As reported on Al-jazeera this week, the United States is in the middle of an “American Spring” that could be the natural successor to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. But is that really a fair comparison?
Certainly, the images broadcast around the world form Zuccotti Park today don’t show a a very pleasant side of American democracy – police in riot gear upending the established protesters using force, violence, and intimidation. It was certainly was not one of the prouder moments in the history of New York. Images of mobs clashing with police have been broadcast worldwide practically nonstop since the Tunisian uprisings at the beginning of the year, and Americans have added to that list with Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street. And there runs a single, elemental thread between all of the protests from Syria to San Francisco, and that is the basic question of fairness. While a twenty-something college grad engaging in a drum circle in Zuccotti park might not share a whole lot in common with the Arab protesters in Damascus, there is a real sense that each is seeking some new form of systematic fairness.
Let it be clear that I don’t want to draw a direct parallel between living under a brutal dictatorship, and being upset about income inequality. They are vastly different grievances – and our thoughts go out to those that are being brutalized by the Assad regime – but I do want to underscore the thought that this is all connected.
At risk of over generalization, the Arab Spring sought to fight for the self determination of millions of people across the middle east. People were upset that their political and economic ceiling had been set by an elite class of rulers who benefited from the “rules of the game” which were established to perpetuate the flow of wealth and opportunity to the elites. This was done by using sham elections, political intimidation, and at times, brutality to silence the opposition. Mubarak, Assad and Ghadhafi all had an established political system that concentrated the power, wealth, and prestige within a small community of chosen people.
How is that all that different from the Occupy Movement? I take this quote from OccupyWallSt.org, the de facto online community of protestors:
“#ows is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.”
To elaborate, people are upset because the “rules of the game” continue to perpetuate the flow of wealth towards a group of elites that control the financial sector. The argument that I find most compelling is that of moral hazard – that is, the people running the banks and insurance companies could take huge risks with their investors money because they knew that if the bottom fell out, they would be bailed out by the government and they could continue life as usual. This isn’t just a conspiracy theory, this is the truth – people on wall street knew that they were too big to fail, so they played roulette with peoples retirement nest eggs, college funds, and pensions knowing that if they lost it and became insolvent, the US Treasury would be forced to pony up the money or risk the collapse of the financial system.
The “rules of the game” that set up this system were enacted by congress and the regulators. There was in fact very little that was illegal about what the banks did, and that is what is so frightening. The system is designed to generate massive amounts of wealth for the people in the financial industry, while putting our retirement funds up as collateral.
Some Americans finally realized how unfair this was, and they took the the streets and parks all across the nation to protest this. They understood that despite the American ideal of working hard and making our own way, there was a ceiling in place over our heads that was either crushing student debt or an underwater mortgage that would always limit us.
The similarities are obvious, in each case, the rules of the game are designed to create a confluence of power and wealth within the 1%, while the rest of us are left with either no voice in our governance in the former, or limited economic potential in the latter. In the case of the Arab uprisings, there was no political release valve. Mubarak tried to offer concessions to the people, but the pressure had grown too much and toppled the regime. Syria was recently called out by the Arab League for it actions and could be reaching a critical mass soon. Luckily, the United States has yearly elections to act as that release valve. We are able to choose new leaders on predicable schedules to help alleviate our perceived injustices.
But what happens when nobody in government, neither Republican or Democrat has any of the answers that the people are demanding? What if the rules or the game have become so entrenched in our political system that there is no way to release the pressure slowly? What if the only way to break through our ceiling is to demand radical, revolutionary change? I’m not sure that Americans have the political will to put together anything reminiscent of the Arab Spring, but is it entirely out of the question?