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The Rich vs The Angry

| 11/21/2011 11:34 AM Monday

They flooded the streets. Day and night, they marched. They yelled, they screamed, they chanted, they danced and they prayed. No one saw them coming, but they came from everywhere. The US had never seen such massive demonstrations. Mounted police dispersed them with crowd control sprays and nightsticks. The episode barely made it to the national news, and drew little notice even in New York. But it was a harbinger of more to come.

What sparked off in the US as an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign, has fast gripped various nations, including Greece, Italy, Spain, Britain, Thailand and more recently, China and India. That old saying, “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold”, seems to be coming true.

Global Social Unrest, As It Unfolded

The international occupation of squares will define the history of 2011. First, those that burst out in the Arab Spring to bring down long-standing dictatorships and then, those that developed in Spain and the United States, which touched off a wave of sympathy protests around the world.

Here’s an overview of how the unrest panned out.

United States of America

The protests in the United States have finally given voice to the generalised discontent against corporate and banking excesses. They have exposed the embedded relationship between economic and political power – long-established connections within the state and civil society that bind layer upon layer of power and exploitation together. Now that the economic growth of the system has broken down, these relations have been revealed as systemic corruption and nepotism. A recent study has revealed that 25 of the 100 highest-paid US CEOs earned more in the last year than their companies paid in federal income tax. It also found many of the companies spent more on lobbying than they did on taxes. These include Boeing, Verizon, Honeywell, Motorola, Dow Chemical, Ford, eBay and Cablevision Systems, among others.

Italy

Discontent is smouldering in Italy over high unemployment rates, political paralysis and the USD 83 billion worth of austerity measures that have raised taxes and the cost of health care. Italy's debt burden is second only to that of Greece in the 17-nation Euro zone, and the country is rapidly becoming a focal point of concern in Europe's debt crisis. The situation is so bad that the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, recently stepped down in the wake of criticism of his government failing to salvage the economy.

Britain

In late June 2011, half the public schools in Britain were closed by a massive protest over public pension cuts. These cuts were not limited just to the three major teachers' unions, but included customs and immigration officers and air traffic controllers as well. Some 750000 people took part in the protest. The media in London reported that the discontent had been simmering among Britain's urban poor for years, especially in neighbourhoods like Tottenham, which was also where the riots started. British Prime Minister, David Cameron's conservative government is under fire for spending cuts to social programs in order to help reduce the country's debt. Among those hit the hardest are large numbers of youths from minority groups, who have been at the forefront of the unrest.

Israel

Some 250000 people recently took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Israel, over the rising costs of living. Demonstrations actually began in October 2011, when a few people set up tents in an expensive part of Tel Aviv to protest the rising property prices.

Spain, Greece & Portugal

All three of these EU nations have experienced protests and rioting in reaction to governmental austerity programs and poor economic conditions. In late June 2011, riots broke out in Athens and other parts of Greece, as the country's parliament voted to approve severe cutbacks in governmental spending. Greek lawmakers made the cuts in order to receive more bailout money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU, failing which they would run the risk of defaulting on their debts. Around 4000 Greeks with banners bearing slogans like ‘Greece is not for sale’ staged an anti-austerity rally in Athens' Syntagma Square, the scene of violent clashes between riot police and stone-throwing youths in June.

A month later, in late May 2011, thousands of people turned out in Spain to protest the country's 21 per cent unemployment rate.

Portugal was the scene of the largest reported protest action, with more than 20000 people marching in Lisbon, and a similar number in the country's second city Oporto, two days after the government announced a new batch of austerity measures.

China

The most interesting of the facts emerge from the fastest-growing economy in the world. In August 2011, nearly 1000 cab drivers in eastern China blocked traffic and protested against the rising fuel costs. It was the latest sign of discontent about the country's surging inflation. Inflation is hitting China hard, with food prices increasing at an alarming rate of almost 12 per cent. Chinese officials are reportedly concerned that inflation, along with rising property prices, could lead to further discontent.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report states that the Euro zone debt crisis could lead to a decade-long recession and rising social unrest. The next few months will be decisive in terms of avoiding a dramatic decline in employment and a further sharp increase in social unrest. The greatest risk of social unrest exists in countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Estonia, France, Slovenia and Ireland.

