Mass Protests & ‘Occupy Wall Street’

By Anil Gujadhur

“The fundamental call for a fairer distribution of wealth cannot be ignored”

“What the conservative political parties of the West have been unable to do is to reinvent themselves to serve the greater good. This greater good is to embrace as many as possible in the uplift of society and the economy and not to be narrowed down to serve particular interests to the detriment of the many. The crux of the matter is to keep balancing the equation so that inequality does not get out of hand…”

The two World Wars of the 20th Century had left behind a huge trail of devastation in the countries engaged in the wars. The vast majority of the affected populations were forced to live in dire poverty and great destitution in what are today known as the advanced economies of the world. The scale of deprivation is amply illustrated in the writings of those times and it makes heart-rending reading.

This situation of great distress confronting the bulk of the population led to the formulation of welfare state policies in those countries to provide some measure of relief to those who were hardest hit. Those policies found their way in our own midst and in other newly independent countries, as inspired by Fabian socialism of the times.

Measures of the sort achieve a re-balancing of social conditions and this is fundamentally a political choice because, left to its own dynamics, capitalism does not have in-built systems for philanthropy and a fairer sharing of the burden of day-to-day living.

People rose in revolt when the political system failed to respond adequately in the past to the distress of populations subjugated by deep poverty in circumstances other than the aftermath of wars. Events like the French Revolution, which climaxed in 1789 with the overthrow of the government, reflect the consequences of allowing the situation to go to extremes.

The self-same inadequate attention to wretched living conditions to which people are being subjected has recently led to two large-scale protest movements.

The first of these manifested itself in the Arab world. Suddenly, following the self-immolation of a protester against unjust police repression, Tunisia went up in revolt against the established regime towards the end of December last. This became the spark that launched what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. After Tunisia, mass protests unfurled across several Arab countries in past months against the iron grip of despots who had been ruling those places for decades. The wave spread out to Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, probably because these were the most oppressive among those regimes.

The wild fire was on its way to embrace still other dictatorships. It was stopped when those other autocratic countries of the region quickly made concessions and withdrew states of emergency that had been in place for several decades and promised to put in place democratic systems more in keeping with the spirit of the times.

It was fundamentally a movement against continuing violation of human rights and government corruption in those places. However, the upheaval was more specifically anchored in economic decline, unemployment and extreme poverty for the masses.

On the one hand, there was concentration of wealth in the hands of few autocrats. On the other, there was total opacity in the redistribution of the wealth getting reflected in enormous disparities in the standards of living of the people.

We are not quite sure whether the sought-for turnaround will be achieved in each one of these countries or whether all the protests will not finally be made to sit in the lap of extreme radicalism. It was important however to challenge a status quo that was fast degenerating as regards the prospects of whole populations.

‘Occupy Wall Street’ – pie-in-the-sky idealism?

Inspired by the Arab Spring, another movement has been fast gathering pace; it saw its first public protest on September 17th last in New York City. It has called itself the ‘Occupy Wall Street’. At first, the mainstream media was quick to dismiss it summarily as pie-in-the-sky idealism. No more. It has spread out to numerous cities across the world.

The Financial Times had this to say: “Only the foolhardy would dismiss a movement reflecting the anger and frustration of ordinary citizens from all walks of life around the world. … The fundamental call for a fairer distribution of wealth cannot be ignored.”

This newspaper, which is known for its cold market logic, goes on to say: ”The crisis has been brought about by financial excess and political cynicism. The consequence has been growing inequality, rising poverty and sacrifice by those least able to bear it – all of which are failing to deliver economic growth.” Coming from a newspaper committed to free market principles, these statements illustrate that in the present circumstances, the right is losing the plot.

This new movement has a clear agenda, the public:

·        Not to pay for the banks’ crisis;

·        Not to accept cuts as necessary or inevitable;

·        Bring to an end global tax injustice;

·        Say no to a concept of democracy representing corporations instead of the people;

·        Require that regulators be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate;

·        Act so as to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment policies;

·        Stop wars and arms dealing;

·        Implement structural change towards authentic global equality; and

·        Ensure that resources of the world go towards caring for the people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.

