2011 may be remembered in history as the year of the revolution. First the Arab spring ravaged through the Middle East and North Africa, leaving dictators arrested, exiled or dead in its wake. Now we are facing an autumn tinged with the spirit of anti-capitalism. Who knows, applying the nomenclature of late, we may yet see a Western Winter.
The sentiment at the heart of the protests, which have now extended across the western world, is the crippling sense of injustice and a lack of power that has formed from the dangerous combination of a warped democracy and a broken economic system.
I believe that those dubbing themselves the 99% are right to protest and to understand this point of view I think it is crucially important to understand why they are protesting. I will shift my focus specifically onto the UK whilst doing this, but I think the same argument (if slightly modified) can apply across the western world.
I think it is safe to say that if our current coalition government was acting to improve social mobility, child poverty and employment prospects the St. Pauls café would currently be open. I think it is equally safe to say that if the burden of paying back our national debt was placed fairly and visibly across all income groups the gift shop would probably be open too. The prospect of our national debt being paid back by those who can scarcely afford it whilst the top income earners appear not only unaffected, but uninterested too, has grated a number of people, and it is not hard to see why.
Our government's debt-busting policies have failed the masses. VAT is a regressive tax placing a larger burden on the poor, as are cuts to services. The 50p tax rate is potentially going to be scrapped on the basis that it does not raise enough money. What does this indicate if not the fact that it has become far too easy to hide and shift income? Similarly the trends we are seeing in energy prices have put the problems of the global resource crisis in the hands of our country's poor.
Another factor contributing to the anger of the banner wielding 99% is that the quest of the top percentile to gain and entrench their position in society hurts the rest of society. The picture would probably be quite different if the top 1% were our country's doctors and teachers. To solidify this claim, a study by the New Economics Foundation has shown that leading city bankers, with incomes of £500,000 or more, destroy £7 of social value for every £1 they earn. That's £3.5m each; at least. By way of comparison hospital cleaners generate £10 of social value for every £1 they earn.
It is often said against the protesters that they have no exact demands; but should they? Do these critics really expect the next Marx and Engels to emerge from behind a sign reading "Robin Hood was right" with their treatise for a fairer world? Because that is what it is going to take. Our current system, neoliberalism, insofar as it is designed to spread the benefits of growth throughout the economy, has failed. The only thing that has spread is the myth that it will. Since this doctrine took over the Anglo-Saxon economies back in 1979, real wages for the majority of earners have barely increased while the top 1% now takes roughly 20% of total income.
The recent protests have done enough to show that something needs to be done, the question however is what. The creation of more adequately-paid jobs, acting to equalise our education system and investigating why the voice of the most disadvantaged is not being heard, would be a good starting point. The protests have already given our government the legitimacy to act; now all it needs is the will.