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The Very Different "Occupations" That Led to 2011's Global Uprising

The protests around the world this year were preceded, in the last twenty years, by some very different kinds of occupations.

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How could it have been otherwise?  We exist -- and even Time knows it.  From Tunis in January to Moscow in December this has been, day by day, week by week, month by month, the year of the protester. Those looking back may see clues to what was to come in isolated eruptions like the suppressed Green Movement in Iran or under-the-radar civic activism emerging in Russia.  Nonetheless, protest, when it arrived, seemed to come out of the blue.  Unpredicted and unprepared for, the young (followed by the middle aged and the old) took to the streets of cities around the globe and simply refused to go home, even when the police arrived, even when the thugs arrived, even when the army arrived, even when the pepper spraying, the arrests, the wounds, the deaths began and didn’t stop.

And by the way, if “we exist” is the signature statement of 2011, the name of the year would have to be “Occupy Wall Street.”  Forget the fact that the place occupied, Zuccotti Park, wasn’t on Wall Street but two blocks away, and that, compared to Tahrir Square or Moscow’s thoroughfares, it was one of the smallest plots of protest land on the planet.  It didn’t matter.

The phrase was blowback of the first order.  It was payback, too.  Those three words instantly turned the history of the last two decades upside down and helped establish the protesters of 2011 as the third of the four great planetary occupations of our era.

Previously, “occupations” had been relatively local affairs.  You occupied a country (“the occupation of Japan”), usually a defeated or conquered one.  But in our own time, if it were left to me, I’d tell the history of humanity, American-style, as the story of four occupations, each global in nature:

The First Occupation:  In the 1990s, the financial types of our world set out to “occupy the wealth,” planetarily speaking.  These were, of course, the globalists, now better known as the neoliberals, and they were determined to “open” markets everywhere.  They were out, as Thomas Friedman put it (though he hardly meant it quite this way), to flatten the Earth, which turned out to be a violent proposition.

The neoliberals were let loose to do their damnedest in the good times of the post-Cold-War Clinton years.  They wanted to apply a kind of American economic clout that they thought would never end to the organization of the planet.  They believed the U.S. to be the economic superpower of the ages and they had their own dreamy version of what an economic Pax Americana would be like.  Privatization was the name of the game and their version of shock-and-awe tactics involved calling in institutions like the International Monetary Fund to “discipline” developing countries into a profitable kind of poverty and misery.

In the end, gleefully slicing and dicing subprime mortgages, they financialized the world and so drove a hole through it.  They were our economic jihadis and, in the great meltdown of 2008, they deep-sixed the world economy they had helped “unify.”  In the process, by increasing the gap between the super-rich and everyone else, they helped create the 1% and the 99% in the U.S. and globally, preparing the ground for the protests to follow.

The Second Occupation: If the first occupation drove an economic stake through the heart of the planet, the second did a similar thing militarily.  In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the “unilateralists” of the Bush administration staked their own claim to a global occupation at the point of a cruise missileRomantics all when it came to the U.S. military and what it could do, they invaded Iraq, determined to garrison the oil heartlands of the planet.  It was going to be “shock and awe” and “mission accomplished” all the way.  What they had in mind was a militarized version of an “occupy the wealth” scheme.  Their urge to privatize even extended to the military itself and, when they invaded, in their baggage train came crony corporations ready to feast.

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