As Occupy Wall Street (OWS) celebrates its first anniversary and Arab revolts continue to unfold, it seems a propitious time to ask why the Arab Spring has been such an inspiration for the global left. What was so novel in the occupation of Tahrir square? Do these uprisings signal a new form of political mobilization and protest? Is there, in particular, a philosophy that, despite some differences, unites the Arab Spring and the American Fall?
Some have said that the Arab revolts, which have now touched almost all Arab states, show that a truly combative civil society is back. They are right: The revolts’ spontaneity and grassroots organization displays the counter-power of civil society, of a force operating outside the framework of formal political institutions. However, they often forget to add that this is a civil society very different from the reformist one depicted by Western political theorists: it is a civil society in revolt.
In the Arab world, this combative civil society is patently different from the professionalized, liberal civil society that Western political theory praised for a long time and that many Western donors sought to promote. Two decades of patronizing Western attempts to create “a vibrant civil society” in order to export democracy and nourish appreciation for free-market capitalism vanished in the first days of the revolts: The civil society that combated its own past complacency as much as the regimes in power was a largely spontaneous aggregation of people, rather than a movement led by human rights organizations and NGOs that the most influential donors have selectively funded for decades.
Spontaneous, however, does not mean unprepared. Protestors did not need organizational structures and funding to coalesce. The revolts were by and large leaderless, even if their most active components had from previous protests, and labor strikes in particular, learned to canalize popular resentment. Thus, without knowledge of the history of trade unions in Egypt or Tunisia, one cannot fully grasp the dynamics of the Arab protests. It is worth noting that trade unions had never been favoured recipients of large Western donations and were in fact targeted under neoliberal restructuring programs.
[Presentism at play: People enact a Tunis Hurrah [free Tunisia]. Image from Tunisian activists on Facebook.]
Spontaneity went hand in hand with new media. But the Arab revolts have taken only a visible form through them, not because of them. Transnational satellite channels, for instance, facilitated the domino effect of revolts spreading from one country to the other, but we should not mistake the finger for the novel political substance to which it is pointing: a new political language mixing social justice, dignity, and the end of fear in front of ruthless authoritarian regimes.
The soaring prices of basic commodities in late 2010 also helped trigger what were originally bread riots. We should anticipate more such riots, as prices of basic food commodities once again reach January 2011 levels. We must not forget that the Arab uprisings are as much about access to basic food and services as they are about political freedom. Accordingly, much emphasis has been placed on the practice of sharing foods and services in the squares, as we have seen in Tahrir and onward.
Since its Greek inception, direct democracy has been plagued by the dilemma arising from the fact that the participation of some in the deliberations taking place in the public square implied the exclusion of “others” (e.g., women, slaves) who had to take care of (re)production. The new logic of occupation breaks this vicious circle by making the collective care of basic needs not simply a precondition for democracy, but also an expression of democracy itself.
Another specificity of the Arab revolts that seems to have inspired protests in other parts of the world, from the Spanish indignados to Occupy Wall Street (OWS), is the urgency of a renewed sense of citizenship. Even though some elements are particular to the Middle East, where there has been little overlap between the state and the its people, the protests in Arab countries signified a radical break in terms of a new sense of citizenship based on two general revolutionary principles. 
The first is the logic of intersectionality and inclusion: People did not protest for their own sake and interests alone. They were unified and willing to assume the attendant risks for other socially vulnerable segments of society. Women and youth were ubiquitous in the protests. People expressed their willingness to defend different classes and minorities. Hence, there was a high level of national identification (think of the national flags displayed everywhere) throughout the Arab countries, something that Western commentators have mistakenly presented as traditional nationalism.
