As the Occupy Wall Street Movement makes its way into the New Year, it does not seem to be losing any steam. The phenomenon continues to unabashedly grow and evolve. What began as a small protest has become an historic movement not only for the United States, but for the international community as a whole. Many have found themselves directly involved in the movement, making their way to Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, where the Occupy Movement made its first stand. Others have made their way to one of the many Occupy sites around the world to add their voice to the chorus shouting “We are the 99%!” As this goes to press, Occupy Nigeria is leading protests in Lagos and other cities that some believe have the potential to blossom into a full-blown revolution. And still others, like me, have watched (or occupied) from a distance, lending support where we can, and tracking the story as if it were the moon landing.
It has been a bit strange to watch this movement unfold from afar. As an American living abroad, I initially found myself incredibly jealous of the demonstrators back home who were able to go out and join the protests. I so wanted to hop on a plane to New York or Portland, pick up a sign and join my fellow Americans in shouting “Enough!” Yet, as the movement continued, I found that being outside of the country actually gave me a unique perspective on the movement. I found myself in southern South Korea having debates in bars over what makes an effective revolution, as well as falling into deep discussions with taxi drivers (who usually only ask where I’m from and if I’m married, two very important questions in Korea) about American politics.
photo: Ahmet Sibdial Sau
I realized that not being in the thick of things gave me the chance to look at the Occupy Movement from more philosophical, theoretical, and historical perspectives. I was not weighed down with the details and specifics of today’s events, but rather I was given the opportunity to take a step back and look at the big picture. While doing so, it occurred to me that my fellow expats might also have unique opinions to offer not only on the movement itself, but on the impetus behind it (that being the state of economic inequality in the U.S. and elsewhere). With a sort of insider/outsider perspective, those of us living abroad most definitely have something interesting to offer this discourse.
So, I asked around to see if a few expats (bios below) might be willing to offer their thoughts and opinions on the topic of Occupy Wall Street and the broader economic debate. What follows is a selection of unvarnished responses to the Occupy Movement from expats around the world. Their reactions are as surprising as they are diverse.
American living in South Korea
Despite the apparent diversity of our many political, economic, and other social systems, most everything we attribute to our modernity is just an expression of the same old instinct; a Paleolithic struggle in a world that no longer has Paleolithic rules. We have a seven billion person “primate dominance dynamic” based on resource accumulation and control in an environment with increasingly limited resources. Clever debate, political upheaval, and even the occasional revolution will not change the fact that species come and go with amazing alacrity, and we can either adapt or go extinct. Everything else is just vanity. It’s that easy.
Unfortunately, humanity has an aversion to reality. People don’t see the world the way it is; they see it the way they fear and desire it to be. The greatest problems we have are those we don’t want to know we have. Ideas that force people to reexamine their beliefs are ruthlessly attacked; blasphemy warrants the most sadistic punishments. We go with what we know, even if it takes us right over a cliff: imminent water shortages, climate change, pandemic diseases, and whatever other future catastrophe you enjoy grieving over on long winter nights. However, irrespective of all the misguided debate that has led to such a “bankruptcy of expertise” surrounding practically any issue you care to explore these days, one thing is certain: a herd lives or dies through cooperation, and we are no different. That’s what makes all this strife concerning modern economies and the dominance of vast, multination corporate influence all the more exasperating. Is the idea of economic “survival of the fittest” undermining survival itself?
Money is our most cherished modern belief, a tool that was initially developed to free us from having to carry around several inconveniently large pigs for trade. Essentially, money has supplanted the very things it was originally developed to represent. Money is neither a product nor a service. Money has no inherent value, it is a representation of value; a symbol. Despite this fact, most people—and certainly most business models—focus exclusively on achieving maximum profit at the expense of all else. Modern economies of scale undermine items of true value in order to accrue vast quantities of symbolic value, an irony that leads to fewer jobs, lower quality products and services, degradation of infrastructure, corruption, and the removal of enormous sums of true value from general circulation. But who can blame them? Conglomerates and their CEOs are simply following basic evolutionary programming: the strongest ones survive. Does a corporation have a moral responsibility to keep people strong, resilient, intelligent and adaptable? No, of course not; but then who does? There is obviously no longer a separation of business and state, and since government could easily be seen as the inheritor of the alpha male role, who then are we following in order to survive? Is survival even a goal anymore?
