It is never too late to take remedial action and live up to the construction of a more humane society than what prevailed during the days when there were only “lords and vassals”
Popular protests have broken out in different parts of the world.
Yesterday, it was in the Middle East and it is still there as in Syria. It has spread out to Venezuela and Ukraine today. Popular protest has come on to occupy different regions of the world at some time or other. In some places, it is lying about in a dormant stage. In other countries where it manifested itself before but is not as alive today as in the past (Libya), anger against those in power is smouldering, ready to burst out on provocation.
Two factors at least explain this state of affairs.
The march to democratise societies which began in late 19th century, is gaining in strength. Repressive regimes which have subjugated their peoples have been coming out in the stark limelight. This protest movement is being spurred on by the ease of connectivity, a process through which people living vast geographies apart from each other, learn how much estranged their own societies are from real freedom and choice. Aspiration to live a fuller social life is driving up feelings of protest in this case.
The other factor springs up from the deficits that the democratisation process has produced in different climes. The very basis on which sharing of power and economic well-being has been taking place among members of society is in question. Inequalities have been rampant in rich countries of the world where even during the ongoing throes of the economic crisis, the rich have invented devices to cream off to themselves the biggest part of whatever is being produced. Rich people in low-income countries have done no less. In both cases, the masses are the casualties.
Left in distress, the ‘victims’ of this system, when they stand up in protest, are confronted with governments which have found no alternative than to apply stiff measures of austerity against the most vulnerable members of society. The less well-off go on sinking in terms of social well-being. And, when they stand up, governments send the troops to ‘neutralize’ them. This makes them feel that the governments are not theirs. This seriously impairs the faith we’ve had in democracy as the ultimate redeemer.
After the two world wars, the so-called most ‘advanced’ countries of those times were economically shattered. Vast swathes of their populations lower down the economic ladder were suffocating under dire poverty. It is in this context that there emerged a period of what may be called ‘political enlightenment’. Some well-inspired western political leaders reasoned out that it would be chaotic to leave those already shattered by the vicissitudes of existence to fend for themselves at the height of their deprivation. They needed to be assisted. By endorsing such an approach to politics, they ushered in a new era of fairness in society. In other words, market forces needed to be marshalled to bring about a better balance in society between the haves and the have-nots.
Social welfare policies that were initiated under the new enlightenment raised entire populations out of utter poverty. It was the start of the society of equal opportunities though this was not expressed in so many words at the time. Those of the poorer classes could look forward to receiving a decent salary, basic health care and access to education. They could also acquire higher skills and, why not, participate in the election of their deputies under a system of universal suffrage. It was a redefinition of democracy in practice which shifted power from a handful of oligarchs to the masses through their representatives in Parliament.
Obviously, the philosophy of redistribution of the wealth of society underlying this political model could not go unchallenged. The onslaught came from the rich and powerful who were feeling deprived of special privileges they aspired to. This is where politicians, thinking themselves to be fit now for higher company, started trimming down welfare spending as well as worker rights gotten after much political struggle only two generations ago. The argument was, for example, that high worker wages made industry uncompetitive. So, ‘incentives’ had to be given to the industries to help them overcome their ‘handicaps’. Slowly, the balance was made to tilt to the other side.
Stifling the welfare state
Naturally, governments giving away increasing ‘incentive’ payments to industry were faced with budget problems. The tax system became more regressive as tax burdens continued to be passed on to the public by increasing consumption taxes and earning most of the tax revenue from this source while reducing the tax contribution of corporates and their high earning top executives by lowering and flattening their direct tax rate. The new idea was that people should bear the burden under the changed political language and new rightist political philosophy.
As a result of the largesse conferred on those bending the rules to their advantage, the government’s books would not balance. Little by little, it was decided that budget deficits could be trimmed down by cutting down on welfare expenditures. The tougher the budget situation, the more stringent were the cuts in welfare as a consequence. The axe was made to fall increasingly on the mass of the people, in some sort of reversal, as it were, of the political philosophy embraced by the resurgent political class of the post-world war era.
It goes without saying that when recourse is made to such reversals of policy at a time when jobs are hard to find, when labour laws grow more intransigent against workers, when inflation is rising, hurting severely people’s purchasing power and when inequalities of income are becoming more prominent between those at the top and those at the bottom, the pain is more difficult to bear. The World Bank reckons that Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa (we belong to this group) are today the world’s most unequal regions.
This explains the catch-on effect of popular revolt across so many countries. People feel that the governments they have elected have favoured the few in their intimate circles as well as rich men at the top in the name of preserving jobs and activity not in sight. They sense corruption as being the fundamental cause of their day-to-day distress.
When, on top of that, the deprived people are barricaded by security forces, the police and sometimes even the army, their sense of alienation is complete. This is what must have led a barricaded Venezuelan protester to state this week: “Look, this is a sacrifice we’re making. It doesn’t matter if it takes a month, two months, three months. We have to get rid of this (Nicolas Maduro’s) government.” Who would have thought that the successor of the self-proclaimed socialist Hugo Chavez would so soon be seen in this light, for an oil state that failed to get to grips with its deficits with an already $10 billion of indebtedness towards import suppliers for a country so utterly dependent on food imports?
A sense of balance
Democracy requires governments to strike a balance between over-indulgence in the short term and setting up the enduring stage for the future. If the work is attended to in earnest, a serious government will not let its current profligacy lead to radicalising its future policies to the detriment of either the people or industry or both. It is when they overshoot or undershoot the limits either side that they end up messing it.
The good thing is that democracy has the power to collect itself back from having been on a wrongful track. The new consensus was built some 60 years ago that governments will be key players in the redistribution of income and wealth in society. Somewhere down the road, self-serving and power-hungry politicians abandoned this pivotal duty they had taken up on themselves. This is what is being mirrored by the generalised popular protests in so many countries of the world today. It is never too late to take remedial action and live up to the construction of a more humane society than what prevailed during the days when there were only “lords and vassals”.
* Published in print edition on 15 March 2014