10/23/2011

#OccupyTheMessage: What the protesters want




I can't wait to see the first NewYork-style sweaters declaring “I LOVE #OccupyWallStreet.” The expressions of solidarity for the worldwide protests are overwhelming. Even politicians and bankers chime in. At the same time, I keep hearing the same people who admire the campers for their resilience say that the #Occupy movement does not have a clear message. There have been various attempts to fill this void in the last month, from 30-sec commercials produced by the protesters themselves to professional econ bloggers and media celebrities. Despite the efforts, there's still a communication gap between what the “metamovement” wants and what the wider public is able to capture. Dropping on a Twitter conversation about the very same topic, where the Spanish activist Iñigo Antolin (@Harkerhk) complained that the international media did not pay attention to the messages the Spanish protest movement was sending out, he was so kind to provide me with a working paper issued in June by the assembly of the protesters.
http://twitter.com/#!/Harkerhk/status/127681846392791040

The text does not pretend to speak for the whole movement, much less for all the international protests that only started in September. Though, the 25-pages paper gives a good overview of the values and aims behind the movement, but apparently it has been less attractive for mainstream media than police arrests and celebrity visits at Zuccotti Park. Let’s change this and look at the high-level demands, as listed in the paper:

Labor markets and welfare
  • Introduce a new framework for the labor market, considering the latest labor reform failed
  • Reduce working hours (per week/in lifetime)
  • Ensure minimum and maximum wages
  • Announce a debt jubilee for poor families
  • Better public housing
  • Better protection of workers from lay-offs
  • Announce higher tax progression
Financial markets
  • Establish referendums for public bailouts
  • Stop the privatization of savings banks
  • Put the financial system under better control
  • Re-establish public banking
Corporate governance
  • Equal treatment of all workers
  • Introduce a “social balance” in all companies
  • Request multinationals to adhere to the national laws  that best guarantee human dignity and prosperity
International economic policies
  • Strengthen the democratic principles of the European Union
  • Audit all external debts / debt moratorium
  • Curb tax havens
  • Introduce global taxes to redistribute wealth

The list clearly shows that the movement has a political and economic agenda. Nobody can say it’s an association of esoteric and spoiled revolutionaries, holding their Lattes from Starbucks in one hand and their iPhones in the other. Some of the suggestions may be rather fuzzy at this state, but one must consider that they were coined during a couple of weeks when Madrid’s Puerta del Sol was occupied.
To sum it up: the demands are by no means revolutionary. There’s no call to overthrow the system either. At best, I would tend to say that they have a unionist ring. The reforms to re-establish social stability within civic markets unites the Spanish protesters with #OccupyWallStreet:
I am pleasantly surprised how specific the suggestions to re-build the financial system are (banking as a public service, a global financial transaction tax, treatment of tax havens, separation of trading and retail banking, combined with general demands for a mandatory code of conduct in all industries - it's all there).

Running a small business myself, I personally find that the demands of 15-M focus a little too much on being an employee, not counting in or encouraging self-employed people or those serving society in a different way. This goes along with an emphasis on regulating the producer side of the value chain without ever questioning whether we as citizens ought to change our ways of consumption as well. I am not a friend of big regulations because they tend to be short-sighted not considering future developments enough. I am, hence, skeptic if the state is always the right institution to govern the proposed regulations wisely – but, to see the positive side, this kind of attitude reveals how much confidence the protesters still have in the possibilities of our current democracies. Assuming more democratic features, the paper also remains pro-European.
Finally, I would have loved to see more radical ideas that point into a direction of not just having a secure job, but also improving education to perform a high-skilled job. The Spanish education system, especially at university level, is so arthritic and 19th century that it really needs a new set-up to unleash creativity and innovation. One of the worst and out-dated products of this system is the Spanish selection process for public sector workers, the so-called “oposiciones.” By the way, it is also extremely painful to build up a company in Spain. How can an economy grow if founding a company is such a Herculean task? These topics remain outside of the protesters’ focus and I understand why. When you’re about to turn 30 and still have to ask your mom to pay the monthly phone bill - your priorities are more immediate. Yet, these long-term considerations should be taken into account when thinking about creating the jobs of the future.  
What thrills me most about the paper is the global approach and the vision of attaining a social balance with the rest of the world. Despite the highest rate of youth unemployment in Europe, the collective authors of this paper never forget to include those in other parts of the world that are still worse off. That’s a good message to start with, wouldn't you agree?

Here’s the complete working paper in Spanish: http://madrid.tomalaplaza.net/2011/06/17/propuestas-abiertas-del-grupo-de-trabajo-de-economia/