What are Occupiers really fighting for?
A large gathering of protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street Movement attend a rally in Union Square on November 17, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)
April 18th, 2012
09:55 AM ET

What are Occupiers really fighting for?

Editor’s Note: Dr. Maha Hosain Aziz is a Professor of Politics (adjunct) in the Master’s Program at New York University, a Senior Analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and an Asia Insight Columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek.

By Maha Hosain Aziz – Special to CNN

Occupy Wall Street has been about more than just corporate greed and income inequality. Occupy protesters around the globe may not realize it but, at various points in the past six months, many have been fighting for the same cause as the peasant communities of rural Vietnam during the 1930s - the moral economy.

Theorists have typically used moral economy rhetoric to explain rural movements where protesters felt their basic right to subsistence was being threatened. In the case of Vietnam, the onset of colonial capitalism in the Great Depression contributed to a food crisis for peasant farmers, prompting significant protests. In effect, an informal contract had been broken between the governing power and the governed involving the individual’s basic right to feed himself.

Today, a similar “contract” has been broken between governing powers and the governed.

Since its global launch in October 2011, the Occupy movement has effectively evolved to challenge governments for depriving citizens of their basic right to subsistence in the Great Recession (or its aftermath) - to work, afford basic goods, or in some cases keep their homes.

Gradually, with the disbanding of many encampments, some Occupy members are moving beyond the broad focus of corporate greed and income inequality. Instead, using different strategies, they have narrowed in on specific national policies that have hindered their basic right to subsistence, which has been defined by different groups in different ways in their conception of the moral economy.

In the Philippines, for instance, Occupy Mendiola highlighted their subsistence demands in terms of unemployment and rising prices that they felt the Aquino administration failed to tackle with its policies. In early December 2011, student and labor union groups clashed with police officers’ batons and water cannons as they marched towards the Presidential Palace in protest. An Occupy offshoot has since strengthened - Kilusang 99% - led by a local Catholic bishop and comprising labour groups, farmers, fishermen and the urban poor. Their emphasis continues to be welfare, particularly in terms of job programs and fair wage policies.

In the U.S., employment emerged as a key subsistence demand in early December. American Occupy protesters took the necessary step to talk to political leaders directly: thousands of unemployed Occupy members demanded meetings with Congress in Washington DC about the jobs bill and unemployment benefits. In early January, hundreds held protests during the Iowa caucuses, challenging both Republican and Democrat parties and presidential candidates on specific employment policies.

Another U.S. subsistence demand surfaced in early December: housing. Occupy Your Home members in over 25 cities rallied to raise awareness about the government’s role in the ongoing housing crisis. One estimate suggests that banks have taken over four million homes since 2006. The movement has since bypassed local and national government officials, successfully moving homeless families back into foreclosed houses for short-term relief in various cities, including Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Atlanta. Last week in Miami, an 83-year old woman who defaulted on her refinanced loan was saved from eviction with the help of Occupy members.

In Nigeria, the Occupy members have focused their struggle on the rising cost of basic necessities like food and utilities - triggered in part by the government’s decision to remove billions of dollars in fuel subsidies in early January. This caused a dramatic hike in fuel prices overnight from $1.70 to $3.50 per gallon, leading to demonstrations and protests around the country.

Two weeks later, in cities like Lagos, Kano and Abuja, the situation became violent as thousands of protesters sparred with police armed with batons and tear gas. A week later, President Goodluck Jonathan announced an immediate 30% drop in gas prices, which appeared to appease protesters. Last month, however, Occupy Nigeria resurfaced with a public statement to the president about the economic plight of its members.

As the Occupy movement’s strategy continues to evolve worldwide, its significant message of a subsistence crisis faced by the average citizen in the Great Recession has crystallized. Short of a dramatic shift in tactic by policymakers, this movement for a moral economy will keep resurfacing around the world.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Maha Hosain Aziz.

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Topics: Ethics • Global • Protests

soundoff (193 Responses)
  1. King

    They're fighting against the corruption. They want their leaders to serve the interests.

    April 22, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • James

      Some of the things they protest against they have a point, but what I find funny is there is no real push in the movement to target the Obama Administration for their role. I guess as long as you are left wing it is ok to be on the sides of the banks, etc.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  2. Testicleese

    What they're really fighting for is just to raise hell. There are protests all over the world about injustices and Americans feel left out. They want a cause and just can't seem to find one, so they make one up.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  3. Peikovianyi

    Occupy carries the message of 19th Century European mysticism: no one has property rights, all men are agents of history, history is a whim of the universe, the universe is an unknowable dream. They are fundamentally anti-American.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
    • George Gray

      No Peik. Occupy states (in part) that people will no longer work for whatever lousy wages the "employer" whimsically thinks up. This is how the income inequality came about. Nothing mystical about that, my friend.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:18 pm | Reply
  4. 3511danny

    What is he talking about?

    April 22, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  5. James

    Yeah helping people keep their homes, in cases where the banks are wrong in forclosing I can buy it. But in the case where people made their own bad choices and now can't or won'tpay for their homes, why should they be allowed to keep them? Are we expecting the banks to buy everyone in the country a house? Hey occupiers come talk to my bank so I can have my house for free ok?

    April 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  6. NB

    Lets see how many support #OccupyMovement
    Tweet if u support : #tweeVtVotes :I vote @tweevtYES for category #OccupyMovement at http://www.tweeVt.com
    Tweet if u dpnt : #tweeVtVotes :I vote @tweevtNO for category #OccupyMovement at http://www.tweeVt.com

    April 22, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
    • Rod C. Venger

      Tweet #OccupyBowelMovement if you think OWS is just full of sheep-dip.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  7. Bill

    I guess they are Occupying for the right to go to the bathroom wherever they please.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • RevMum

      Wow, you are gonna be SO sorry someday when you face your Maker...

