Thursday, October 13, 2011

More protests and a guess at what it is giving it legs

So this was City Hall in Chicago yesterday.

So it seems there are a lot of seriously pissed off people in town, and across America, at the moment. Some pundits reckon its an incoherent cry of rage aimed at Wall Street. Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute reckons it is all down to a financial crisis driven by reckless mortgage lending, which in turn was driven by government policy. (So why did the financial crisis repeat itself in countries like Ireland, Spain and the UK where there was no such policy?).

The website of the 99%, the banner under which many of the protests have come, raises a lot of of different complaints, and it would be easy to dismiss them as incoherent or even as "jealous anti-capitalists" as one presidential candidate, Hermain Cain, is reported to have done. What is probably closer to the truth is that they would think of themselves as angry with capitalism--a subtle but important difference.

Toby Chow, a protester with SOUL (Southsiders Organised for Unity and Liberation) in Chicago, told me at a downtown protest on Tuesday that "class warfare" had been waged by the rich against the vast majority of Americans. This war, he said, involved the recent pushing of unsuitable mortgages, and can also be seen in the long-term stagnation of median wages, the enormous cost of education, and job insecurity through loss of manufacturing jobs abroad.

It may be the powerless cry of the unwashed masses, but they are no unruly rabble or "mob" as the protesters have been called.
Mr Chow is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Chicago. The protests are not calling for capitalism to be torn down--they simply want for it to work for them and they feel short-changed.

For them, capitalism hasn't delivered what was promised.
So its not simply about people losing their homes, or not getting jobs after paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree, or the unaffordability of healthcare. Without wanting to sound too dramatic, it seems to be about the death of the American Dream.

While the protests may have been modelled on Tahir Square they have more in common with the riots in London and the protests in Greece. They are all about the same thing. Governments, all over the world, and for good reason, were forced to rescue financial institutions and parts of industry. To not do so would have been disastrous.

But the rescue made it clear who was ultimately bearing the risks being taken by these institutions: the ordinary person on the street. The people who clean the homes, empty the rubbish carts, and take on educational debts in the hope of bettering themselves.

Rich people have been variously tolerated or venerated, depending on whether you live in Europe or America. Not only do they generate great wealth but they are supposed to take risks that other people do not, and can in theory become poor again as a result. But the narrative now is that the wealthy will be saved, and the poor will be left to flounder. Thus it seems many Americans are falling out of love with the rich.

Whomever is really "behind" the protests, you can't organise a protest movement like this. Someone might have started the fire, but there is plenty of fuel to keep it going. It seems to me, a correspondent of less than a week in America, that many of the protesters feel the American Dream was a lie, that not only did they never have a real chance to be rich (because the system is stacked against them) but that ordinary Americans have carried the can for the unwise risks taken by the rich.

The dangerous thing about this idea is that much of the social contract in America revolves around the idea that anyone could get rich if they work hard enough. So what happens if the 99% (not the protest group but the actual 99%) start not to believe this?

Interesting times.