Abandoning the middle class, governments lose legitimacy

Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon supporting the protesters in Lower Manhattan. Photo: #Occupywallstreet.

People who care about climate change and peak oil have long despaired of convincing their national governments to take decisive action or even, in some cases, to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

Now, the world’s democracies seem to be losing the confidence of their citizens to deal with the economic crisis too.

Following on the Arab Spring, the ouster of Gadaffi and unrest in Britain, Greece and Spain, major protests are now spreading to all the world’s largest democracies. From Manhattan to Madrid to New Delhi, as the Great Recession continues with no end in sight, citizens are losing patience with governments that ask ordinary citizens to cut back while so clearly catering to the desires of the wealthy.

Voting, an empty rite

According to Nicholas Kulish in the New York Times today, “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe”:

Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

In Israel, a country with relatively low unemployment, young protesters complain that the government is so beholden to Orthodox groups and so embroiled in its contest with the Palestinians that everybody else has lost their say. In India, after a 74-year old activist went on a public hunger strike, hundreds of thousands of protesters successfully pressured the New Delhi government to pass a strong anti-corruption law. And in Spain, which suffers the world’s highest official unemployment rate at 21%, tens of thousands of indignados or “the outraged” have occupied public squares, put up road blocks and held teach-ins demanding assistance.

This is what democracy looks like

Meantime, in the United States, the spirit of the protests in Wisconsin against Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on public-sector unions and middle class programs last year has seen a re-birth in the #Occupywallstreet encampment organized by Adbusters. Now in its eleventh day, the protest in Lower Manhattan has centered around an encampment in Liberty Plaza targeting financial inequity and corruption in government.

Each day has featured an event, such as a march against conspicuous consumption. As occupywallst.org put it:

On September 27th, 2011, we marched on the Financial District’s Luxury Night Out, where couples wore outfits that cost more than we will ever make in a month and looked at cars that cost more than we will ever make in a year, afterward, they went back to one of their many houses that cost more than we will make in our lifetime.

#Occupywallstreet has spread to more than 50 cities, including Boston and Chicago. Having lost faith in democratic processes like voting and also in traditional civil society groups such as labor unions, today’s young protesters are using Twitter and Facebook to form their own loose, peer-to-peer networks of activists.

Taking back our government from plutocracy

economic inequity infographic

The rich haven't controlled so much of America's wealth since 1928, just before the Depression. Click to enlarge. Image: New York Times.

Despite their differences, these protests all aim to reverse the capture of national governments by moneyed special interests. And with income inequality in the US its highest level since the late 1920s, the rich have more money than ever. And from the Koch Brothers‘ numerous front groups to the US Chamber of Commerce to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helps corporations write our laws, the wealthy have not been shy about turning that money into political power.

The situation is similar across the world, from Britain to Spain to Israel. As Yonatan Levi, a 26-year old protester in Israel told Kulish:

The protests were not acts of anger but of reclamation, of a society hijacked by a class known in Hebrew as “hon veshilton,” meaning a nexus of money and politics. The rise of market forces produced a sense of public disengagement, he said, a feeling that the job of a citizen was limited to occasional trips to the polling places to vote.

“The political system has abandoned its citizens,” Mr. Levi said. “We have lost a sense of responsibility for one another.”

At a crossroads

National governments may be able to regain legitimacy if they accede to the demands of their citizens and start rooting out the corruption that has allowed corporations and billionaires to take over government. That’s what happened in the United States in the 1930s, when government reforms helped insulate government from the power of the rich and New Deal programs helped slow the flow of wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest families. If FDR hadn’t acted to save the economy, America could well have fallen into the hands of bullies from the right or from the left.

Today, if politicians fail to deal with corruption and continue to allow the rich to pillage our economies, disrespect for government will only grow as unemployment and many types of hardship lead to civil unrest. The peace will be disturbed. As a response, could that other model from the 1930s, fascism, be in our future?

If you care about climate change or peak oil, don’t count on a man on a white horse to deliver solutions that today’s democracies, beholden as they are to the rich, cannot. Authoritarian regimes are not known for their ecological awareness.

Barring the total and almost immediate collapse of global industrial society, youth protesters may be the world’s best hope to go beyond fossil fuels before fossil fuels go beyond us.

(Video: Watch Cornell West address #Occupywallstreet.)

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. John Andersen says

    Thanks for the fine essay.

    I’d love to see the youth turn the tide and restore the legitimacy of government, but resource depletion, and the inability to pursue infinite economic growth on a finite planet are realities that render national governments already anachronistic.

    So I don’t really see the point of trying to revive a patient with a terminal illness.

    Am I missing something?