Human history could easily be seen as a constant repetition of almost the same imperative: kill the alpha male (or female if you like) when their appetites overtake their contributions, destroy the old hierarchy, and then construct a new one. Wash, rinse, repeat. This mechanism, no matter how effective so far in our evolution, simply cannot function on a global scale without cataclysmic results. So we can either face the reality of our situation and use one evolutionary characteristic—predictive intelligence—to fight another—the primate dominance dynamic, or we can just congratulate ourselves on being smart enough to understand how detrimental our actions are, yet stupid enough to continue doing them.
photo: Ahmet Sibdial Sau
Ty Christen Joseph
American living in Ethiopia
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York I had the typical worldview of New York City being the center of the universe. If I was listening to music or reading the news, chances were it was somehow related to my home town. There was little-to-no information about the external world. Before I graduated college I realized that, in order for me to truly understand and change my society, I needed to experience the world. Since 2009, I haven't returned to New York. As a result, my ideas about our reality have undergone a dramatic overhaul and, unlikely as it once seemed, I’m starting to think that my brethren back home are starting to undergo a similar mental transformation.
With the triumph of WWII, the United States gained control of an unprecedented amount of wealth, weapons, and global resources, which enabled the creation of the middle class and a level of comfort not seen before in history. Since then, the U.S. has become one of humanity’s greatest examples of prosperity and global dominance. With the assistance of some cunning propaganda schemes, the U.S. soon became the envy of the world. Even today this belief persists amongst most developed and developing countries. Reality, however, paints a slightly different picture.
Silenced by comfort and an “everything is okay for me” attitude toward the rest of the world, the American population has allowed its government to wage wars against an endless list of nations. For instance, the U.S. Department of State’s list of “Independent States”1 reports that our planet is comprised of 195 countries, out of which the U.S. has active military troops in 150. That’s 77% of the world’s “free” countries experiencing some level of American occupation. Such global reaches demands increases in military spending, which further burdens the average American as funds are diverted from domestic enterprises to overseas military adventures.
In addition to the escalation of American military forces, the government also continues to solidify its relationship with the richest 1%, thus laying a foundation for the recent economic crisis.. The ruling minority has mutated the U.S. into a place where the right to eat from the fruits of life, liberty, and happiness is a privilege reserved for the richest among us. As for the other 99%, we’re made to eke out a living and fight for the chance to sit at the dinner table.
Income inequality in the U.S. is astounding. According to data compiled using the Gini coefficient2—which is a measure of income inequality within a society—the United States has higher rates of inequality than countries such as Pakistan, Kazakhstan, the Ivory Coast, and Ethiopia. By excluding the once prosperous middle class from their monogamous and fruitful relationship, both the 1% and the American government have laid the foundation for an extreme attitude change amongst the American population.
Most pundits in the mainstream media describe the Occupy Wall Street movement as a reaction to the economic crisis. Others say, “They have no clear message.” The Occupy Movement signifies the beginnings of a shift in American awareness. Inspired by the achievements of the (so-called) “Arab Spring,” the protesters are not just taking a stand for their wellbeing—they are fighting for the wellbeing of the world. They felt the spirit of the Egyptian people who were tired of being governed by an American financed dictator. They fight for the students of Europe who have seen their opportunities dwindle. They represent the family in Ethiopia who survived the corporate-sponsored famine of their country and still aspire to go to the U.S. Americans have been disillusioned by their media, government officials, and all those with financial influence. They are taking a stand against the injustices carried out by the 1% against 99% of humanity. It is in their success that the rest of the world will be given the freedom to pursue true life, liberty, and happiness.
photo: Ahmet Sibdial Sau
Brit living in Spain
In some ways, for a foreigner to comment on the U.S. economic system seems in poor taste, especially when the opinion comes from someone who could not—by any stretch—be considered an expert. I lived in the U.S. for eight years and have little doubt I will live there again; I hope any criticism will be taken as coming from a friend.
