-by Catriona Webber
Following the global recession of 2008, and the subsequent bailout of the banking officials and Wall Street bigwigs who had been largely responsible for the crash, members of the lower and working classes took to protesting the mass wealth inequality that was becoming more visible, seemingly by the day. It culminated in 2011 when global protests came together under the unifying banner of “Occupy.” Protestors took to the streets demanding a broadening of class equality. While there were no autonomous zones established or federal governments overthrown, the similarities between the demands and actions of those who rallied with Occupy and those of the Communards from 1871 are striking.
The Occupy movement was clear in its demands and goals. It was a movement to extend financial security to lower- and working-class people, and to insist that those in charge of managing national, or even global, wealth were being held accountable and ensuring the best possible outcome for everyone. In order to make these goals understood, a Declaration of the Occupation of New York City was published. In a similar vein to the many declarations of the Paris Commune, such as The Manifesto of the Paris Commune, this document listed both the grievances and the demands of Occupy. In a step away from the Commune, Occupy did make moves to ensure that their movement remained peaceful, at least on behalf of those who had aligned with them. This is exemplified thought their request in the Declaration of the Occupation that protestors “Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.”1
The similarities between Occupy and the Commune are noticeable beyond their official declarations and manifestos. Both sought to improve the social experience for people outside of the bourgeoise or ruling classes. Physical spaces were also important to each movement, and have continued to hold an important space in the memory of these events. In Paris, it was Montmartre, a region in the 18th arrondissement. Montmartre’s parallel during Occupy was Zuccotti Park which is located in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. The establishment of an encampment and ballooning occupation of Zuccotti Park was largely influenced by branch of Occupy that had been protesting wealth inequality, specifically the gap between America’s wealthiest 1% and the remaining 99% of the population.2
While their aims were similar, there are some differences that are worth noting. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Occupy movement never officially took over any city that they were organizing in and established a government separate from that of the official state.3 While the Paris Commune was confined to one city, the Occupy movement branched out globally. This made it easier for the Commune to establish their provisional government, and allowed them to disseminate their ideology to other areas from the Commune in the hopes of other cities getting the same idea and establishing a similar form of governance. The ways in which people heard about the Commune and Occupy is another point where the two differ, primarily because of when the two events took place. Because Occupy was a twenty-first century movement, and thus was accompanied by twenty-first century social media and rapid information dissemination, information about Occupy and their goals spread much more quickly than information about the Paris Commune could have.
The similarities between the Paris Commune and Occupy are pretty obvious when you look for them, but it is equally important to consider the things that made them different. Thinking about these two facets when comparing the two events allows us to think more clearly about the ways that they succeeded and failed, and overlap between the two.
from the archive
In 2011 AdBuster magazine provided an unlikely symbol to the Occupy Wall Street movement. It was a poster depicting an elegant ballerina posed on top of Arturo Di Modica’s iconic Charging Bull of Wall Street with a crowd obscured in the background. The protestors seem to be wearing street clothes paired with gas masks. This obscures their identities, but it is likely that this crowd is with Occupy Wall Street, a branch of the larger Occupy movement.4 The poster has very little lettering, positioned at opposite cardinal points on the poster, one at the very top and another few words at the very bottom. This places the immediate focus on the woman on top of the bull. The Charging Bull was installed in 1989 as a message from Di Modica “as a symbol of hope for American capitalism.”5 A well-known piece of art with this message behind it was an obvious choice for those protesting capitalism.
The pose that the ballerina has struck by balancing on one leg, the other raised behind her and both arms elevated, requires a lot of strength to maintain. Classical ballet is a rigorous and disciplined art form, one that requires abundant dedication to master. Her position, surmounting the Bull and holding a tough position, could function as a symbol of the Occupy movement taking on the people supported and represented by Wall Street. The lettering on the top of the poster reads “What is our one demand?”6 It is possible that the one dancer represents the one demand being made by the crowd of protestor in the background. These people are fighting for the one demand to be seen as more important than the interests of those served by Wall Street.
1. Occupy Wall Street, “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association, (May 1, 2013). https://doi.org/10.25158/L2.1.11.
2. Sarah Heck, “Space, Politics and Occupy Wall Street,” Geosciences Theses, 53, (August 12, 2014). https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/geosciences_theses/76.
3. Dan Banta and Trenton Cotten, Noam Chomsky – Correlation between the Paris Commune and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajV9xoKWOL8.
4. Sarah Heck, “Space, Politics and Occupy Wall Street,” Geosciences Theses, (August 12, 2014). https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/geosciences_theses/76.
5. Martin and Robert Scott, “Selling the Bull: Wall St. Icon for Sale,” Charging Bull Statue of Sculptor Arturo Di Modica on Sale, Research, 1 (February, 2005).
6. Michael Beirut, “The Poster That Launched a Movement (Or Not),” News, Design Observer, (April 30, 2012). http://designobserver.com/feature/the-poster-that-launched-a-movement-or-not/32588.