    • Erik Curren says

      I agree that ultimately, resource depletion will end and reverse economic growth, cause the industrial economy to shrink and trump many of today’s concerns. What I also think is that right now, before resource constraints have really started to hit (WTI crude is trading at about $83 right now, significantly down over the last few months), the more immediate issue is unemployment caused by offshoring manufacturing and the Wall Street casino economy that’s moved money up to the rich at levels not seen since 1928. So, I think the youth protesters are right to fight financial inequity and government corruption today. And though tomorrow energy may be the more important issue, we’ll still need to make sure our societies power down in a way that’s both equitable and fair — which will require honest govt.

  2. Darryl says

    The occupy Wall Street protestors have given me hope that the nescient population are awakening in the country. That they are realizing what has happened to our democracy, that the rentier class has assumed control of our political and judicial intuitions. That there has been class warfare and a mass transfer of wealth in this country and it has been from the lower classes to the wealthiest amongst us.

    I believe that the tea party movement started as people were angry that their standard of living was decreasing and they blamed those people that are different than they are and the programs that help them(I still believe this). And that the more recent rejection of the tea party movement by the majority of Americans is based on the realization that the tea party are blaming the wrong people and programs for the decline of the American middle class. That the moneyed interests that control both main political parties in this nation have been successfully dismantling the protections and institutions that support the middle class and transferring that wealth to themselves.

    It is my hope that the majority of Americans are realizing this, and with this awakening, they will realize that our current economic model is unsustainable. That our current trajectory leads only to overshoot and collapse and that must change.

    • says

      They’ve given me hope too. And now that 700 airline pilots joined them today to protest for decent wages and benefits and safe working conditions (that benefit all air travelers) the movement seems to be gathering some credibility and momentum. Let’s hope that it will continue to grow and spread. It could be just the antidote to the cynicism that so many of us have understandably developed over the years.

    • ThisOldMan says

      The problem with the tea party is that they don’t know the difference between preaching for reasoning, so when the PR firms paid by the elites gave them a fine-sounding sermon about “big government” being the problem, the gobbled it up hook line and sinker. Unfortunately there are rather a lot of them. They are not merely vociferous but are financed at a level just high enough to keep them from dying of natural causes. The reality of climate change may finally cause them to lose all sympathy in the wider population, but in the meantime they could be instrumental in blocking the slightest progress on that issue. Ironically, peak oil may be our best hope.

      • says

        Amen, brother, amen. I think Tea Partiers have some legitimate grievances but unfortunately I think their ire is misdirected towards those who should be their allies — the poor especially — away from the big corporations and billionaires who are the real problem. Meantime, if there’s not much chance of them seeing the light, then peak oil may indeed be our best hope to stop the madness. I just hope we can make the transition to a less global and more local economy less abrupt and disruptive.

  3. Auntiegrav says

    It isn’t a democracy if the people are deceived.
    We haven’t had a democracy since the CIA overthrew their first democracy.
    The government we think we elect is not running the country. The corporations are, and they don’t really die unless we kill the economy that feeds them (perpetual growth), or it dies on its own (more likely, considering our addictions).

    Hope is just enough to get you to play your hand and lose the war.

    Just as I cannot turn a Ford Pinto into a Mercedes, there is no machination which can turn the western world into Buddhism, or the cheap dollar into a gold coin. If we listen to the economics radicals, they would have us simply replace the dollar with gold coins, or the humanists who would have the rich get richer as long as they give everyone cheap food, cable TV and a useless job. It’s like everyone keeps trying to put chrome wheels on a rusted out car in a junkyard. Sure, it makes it look a little better, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that the engine is a piece of shit, just as are the corporations which power our ‘economy’. Making it more efficient or redistributing the effects of their Greenback Emperor won’t help us rethink what people can be useful for; it just makes more people available for their exploitation.
    Follow the oil trail and you’ll see where humanity is heading: wars, death, poisons, cancer and waste. Call it “freedom” and that makes it OK. Call everyone that has oil a terrorist and the oil dependent, useless consumer masses will chase down every last one and torture them to death.
    Humans didn’t pop into existence with a steering wheel in their hands, but they seem awful damn determined to die that way: probably on their way to a protest or a football game.

    • says

      Will peak oil ultimately lead to the end of economic growth and corporate globalization? Yes, I believe so. But in the meantime, we’re still not there yet. And until we are, I think that middle class people should fight to protect themselves, so that the transition can be more gentle. Otherwise, the rich will just continue to grab what’s left, making the transition beyond oil that much harder and that much more dangerous for society, greatly increasing the chance of civil unrest and political instability. Instead, we need to buy some time to make the transition more gentle and more humane.

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