I would like to raise a few points as food-for-thought more than anything else. Here are just a few little things that, in my very humble opinion, I find myself at odds with the typical self-reflective American.
Classism. The United States is no less classist than Europe. In the United Kingdom, in particular, because we still have a monarchy I believe we are perceived as a lesser democracy and significantly more classist than the U.S. This essay is too short to attempt to unpack this idea, but I encourage people to look more critically at this presumption. The very fact that built into the American story is this classlessness narrative plays a very powerful ideological role, one that is somewhat debilitating, for the most powerful ideologies are those under which we live yet do not even know exist. Sadly, things are changing in the UK (particularly in England and Wales, less so in Scotland): university fees are skyrocketing and highly indebted graduates are becoming commonplace. It was not that long ago when higher education was completely free. I benefited from that system, graduating in 1996, and I thanked my lucky stars every time I had a conversation with a graduate in the U.S. who felt trapped by the debt millstone hanging around their neck. Class still exists in Europe, of course, but my belief is that it plays less of a role over here than it does in the U.S.—social mobility is far more possible in Europe than it is across the Atlantic.
Socialism is not a dirty word. I didn’t have healthcare the entire time I lived in the United States—I was young and healthy and took a gamble: it paid off. Over the long run, however, that gamble would have failed. It seemed to me that people in the U.S. spent way too much time worrying about their healthcare provisioning. Imperfect as it is, I love the healthcare system in Europe. To your typical European, some sort of public healthcare is as self-evidentially right as, say, the right to vote for your legislators. My own personal hope is that I can live my whole life paying National Insurance (a tax on income that funds the National Health Service in the UK) and never need to seriously use the system. Just knowing it is there gives one a massive sense of freedom.
I am a big fan of the American philosopher John Rawls, especially his work on the principles of justice and the idea of a “veil of ignorance.” Provisioning of healthcare seems a classic Rawlsian dilemma: none of us really know what our health will be like in ten years. We all hope we’ll be fit and healthy, but just how much are we willing to forgo economically now to insure against ill-health, just how good of a health insurance plan do we buy (if we are lucky enough to even be able to afford one)? That is a tough question and one I am glad I stopped having to think about when I moved away from the U.S.
Rather than attempting to jam more points in here, I am going to finish with an anecdote that for me sums up the silliness of smart Americans (genuinely, no offense meant). A few years ago I was talking to an 18 year-old American freshman at a top U.S. university. He was telling me about his plans to pursue an M.B.A. (M.B.A. always kind of make me want to roll my eyes, but when you hear it from an 18 year-old, it seems almost sad). The figure $250,000 popped into my head … I figure that would be pretty much the minimum his top flight education would cost. I asked him why and he said, “It will give me more opportunities.” Whether you are paying it back (to the government or to the bank) or paying it forward (to your kids), shelling out $250,000+ for your post-high school education is, in my opinion, leaving you with far fewer options: off you go to the law firm or the investment bank.
photo: Ahmet Sibdial Sau
Ty Christen Joseph grew up in Brooklyn, NY and graduated from Long Island University. While attending L.I.U., he served as student body president. During his time in office, he became the first undergraduate to create an official course. He also lobbied for higher financial aid and helped improve the lives of 10,000 students. After graduation, Chris traveled to South Korea as an English instructor. He recalls his time in S.K. as, "The beginning of something special." Chris currently works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as an English and debate instructor. He describes his intent as, “Aspiring to foster a world where all people begin to see their true power. Regardless of the profession in choose. If I can work to empower the world then my life is worth living.”
Justin Ferrell is a former member of Phi Theta Kappa, holds a Bachelors of Science degree from Cornell and a Masters of Digital Design from Griffith. Despite this, he has still managed to retain his love of learning and is dedicated to rigorous curiosity both in and out of the classroom. He is presently a Professor of English at Chonnam University.
Andy Thornton: After working for around eight years as a computer programmer in investment banking Andy returned to university to study on the New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs (GPIA). Andy graduated in May 2008 and now works in the Human Development Report Office at UNDP.
January 20, 2012
1. See "Independent States in the World" - http://www.state.gov/s/inr/rls/4250.htm.
2. For more on the Gini coefficient, see, for example, the World Bank's measurement on inequality here.