Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School’s International Security Program
According to Guardian writer David Graeber, the young people protesting in the financial districts of cities all over the United States are there "to reclaim the future."Young, educated and unemployed (or underemployed), the protesters are reacting to "the results of colossal social failure." Their banners say they are against corporate greed, unfair taxation, loss of trust in the government and the economy, but like similar movements across the Middle East and Europe, Occupy Wall Street represents a widespread revolt against the failure of global economic justice.
Unchecked capitalism has failed to provide a viable, sustainable system that includes the younger generation. Above all, its leaders have shown a dangerous failure of imagination by allowing international finance to destroy the social contract between the governing and the governed.
Britain and the United States have suffered for the last thirty years from the effects of uncontrolled deregulation, with a brutal loss of jobs and the elites turning away from core civic values in the pursuit of profit. Corporate greed has exacerbated social and financial inequality and corporate money has distorted politics, particularly in the U.S., where corporations are now deemed to be "people" with freedom of speech, that is, freedom to buy congressional seats. European politics, too, have lurched from one financial scandal to the next, and there too the fabric of social democracy is showing signs of wear.
Leader of the U.K. Labor Party, Ed Miliband, spoke compellingly recently at his party's annual conference about "the feral rich" who have abandoned "the ordinary morality or sense of civic duty felt by previous generations." He called for a more decent capitalism with a still powerful role for a benevolent state in contrast with the Conservative Party's idea of "the Big Society" where civil organizations, churches and charities are expected to fill the government role of providing a social safety net, as in the United States. This appeals to the "small government" believers whose loud protests against taxation have been the basis of the Tea Party movement.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement reflects, this ideology has had the effect of failing to produce a coherent and sustainable political economy which includes everyone in the country. The concepts of social contract, civic trust and citizen engagement have not only been overlooked by Wall Street but aggressive corporations are impersonally destroying these fundamental tenets of western democracy. We cannot turn to our politicians to help as on both sides of the Atlantic, they have been compromised by the heartless system where fortunes can be made or lost on computer-driven stock market manipulations and the future is only as far away as the next election.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is being welcomed as a symptom of a new democratic awakening and a movement away from celebration of the individual to a renewal of community and social democracy. The occupation of a public space by people prepared to sleep and eat there and communicate with each other and the outside world through social media is far more powerful than the one-day protest marches that the establishment and the media have learned to ignore. "Wall Street is Our Street," says one of the protester's signs and another: "We are 99%" echoes "We Are Everywhere," one of the more powerful slogans in the U.K. demonstrations.
The occupation of public space is also symbolic of the struggle to reclaim the commons, that is, the environment and the public goods that are common to all citizens. Jay Walljasper wrote in The Nationmagazine last week of the intensified assault on the commons by market ideology, not only, for example, with the loss of public lands to oil and gas corporations, but also with the depreciation of other important things we share, such as libraries, parks, public transit, public schools and the social safety net. This assault by market forces is justified by the need for austerity in a reduced government with insufficient revenues because of inadequate taxation and poor management.
Both Britain and the United States had their finest hours with the introductions of the National Health Service and Social Security and Medicare, respectively; today that sort of far-sighted, forward thinking has been diminished by the forces of corporatism bent on short-term gains with no thought for the good of society as a whole.
Van Jones, leader of the American Dream movement, says it is time that we rethink our assumptions about what matters most in society. He sees Occupy Wall Street as part of a vision of open-source democracy, with communities engaged in social change in organized or spontaneous responses, perhaps amorphous or leaderless, as long as they are innovating and improvising to make their voices heard and achieve change.
In the meantime, critiques of deregulation continue to gain traction however imperfectly expressed, and from Wall Street to symbolic Wall Streets all over the country now, people are gathering to ask: what happened to the "Good Society"? The shining city on the hill?
As the late philosopher Tony Judt said in reference to social democracy: "It is one thing to fear that a good system may not be able to maintain itself; it is quite another to lose faith in that system altogether." Americans have finally reached a tipping point of sorts and a realization that the America they love and pledge allegiance to, hand on heart, is no longer an America that believes in them.
How this plays out in the streets and squares of America over the next few weeks remains to be seen. It will be tragic if the lasting image is one of police clubbing young protesters and dragging them away. It will be positive and uplifting if more people like economist Joseph Stiglitz come out and speak in solidarity with this growing non-violent movement of young people, reinforcing that they are America's future, not the bankers of Wall Street.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and world fellow at Yale. Find more writing by Dr. Ibrahim here