The second is what we can call “presentism,” that is, the attempt to reclaim the present time and refuse the alienation of a jobless future and bleak political prospects. Presentism is a philosophy that stresses the priority of the present as well as a method of deliberation and dialogue chosen by the people occupying public squares: action is here and now, no deferral is acceptable. As a consequence, such an attitude, which places human dignity at the heart of the protests, points to the fact that re-presentation as a political method has largely failed to convey the urgency of the people’s demands. The counter-revolutionary strategies are visible precisely in their attempt to prevent the intersectionality of the demands to emerge, and to kill the pace of political change. It is not by coincidence that monarchies of Morocco and Jordan have specifically invoked slow and steady reforms to try to allay revolts spreading to their countries. Other regimes have nipped in the bud the outburst of presentism by conjuring external threats (e.g. Bahrain) or paternalistically accusing protestors of immaturity (e.g. Egypt during Mubarak’s final days).
This philosophy of the present, according to proclamations on the official OWS website, also inspired the occupations that began in September 2011 in New York City and soon spread all over the United States and Europe. Despite the crucial differences between the two strands of political protests, significant convergences emerged.
Similar to the Arab revolts, OWS has been a spontaneous and leaderless movement. Unions and other sectors of traditional civil society certainly played an important role, but the logic of organization has not been dictated by them. Instead, this organization has been horizontal and network-like, as opposed to the hierarchical and vertical structure of traditional parties and organized interests. Absence of leadership does not, however, mean lack of organization, but rather the existence of a different logic of organization made possible by new media. New web-based technologies, such as Facebook and Twitter, enable bodies to move in an urban space according to a logic that is both spontaneous and dictated by actual possibilities on the ground.
Yet, spontaneity does not mean lack of a project or a vision: Occupation is both the means and the end of the movement. A political event can be revolutionary with regards to its means, ends, or effects. OWS is revolutionary in all of these aspects. The means were revolutionary: tents, food, and humor, instead of guns -- quite unusual for an occupation. Sure, those means were not new in themselves, going back at least to the civil rights struggle, but what was new was their association with the notion of occupation. Employing symbolic means, protestors occupied a square symbol of Wall Street, a virtual space that is, in turn, also just a symbol of contemporary capitalism. As such, they occupied a symbol of a symbol of a symbol. Herein, perhaps, lies their difference from the Arab revolts for which the symbolic dimension was overshadowed by the political urgency of overthrowing autocracy and dictatorship.
Again, however, the use of symbolic means does not imply that OWS has no precise political project. The symbolic nature of the revolt does not indicate a lack, but rather an abundance: occupation itself is the revolutionary end. Revolutionary precisely because it turns the logic of occupation, with its military smell of death, into the constructive practice of a democracy aimed at sustaining life. Hence, as in the case of the Arab revolts, the centrality of needs was from the very beginning coupled with the practice of taking care of them in a collectively shared space.
[New York Protestors supporting OWS, October 5, 2011.
Image from: http://cyberviewer.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/arab-spring-european-summer-american-fall/.]
In sum, OWS is not simply an idea: It is the expression of a determination to act. Like the Arab protesters, Occupiers contrast their philosophy of the present with the traditional logic of political re-presentation. Sure, the conditions of oppression in the Arab world were much harder, so presentism is there combined with a sense of urgency and desperation that, fortunately, is lacking in the OWS movement -- something that, incidentally, made it easier for conservative forces to depict OWS as a rich kids’ superficial rage, despite the abundance of parallels between the two cases.
Within this philosophy of the present also lies the revolutionary potential of occupations with regard to their effects: Whereas elections ritually instill in us the idea that there is a class of people (i.e., the professional politicians) who can do it better, OWS provides a counter-education: Thanks for thinking about doing it for us, that is very kind of you, but we can actually rule ourselves on our own: “This is what democracy looks like!” – as one of the most popular slogans sung in the streets reminded us.
It has become commonplace to say that the Arab revolts and OWS have failed because they did not manage to transform political institutions. This is the wrong stick with which to measure their achievements. By occupying public squares, these protests have occupied the space of democracy and thus taught us that democracy does not begin with the ballot box, but rather with us.
 Benoit Challand, “Against the Grain. Locating the Spirit of the Arab Uprisings in Times of Counter-Revolutions”, Constellations.AnN International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory (forthcoming).