Occupy Colombo, otherwise indistinguishable from normal Colombo. Photo by Navin Weeraratne.
Since Occupy Wall Street, protests have spread all over the world. The basic gripe is social and economic inequality. In Colombo, people attempted an occupy protest, which didn’t really pan out. Why? Well they weren’t part of that bigger movement. They were actually part of an almost counter movement called Occupy Yourself. Rather than calling for more access to the system, they were calling for checking out entirely.
The Occupy Yourself movement is much smaller, much more radical and, IMHO, a lot less compelling. They claim momentum from the broader occupy protests, but they had about 5,500 people attending on Facebook, globally. The Colombo page had about 150. It’s really a fringe. Occupy itself is much less specific and has a much broader base.
The local organizers called for not working, buying stuff and walking (not driving) to Independence Square. By contrast, I think the broader protest is about people wanting jobs, disposable income, and, like cars. What Occupy Yourself calls for is an interesting personal choice, but not a compelling social movement:
Turn off all lights
Unplug all electrical devices
Abstain from using TV, radio and internet or phone.
Abstain from making any purchase of any kind
Choose that morning to cancel any services you feel you no longer need
That morning call in sick to work (Occupy Yourself FB)
The Real Occupy Movement
The mainstream occupy protests, by contrast, are calling for more equitable access to the system, and more access to basic material wealth and health. That movement features people struggling to maintain their mortgage, pay off student loans, get or keep a job, make car payments, etc. These are not people that want to give up their material possessions, they simply want to live in a fair and equitable society.
This broader occupy movement has a simple message, backed by solid economic data, and a place in history. When they say “we are the 99%” they are basically complaining about rising inequality, and governments that bail out the rich and let the poor drown. This shit is real.
There’s also plenty of historical precedents. Scholars have long said that civilizations collapse when elites begin consuming more than their share of resources and the rest of the people finally snap and take the whole thing down. An added pressure is when governments get bloated in good times and simply cannot scale back in the lean (because of vested interests, like the US Defense Department for example). I have likened these effects to cancer. If elites grow out of control, they can kill the whole thing.
Countless times throughout history there have been protests like this when things got beyond tolerable, it’s just now that things are more coordinated and therefore, I think, less violent and destructive. Hence the Occupy movement can get qualified support from Barack Obama and over 50% of the US population. They are also bumping in Spain and other places where the social contract has been effectively dumped post financial crash.
Do they have the same base in emerging nations like India or Sri Lanka? Well, I think the Occupy Yourself movement has no real base at all. Most people haven’t had creature comforts long enough to be discomfitted by them.
The broader occupy protests, however, do have common cause with traditional student protests (calling for employment), trade union protests (calling for better wages, etc), and general malaise at being left out of development projects that seem to benefit the connected and foreigners more than average peeps. That type of Occupy Colombo might have legs, but the one that was attempted on Friday did not. It is actually the opposite of what average people want. Average people want in to the system, they want to buy and consume and have a decent life. That’s not what they protesting against. It’s what they’re protesting for.
Annex: Why Occupy Yourself Didn’t Work (Statistically)
Broadly, because whatever they’re calling on people to do, many Sri Lankans are already doing by choice, and it sucks.
Turn off electricity: While most Sri Lankans have access to electricity, the average bill is like Rs. 130, per month. The average Sri Lankan buys or gathers about Rs. 82 worth of firewood, so having steady lights to turn off is something many people aspire to. The stated goal of Occupy Yourself is to make big baddies feel the pinch, but the government actually subsidizes electricity, losing around Rs. 167 million per day. If everyone shut off the lights, Champika Ranawaka would thank them.
Abstain from TV/Radio/Internet/Phone: 23% of Sri Lankans don’t own any sort of phone. 10% of Sri Lankans don’t use TV, computers or radio. This is not a choice in rebellion against the global capitalist system, quite to the contrary, these are good things that most people want but can’t afford.
Abstain from purchases: The average household income is about 36,000, the average expenses are about 31,000. That leaves the average Sri Lankan with about Rs. 5,000 in disposable income, or about Rs. 160 per day. It’s not like Sri Lankans are going crazy at the malls, and withdrawing this amount is not going to shut the system down.
Etc: Sri Lankans do not have a surfeit of ‘services’ and I think the majority are un or under-banked. Can’t find data on that, but I know many middle class people that don’t have bank accounts. For government pensions and Army stuff I think you go through People’s Bank, and those are really rudimentary transactions. It’s not like most Sri Lankans have plastic to cut up.
This data is from the 2009/10 Household Income and Expenditure Survey.
Anyways, this is not to frown on personal revolution or checking out. What they’re calling for is essentially a day of living like a monk, and I’m all for it. Personally, I just think it’s better done by going on a meditation retreat to Nilambe or something for 10 days. And then leaving a donation and coming home to a job, electricity, and the works.
I’m also all for people trying out something new in public, and having the courage to fail. So props to the organizers for that. Besides the bit of brand confusion, I think it’s a noble effort.