Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Understanding Occupy in Australia

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Understanding Occupy in Australia

Article excerpt

Occupy is a formative social movement that has gained considerable attention in Europe and North America. Beginning circa early May 2011 in Spain ('the Indignants' or '15-M' movement) and growing in response to the domestic effects of the economic crisis sweeping through parts of Europe (Der Spiegel International, 2011), the Movement's ideas and concerns were picked up in the United States, initially via the activist magazine Adbusters (Schwartz 2012) under the banner 'Occupy Wall Street' in mid-September. Under the construction of 'Occupy [location]', the social movement spread throughout North America and globally. The style of the Movement has tended to focus on the establishment, where possible, of permanent encampments to act as a base of operations, focus of solidarity and media (making and reporting). The emphasis on the occupation of public space has been attributed to inspiration from the 'Arab Spring' uprisings in the Middle-East (Hall, 2011), as well as reflecting concerns about civic participation and access to sites for democratic expression.

Over time, individual groups and movements that began in different areas, but in response to similar conditions, have tended towards isomorphism through the convergence of demands, strategic repertoire sharing, and a high level of information exchange between the various groups associated with their high level of use of new media. The Movement is increasingly able to be recognised as having a clear political critique of neo-liberal economic policies that have lead to increasing levels of social inequality, the rising impact of corporations on policy making, and concerns about the efficacy of the majority in political decision-making. In the United States, where social inequality has been expanding rapidly since the 1970s (Gudrais, 2008) and the end of the post-war welfare state model, the Movement has generated a number of its most visible rhetorical messages, particularly identifying their opposition to the '1%' or economic elite.

While this convergence is evident within the Movement, there remains considerable inter- and intra-national and regional variation in the nature of the Movement, as well as elite responses to it. Some of these differences reflect local conditions, such as the severity of the economic problems in parts of the European Union, economic subsidisation of religious communities in Israel (Lidman, 2011), central-peripheral relations in Europe (Kyriakidou and Papachristou, 2011), the perceived source of economic woes (financial institutions in the US and England, versus sovereign debt in other polities), or the perceived political impasses in the United States in response to a deepening recession (Weisbrot, 2011). Other variations reflect the extent and manner to which the Movement has had political impacts, with some nations seeing a considerably higher degree of elite accommodation of the concerns of the movement (e.g. Spain) than others.

This article examines the Occupy Movement in Australia, based on research undertaken in early November 2011 in Sydney. This part of the Movement emerged in early October 2011, approximately three weeks after the initial occupations in the United States (Butler, 2011). Mobilising in the capital cities, thousands of participants across Australia took part in initial gatherings, with hundreds establishing camps. Unlike the high degree of tolerance initially afforded protesters in the United States, Australian police were quick to respond too many of these camps, arresting participants and removing camping equipment in late October. This sparked some criticisms of police over-reaction, such as would later be seen of the co-ordinated sweeps undertaken in the USA in mid-November (Bloomberg, 2011).

The domestic expression of a transnational social movement provides social scientists, including political economists, with a number of opportunities. Primarily, it allows us to understand the conditions by which new social movements arise and grow: what are the conditions (political, economic, social and ideational) that encourage mobilisation? …

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