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.