The following table shows how the various countries are faring in the world economy with respect to their GDP and external debt ratio.

Sr. No Country GDP (USD) External Debt (USD) Ratio (%)
1 Ireland 172.3 billion 2.38 trillion 1382
2 United Kingdom 2.173 trillion  8.981 trillion  413.3
3 Switzerland 324.5 billion 1.304 trillion 401.9
4 France 2.15 trillion 5.37 trillion  250
5 Portugal 247 billion 552.23 billion 223.6
6 Germany 2.94 trillion  5.44 trillion 185.1
7 Greece 318.1 billion 579.7 billion  182.2
8 Spain 1.37 trillion 2.46 trillion 179.4
9 Italy 1.77 trillion 2.602 trillion 146.6
10 United States 14.66 trillion 14.825 trillion  101.1
Data as on 1st January, 2011

The Root Cause

We are witnessing a crisis of civilisation that has multiple dimensions: a crisis of ecology, food, healthcare and finance, to say nothing of ethics and morality. And make no mistake, the crisis is going to last. There is no light at the end of this tunnel. Or worse still, the light at the end of the tunnel may just prove to be that of a train approaching at full speed.

The model of production, distribution and consumption is in the hands of a handful of multinationals that control the agri-food chain, from producer to final consumer. These corporations determine what, how and from where we get what we eat, as also what price is paid to the producer for the same.

“Many of the protests have been sparked by the young who are angry, out of work, can’t find work, and see no future possibilities for living off the skills they have acquired. Many are college students and college grads with university degrees in ‘worthlessness’ that cost tens of thousands of dollars to buy and that they can’t repay. Others are just working people, and would be working everyday if they could find the work. They are ‘broke as hell’, who don’t want to take it anymore”, says Gerald Celente, Publisher, The Trends Journal.

The First Great War Of The 21st Century

Yes, the ‘First Great War of the 21st Century’ has well begun. Will Europe again be divided into the ‘Axis’ and the ‘Allies’? It is too early to say. However, the class skirmishes already in progress are likely to escalate into major internal uprisings that will spill across borders. The combination of financially destitute nations, intractable social problems and pitched battles for political control will make Europe a difficult place to visit and, for many, an uncomfortable place to live. However, unlike the great wars of the past, in which nationalism, depression and racial/ethnic strife were (and will again be) among the contributing factors, the ‘First Great War of the 21st Century’ will be a battle of the classes: ‘The Very Hungry’ and ‘The Very Angry’ vs. ‘The Very Rich’.

The Various Solutions

Each country has different problems. Insatiable growth, however, is not sustainable for any of them. This is against every law of nature, but for some reason, businesses and governments believe they are the exceptions and keep promoting ‘growth’ policies. Like crops don't grow in winter, neither do economies grow in downturns.

“Rather than artificially stimulate growth, I believe this is a time for retrenchment and consolidation. Also, the ‘borrow to buy’ and ‘consume beyond your needs’ psychology is, to me, unsustainable. At one time in the US, when I was young, people didn’t buy on credit. They only bought what they could afford. Individuals and nations are in a debt trap. Again, this is a time to pull back, save and build up. To borrow more and spend our way into prosperity won’t work”, opines Celente.

The spate of ‘Occupy’ movements around the world must be regarded as a promising signal. While it is too early to tell what these protests will turn into, and while you may agree or disagree with the movement, this is just the beginning of more to come. A much greater change of consciousness has already begun.

KEY POINTS

  • What sparked off in the US as an ‘Occupy Wall Street’ campaign, has fast gripped various nations, including Greece, Italy, Spain, Britain, Thailand and more recently, China and India.
  • We are witnessing a crisis of civilisation that has multiple dimensions: a crisis of ecology, food, healthcare and finance, to say nothing of ethics and morality.
  • While each country has different problems, insatiable growth is not sustainable for any of them.
  • Class skirmishes already in progress are likely to escalate into major internal uprisings that will spill across borders. The ‘First Great War of the 21st Century’ will be a battle of the classes: ‘The Very Hungry’ and ‘The Very Angry’ vs. ‘The Very Rich’.

 

Find More Articles on: DSIJ Magazine, Special Report, Economy

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