Tariq Ali, author of Obama Syndrome, has written a piece for the Sunday Herald on the ninety-nine percent protesters at Occupy sites around the world, but most famously at Occupy Wall Street. In it he compares this fledgling activist movement with the mass protests of the past. A section of the article is reproduced here:
"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at," wrote Oscar Wilde, "for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias." The spirit of that 19th century socialist is alive among the idealistic young people who have come out in protest against the turbo-charged global capitalism that has dominated the world ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters who have taken up residence at the heart of New York's financial distract, are demonstrating against a system of despotic finance-capital: a greed-infected vampire that must suck the blood of the non-rich in order to survive. The protesters are showing their contempt for bankers, for financial speculators and for their media hirelings who continue to insist that there is no alternative. Since the Wall Street system dominates Europe, local versions of that model exist here too. (Interestingly it was the Wall Street occupiers rather than the indignados of Spain or the striking workers of Greece who had an impact in Britain, revealing once again that the real affinities of this country are Atlanticist rather than European.) The young people being pepper-sprayed by the NYPD may not have worked out what they want, but they sure as hell know what they're against and that's an important start.
How did we get here? Following the collapse of communism in 1991, Edmund Burke's notion that "in all societies, consisting of different classes, certain classes must necessarily be uppermost" and that "the apostles of equality only change and pervert the natural order of things", became the common-sense wisdom of the age. Money corrupted politics, big money corrupted absolutely. Throughout the heartlands of capital we witnessed the emergence of: Republicans and Democrats in the United States; New Labour and Tories in the vassal state of Britain; Socialists and Conservatives in France; the German coalitions, the Scandinavian centre-right and centre-left, and so on. In virtually each case the two-party system morphed into an effective national government. A new market extremism came into play. The entry of capital in the most hallowed domains of social provision was regarded as a necessary "reform". Private finance initiatives that punished the public sector became the norm and countries (such as France and Germany) that were seen as not proceeding fast enough in the direction of the neo-liberal paradise were regularly denounced in the Economist and the Financial Times.
To question this turn, to defend the public sector, to argue in favour of state ownership of utilities, to challenge the fire-sale of public housing, was to be regarded as a "conservative" dinosaur. Everyone was now a customer, rather than a citizen: young, upwardly mobile, New Labour academics would coyly refer to those forced to read their books as "customers", as if to say we are all capitalists now. The social and economic power elites reflected the new realities. The market became the new God, preferable to the state.
But those who swallowed this line never asked: how come this happened? In fact the state was necessary to make the transition. State intervention to shore up the market and help the rich was fine. And given that no party offered any alternatives, the citizens of North America and Europe trusted their politicians and went sleepwalking to disaster.
The politicians of the centre, intoxicated by the triumphs of capitalism, were unprepared for the Wall Street crisis of 2008. So were most citizens, hoodwinked by huge advertising campaigns offering easy loans and a tame, uncritical media, into believing that all was well. Their leaders might not be charismatic but they knew how to handle the system. Leave it all to the politicians. The price for this institutionalised apathy is now being paid. (To be fair, the Irish and the French people scented disaster in the arguments over the EU constitution that enshrined neo-liberalism at its heart, and voted against it. They were ignored.)
Yet it was obvious to many economists that Wall Street deliberately planned the housing bubble, spending billions on advertising campaigns to encourage people to take out second mortgages and increase personal debt to spend blindly on consumption. The bubble had to burst and when it did the system tottered till the state rescued the banks from total collapse. Socialism for the rich. As the crisis spread to Europe, the single market and competition rules were flushed down the toilet as the EU mounted a rescue operation. The disciplines of the market were now conveniently forgotten. The extreme right is small. The extreme left barely exists. It is the extreme centre that dominates political and social life.
As some countries collapsed (Iceland, Ireland, Greece) and others (Portugal, Spain, Italy) stared into the abyss, the EU (in reality the BU, a Bankers Union) stepped in to impose austerity and to save the German, French and British banking systems. The tensions between the market and democratic accountability could no longer be masked. The Greek elite was blackmailed into total submission and the austerity measures being thrust down the throats of the citizenry have brought the country to the brink of revolution. Greece is the weakest link in the chain of European capitalism, its democracy long submerged beneath the waves of capitalism in crisis. General strikes and creative protests have made the task of the centre extremists very difficult. Watching recent images from Athens, where the police have used force to prevent 10s of thousands of citizens entering parliament, one feels that the rulers of the country might not be able to rule in the same old way for too long.
To read the article in full see the Sunday Herald for Sunday October 23rd 2011.