Sunday, November 06, 2011

Global 99%

Noted economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz had this to say about the Occupy Wall Street movement in an article in English language Al Jazeera this weekend:

The protest movement that began in Tunisia in January, subsequently spreading to Egypt and then to Spain, has now become global - with the protests engulfing Wall Street and cities across America. Globalisation and modern technology now enables social movements to transcend borders as rapidly as ideas can.

And social protest has found fertile ground everywhere: A sense that the "system" has failed, and the conviction that even in a democracy, the electoral process will not set things right - at least not without strong pressure from the street.


The rise in inequality is the product of a vicious spiral: The rich rent-seekers use their wealth to shape legislation in order to protect and increase their wealth - and their influence. The US Supreme Court, in its notorious Citizens United decision, has given corporations free rein to use their money to influence the direction of politics. But, while the wealthy can use their money to amplify their views, back on the street, police wouldn't allow me to address the OWS protesters through a megaphone.

The contrast between overregulated democracy and unregulated bankers did not go unnoticed. But the protesters are ingenious: They echoed what I said through the crowd, so that all could hear. And, to avoid interrupting the "dialogue" by clapping, they used forceful hand signals to express their agreement.


The protesters have been criticised for not having an agenda. But this misses the point of protest movements. They are an expression of frustration with the electoral process. They are an alarm.


On one level, today's protesters are asking for little: A chance to use their skills, the right to decent work at decent pay, a fairer economy and society. Their hope is evolutionary, not revolutionary. But, on another level, they are asking for a great deal: A democracy where people, not dollars, matter, and a market economy that delivers on what it is supposed to do.

The two are related: As we have seen, unfettered markets lead to economic and political crises. Markets work the way they should only when they operate within a framework of appropriate government regulations; and that framework can be erected only in a democracy that reflects the general interest - not the interests of the 1%. The best government that money can buy is no longer good enough.

Amen, brother. And how about Stephen King in Florida a few months back:

#OWS is about speaking truth to power. If markets are not regulated properly, if the disparity between rich and everybody else gets too great, if the wealthy seek only to protect their own capital and bleed the rest of us, we know historically that empires fall and revolutions arise. For example, the American Revolution.

So, leaving aside a noble sense of civics: will greed or self-preservation win out?

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