy movement’s concerns and protests while 40% agreed with their concerns, but didn’t agree with the action.

It also found that 42% backed police action to break up the protests while 41% said they should have been allowed to continue.

Only 13% didn’t agree with the Occupy movement’s concerns.

This reveals a significant, if still largely passive, public support for this movement even in the “Lucky Country”.

How does this compare with public opinion in the US?

US polls have found that about 43% agree with views of Occupy Wall Street while 35-37% support the actual Occupy Wall Street protests. Only 16% support Wall Street and the large corporations,  71% have an “unfavorable impression” of big business and the government and  58% are ‘furious’ about US politics.

The general level of sympathy with the anti-tyranny of the 1% message of Occupy is large and not that far behind public opinion in the US.

Why is this so? Here are some reasons:

1. This wave of revolt against three and a half decades of capitalist neo-liberal offensive (the cutbacks, privatisation, wage restraint and all the “free market” ideological claptrap that sold these socially and environmentally destructive policies) has building up for some time. It found some expression the anti-corporate globalisation movement that shook the world a decade ago.

2. The anti-corporate globalisation movement may have been knocked back, in the West (Latin America bucked that trend) by 9/11 and the “War on Terrorism” but the legitimacy crisis for neo-liberalism continued. The widespread anti-corporate rich sentiment continued to be reflected in popular culture (in cinema, literature and music) over the last decade, if generally disconnected from collective politically action. A collapse of public support for the unending wars “against terrorism” added to a sense of mass disenfranchisement even in the richest capitalist “democracies”.

3. The Global Financial Crisis deepened this legitimacy crisis and provoked mass outrage when the greedy banks were bailed out and the pain socialised through more austerity and unemployment. The rapid resumption of ridiculous corporate bonuses on Wall Street even while the richest 1% demanded more sacrifices from the 99% rubbed salt into the wound.

4. Even in countries like Australia which – largely by accident – have so far escaped the pain of global recession, people are now much more insecure than before. Full-time jobs with paid leave now make up only 55% of jobs – down from nearly 75% in the early 1990s, an ACTU-commissioned Sydney University Workplace Research Centre report has found.  Insecure work – casual jobs, fixed or short-term contracts, labour hire and contracting – now account for about 40% of the workforce, with casual employment almost doubling in 25 years. Wages as a share of the overall economy in Australia was at near 45-year lows as profits had surged while the household debt-to-income ratio had risen from about 40% in 1980 to more than 150%.

5. The 99% in Australia can seen the economic nightmare besetting the US and Europe and they are reminded constantly by the 1% and their political servants about how “globalisation” works against the 99%. Peter Reith, the hated Minister for Workplace Relations under the former Howard Liberal government, gave a blunt reminder of this in ABC TV’s November 7 Q & A program: “It is great if we can have businesses that provide job security. But in the end, you know, whether or not you can keep your job depends on whether or not that company can be competitive.” Qantas workers cannot have job security, Reith added, because “Qantas is basically 20, 25% less competitive than a lot of the firms with whom it is competing”.

There are differences in the political terrain confronting the Occupy movement in Australia to that in the US. The sheer mass of unemployed and homeless people in the US where 49 million people are estimated to be living in poverty today, means that it is easier to keep permanent occupations going than in Australia.

After a short relative “honeymoon” period the Occupy movement in Australia is being forced to think up and test out new ways of continuing the occupations. There are small tentless occupations continuing, regular decision-making general assemblies and mushrooming working groups (often held under police scrutiny in the original occupation sites), protests against the “towers of power” of the 1%, free schools and workshops, etc.

The Australian Occupy movement’s future hangs on whether it can come up with effective tactics to reach out to, empower and activate the much larger base of still mostly passive public support.

The movement here inevitably looks for global initiatives from Occupy Wall Street. Meanwhile, Adbusters, the Canadian magazine which initiated the idea of Occupy Wall Street, is promoting a “December 10 Global Day of Action” and  a “November 25 Buy Nothing Day” to kick off to #OCCUPYXMAS.

About 1000 people turned up on Day 1 Occupy Sydney. Photo by Peter Boyle.

Robin Hood was right sign at Day 1 Occupy Sydney. Photo by Peter Boyle.

Day 1 Occupy Sydney. Photo by Peter Boyle.

Banner at Occupy Sydney October 15, 2011. Photo by Peter Boyle. More pictures of Occupy Sydney here.

Day 8 Occupy Sydney. Photo by Peter Boyle.

Big police presence on Day 8 Occupy Sydney. Photo by Peter Boyle.

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