Alper H. Yağcı

Faculty, International Relations, Özyeğin University

Visiting Researcher, GLODEM, Koc University

May 2016

The Global Recession, Inequality, and the Occupy Protests: Reconsidering the Linkages

Note: A slightly different version of this article was first published on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy Blog:

Although occasionally derided for their limited direct impact, Occupy protests are one of the major global political waves of our time. The movement emerged late in 2011, but ‘occupy’ was found to be the most commonly used English word on the Internet and in print that year.[1] The events started as a North American affair, when Occupy Wall Street protestors blamed the recession on the corrupting political influence of the wealthy “one per cent” and called citizens to action by occupying public spaces. Once this frame was out in circulation, grassroots activists replicated the protests in do-it-yourself fashion around the world, including in such unlikely places as Namibia, Yemen and Papua New Guinea as well as Türkiye. Given their discursive target and their wide spread, the question that ensues is whether more Occupy protests happened in places with higher inequality and deeper recession.

In a recently published research article on Occupy protests around the world I find that this was indeed the case.[2] The study draws on data from the Occupation Directory, a listing of protests self-identified as “Occupy#” events, compiled initially by the British newspaper The Guardian and improved systematically by a group of Occupy activists. Examining 1428 events that took place during 2011-2012 in 88 countries (with a country population of 181), the multivariate study controls for various confounding factors: a country’s level of economic development or internet usage, democratic liberties, corruption, and whether a left-wing government was in power at the time of protests, to check whether the protests were partisan events directed at right-wing governments that may be more easily blamed for inequality. Controlling for these qualities, countries that suffered from lower economic growth over 2007-2011 witnessed more Occupy protests. In addition. the higher income inequality was in a country, the more numerous were these protest events.

At first glance the finding may seem only logical. After all, if there is a perceived gap between what people expect to get (or think they deserve) and what they actually get, grievance towards political authorities grows. Yet people’s perceptions may not always reflect objective economic conditions. People may view economic hardship as a fair outcome depending on their understanding of social justice. Social scientists have also grown increasingly skeptical of economic explanations of protest events: protests do not simply mushroom out of feelings of grievance; instead aggrieved people are mobilized into action by dedicated social movements, and for the success of mobilization efforts it may be things like leadership quality, political opportunities, and network dynamics that matter most.[3] So this finding about a relationship between economic hardship and the protest rate comes somewhat as a surprise to established scholarship. It may be that the widespread use of digital social media now make things like hierarchical movement leadership less important for mobilizing people for street action, if not for getting results.

But perhaps the findings are even a greater surprise to political commentary on Occupy protests, which tends to be dismissive. At the time of the outburst of these events even sympathetic observers criticized them for the lack of a programmatic statement.[4] The then-mayor of London, Boris Johnson called the Occupy protestors “crusties” and feared that Occupy encampments were “erupting like boils,” metaphors that bring to mind senseless, epiphenomenal, and inconsequential rabble-rousing. Current findings, however, show that these events had a well-grounded relationship to economic conditions in their respective settings. It may therefore be wiser to view them as the symptom of an underlying malaise and take their message—however vague it may be—more seriously. Economists have been documenting a steady erosion of the economic standing of the middle class in advanced industrial countries.[5] While rising inequality and persistently low growth threatens to deepen the erosion, it is difficult to believe that this can go on indefinitely with no political consequences.

In fact, Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly powerful bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidacy in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK, not to mention the emergence of a new kind of populist right on both sides of the Atlantic, suggest that somewhat radical political consequences are in the making. Journalists now describe these left- and right-wing populist politicians as addressing the “common grievances of the Occupy movement generation”.[6]

In other words, even though the immediate institutional impact of the Occupy protests was difficult to discern, the wider political change in which they take part is unmistakable, and the protests may be regarded as facilitating that change. When social movements erupt, they are often a response to contextual changes long underway. Their impact too should be located in a historical perspective that is broader than what immediate commentary has to offer.

[1] Global Language Monitor (2011), ‘Top Words of 2011’, Global Language Monitor, 6 December,

[2] Yagci, Alper H. (2016). “The Great Recession, Inequality, and Occupy Protests Around the World,” Government and Opposition (forthcoming, published online 23 March).

[3] For a statement see McAdam, Douglas Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly (2001). Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge University Press.

[4] See for example Gitlin, Todd. (2013). “Occupy’s predicament: the moment and the prospects for the movement.” The British Journal of Sociology, 64(1): 3-25.

[5] For an authoritative account see Milanovic, Branko (2016). Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press.