We do not yet know the dents this movement will finally be able to make in the state of global governance as we see it practised every day. It is a serious attempt however to register outrage at how much honest taxpayers have been made to contribute to cover financial institutions’ excessive risk-taking greed; in return, they have had to face higher taxes, higher prices, cuts in public services, fall in living standards and a situation of growing joblessness for the people.

There is a growing conviction in the public mind by now that there is a nexus of influence peddling and backhanders to the detriment of the public. Will the movement gather sufficient momentum to be in a position to topple established establishment?

This establishment consists not simply of a political class bound to do the bidding of corporates which have financed its election; it includes a vast array of disinformation by which selected media having the largest audiences “interpret” events to justify policy hand-outs in favour of big corporation.

In the same league and not too far behind are certain international financial institutions and influential global NGOs which analyse and give out policy formulation intended to maintain the established order intact without too much of a concern for public welfare.

Distorting influences

I leave it to readers to judge the extent to which we are subjected here in Mauritius to identical distorting influences. Do we have a media which screams each time the interest rate is hiked up or not lowered to the satisfaction of the big corporate sector, irrespective of explanations furnished as to the reason for the policy decision?

Do we have a media which echoes aloud the concerns of employers when a cost of living adjustment has been paid out to workers across the board without accompanying it or preceding it by sufficient depreciation of the rupee to enable employers to over-compensate themselves in a continuing stream for the compensation they will have to pay later on?

Do we not have a telecoms sector, which is constantly on the lookout for new “services” to charge users for on mere pretexts? Are there not other intermediaries in our midst, notably banks, insurance companies, brokers and similar capital market operators, which are swelling up their incomes by having recourse to charges for similar multifarious “services” they would be providing to their clients? Does anybody stand up to protest when government departments behave likewise as collectors of higher fees from the public for their own “services”, if only to avoid having to recoup shortfalls of revenue from those better endowed to pay up?

Have we not seen international financial institutions ask for welfare benefits to be withdrawn for the sake of “balancing” the budget of the government or for keeping public debt within “safe” limits? Do such institutions know that the amount of salary paid to workers at the lower rung of the ladder to “keep industry competitive” is actually being subsidized by the government’s welfare spending on education, healthcare and sundry forms of free public transportation without the which that the salary they have been paying would have had to be much higher up to sustain minimum living conditions at those levels? Who is actually providing industry its competitive edge, judged by this criterion alone?

It is not surprising that we are increasingly becoming a nation of bargain hunters, involving individuals at least up to and including the middle class, who are nevertheless finally laden with growing private debt whereas shopping malls have kept sprouting up like anything?

Have not the international institutions applauded when government has axed a range of social support for the sake of maintaining “fiscal rectitude” and thus acted to support those who think that the economy would collapse were this burden shifted instead to those having the capacity to pay, in lieu of not scrapping the welfare benefits?

Events currently taking place the world over are pointers to the excesses we should not adopt. We should not have recourse to policies which block the prospects for better living of those who have strived to be better. The global protests are showing that when inequality is allowed to proceed to extremes and it is allowed to increase, this in itself is not just socially but also economically disastrous. It is neither to the benefit of the private sector nor to that of the population at large to allow this phenomenon to creep up to unmanageable peaks.

Political parties are also learning from the mass movements stalking the various capitals of the world that they need to stand for the moderate middle-of-the-road policies at the risk of seeing the whole edifice overturned and themselves together with it.

What the conservative political parties of the West have been unable to do is to reinvent themselves to serve the greater good. This greater good is to embrace as many as possible in the uplift of society and the economy and not to be narrowed down to serve particular interests to the detriment of the many.

The crux of the matter is to keep balancing the equation so that inequality does not get out of hand. Mauritius has enjoyed stability and made progress in the past by keeping to this agenda; there is no reason it cannot do so in future.  

* Published in print edition on 21 October 2011

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