      April 22, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  8. Rod C. Venger

    LOL. Only in the US does OWS refuse to take on the Administration. It's all too willing to take on corporations that operate and profit within the law but not so willing to take on a government all too willing to operate outside the law. Cowards and hypocrites, both. These people are parasites. They want the right to basic subsistence, they just don't want to work for it. They live in tents on public property...depriving families of using those public parks...and living on donated food. It seems like they already have what they've asked for. The right to a job? You already have that right. You can have any job you like, so long as you're qualified to do it and the employer has a need for YOUR services. Bear in mind, with sometimes thousands of people applying for maybe 3 or 4 positions, not everyone is going to be hired. Not everyone CAN be hired. No company can be or should be forced to hire people for which they have no use, no can they or should they be forced to hire any specific person...meaning YOU. In case you people didn't know it, there's millions of illegals in this country working in jobs that they have no right to work in. What? Farm labor is beneath your dignity or something? Butchering and processing chicken or beef doesn't sit well with your vegan lifestyle? Tell it to the hand, man. You have the right to life (damn!), liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Note the word "pursuit" in there? It's something to strive for, to work for, to yearn for. No one guarantees you will ever be happy. THAT part, my friends, is entirely up to you. We don't owe you a thing.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  9. forreal89


    April 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  10. Tesla

    Our nation's problems can be summed up with the two E's. When we fix the E's, we'll be able to settle all the small stuff later. Oh, and before you say it, Economy is not one of them.

    One is Energy. We are unique in the world in that we are a power hungry nation of progressives. This means we complain about rolling blackouts, grid failures, and any other number of issues, but we don't want to see more oil refineries, oil wells, coal plants, hydrofracking sites, or nuclear facilities. This needs to be fixed. I understand the environment is important, but we need to get our house in order for our energy needs. Encourage alternative energy, but also build more nuclear plants (a power source as green and safe as any alternative energy), build more refineries (this will truly lower gas prices as we will be better suited to utilize crude oil found in this nation), and for the love of Pete, repair and upgrade the aging and decaying power grid. A modern, more efficient grid would help with a lot of our energy needs. All of these options will provide jobs, security, and a better way of life for millions of Americans.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  11. Tesla

    Really CNN? Really?

    Maybe it'll go through if I use l337 speak. The second E is 3N717L3M3N7. Let's see if CNN lets that through.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
    • Tesla

      Oh Lord. REALLY?

      I can't use the E word in a conversation about Occupy? Every time I've tried to post it, the comment gets buried for that?

      Ok, let's sum it up then. LET PEOPLE FAIL. Whether it is a bank, a person, an organization, doesn't matter. Stop teaching people that everyone deserves success. Work hard, stop complaining, and maybe you'll have a better life. Stop expecting someone to pick you up after you fall; do it yourself.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply
  12. George Gray

    The economy is a tort and the gov't a joke. Accordingly, in my opinion, the United States gov't should be held liable for that negligently designed roller coaster (that throws the riders into divorce court and/or foreclosure) it whimsically calls "the economy." A class action lawsuit should ask a Federal court to order 1/2 of the gold in Fort Knox held in a constructive trust, pending debits for legitimate claims. This trust will be divided per capita among the successful claimants. Anyone who can prove to a referee that he has been injured by the so called Great Recession should receive a payment in gold. The other half of the gold will be disbursed in the same way if there is a "double dip."

    April 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Reply
    • Tesla

      Or... and hear me out on this... we could just try to focus on improving the state of life for the people actually providing a useful service to the nation. You know, the ones who don't sit around on welfare because it's "better than what they'd get from a job."

      Suck it up, buttercup. No one should be given free gold, especially not people who were irresponsible with their money in the first place.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Reply
  13. Charles Manteghi

    Strong moral standards is required for creation of a biologically correct family. This requires accepting responsibilities and commitment to such a family which then becomes a member of a strong community working together to make a strong nation. Nations determined to work together to create a morally strong world government is what should be considered the only hope for the future of this rapidly decaying human society in every corner of this planet.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  14. Answers1

    I think 99 weeks of unemployment insurance is more than enough of a helping hand for us in America, given that Harvard economists have proven that it actually hinders people from getting a job.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  15. alienprophecy

    "Moral economy." Right. The fact of the matter is that there is already a "moral economy" in place–it says that you get paid if you work, otherwise you don't. It says that if you acquire a skill that society needs, as opposed to getting a degree in something useless, then you will be more secure in your job.

    Our "moral economy" says that those who serve will be served, and those who don't will not. The problem isn't that we don't have a moral economy: the problem is that these OWS people don't like the morals it is run by.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:39 am | Reply
  16. ballzack

    To all of your saying the OWS is nothing but lazy jobless people wanting a hand are way dead wrong, its not just about money. How about the facts that the totall corruption that has gone on since WW2, its about how people waste there lives working for nothing, unable to raise families with moral values because they work all day with no time to spend with them, hence leads to higher crime and a more brutal society, and those who complain about OWS wish to continue to hide in the dark and fear change that happens all part of a giant human story that continues to evolve, stop letting the media dictate your opinions, i know people who would believe whatever the news says, overwhat the smartest man in the world would say.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:19 am | Reply
  17. GySgtG

    Occupy means nothing. they protest about everything. wall street, Wal-Mart, tuna, GOP, Democrat convention, comic con, Jews, save the whales, PETA, Wars, guns, Capitalism, unions, Fox News, abortion rights, free everything. the whole time they are stealing, raping, defecating and urinating in public, assaulting police and service women, taking and selling drugs.

    April 23, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
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