Monday, 17 October 2011

Protests catch on

A month ago the Occupy Wall Street movement had barely registered in the public consciousness.

A formless, seemingly spontaneous crowd of young people had gathered in the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan, the heart of American and global capitalism, to shout anti-capitalist slogans at the pampered, overpaid fat-cat bankers and financiers whom they saw as the authors of the economic woes the world seems unable to shake off. But apart from upsetting a few Wall Streeters who were impeded from getting their lattes at lunchtime, no-one took much notice.

Now, through the magic of Facebook, Twitter and the like the movement appears to be everywhere. In the United States, it has spread from New York to a dozen other cities around the country. In Europe, which was already restive after riots in Greece and Britain, demonstrations inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement occurred in Rome and Berlin, where the protesters clashed violently with the police, and thousands marched in London. According to some accounts, demonstrations at the weekend were held in 951 cities across 82 countries, including New Zealand, where unlike the rest of the world where the gatherings were largely leaderless, some unions got on the bandwagon to organise protests.

Some enthusiastic participants are proclaiming the beginning of a mass movement, but apart from a generalised disgust with the performance of the financial world and politicians – sentiments by no means confined to street-marching protesters – it is difficult to discern a common theme to the protests, still less any kind of common answer to the economic problems of the world. In the United States, the movement has focused on the bailout of banks, the huge bonuses bankers have managed to continue raking in despite the havoc they have wreaked, the inequities of the tax system and inequalities of wealth. One segment of the movement claims that they represent 99 per cent of the nation against the 1 per cent of the reigning business and political class. So far as what they dislike is concerned that could very well be true, but when it comes to the remedies to these ills there is no consensus.

In Europe, the protests are even less coherent. In southern European countries such as Italy and Spain, they are focused on the very real unemployment and financial pain being inflicted, particularly on the young, by the adjustments the countries need to make after years of living beyond their means. In Germany, the loudest shouts of the protesters are against the schemes for saving the profligate countries, for which German taxpayers will have to pay.

Unformed as they may be, the protesters are undoubtedly expressing widely felt discontent but converting that discontent into a politically effective message will take more than a few blocked streets in busy business districts. In this respect the Occupy Wall Street movement is a Left-wing counterpart to the Right-wing Tea Party movement in the US. While Tea Partiers have managed to articulate middle-class fears and worries with considerable skill, their influence so far, despite heavyweight financial backing, has been almost entirely negative. Neither movement can be written off at this point, but neither stands much chance of making further headway unless it finds something more positive to offer.

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