The Occupy movement
In 951 cities in 82 countries around the world on Saturday, protestors turned out against the inequities and excesses of free-market capitalism. The movement that started from Spain earlier this year under the title the Indignants, has now spread to the US and other countries. In New York, it is exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Whereas the protests elsewhere were peaceful, in Rome violence broke out, with attacks by enraged protestors on cars and property and police action with tear gas and water cannon. While critics and defenders of capitalism have castigated the protestors for lacking any coherent programme, the protestors seem very clear about what they do not want. And these basics are universally the inspiration for these protestors from New Zealand, through Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America in solidarity with their American counterparts in New York. What are the basics this global movement against capitalism shares? They include: rejection of traditional political elites (seen as being complicit in the skewed nature of the benefits and burdens of a corporate-dominated world); a belief that globalisation benefits the rich more than the masses; anger about intertwined business and political corruption. What has lubricated the protests beyond borders is the connectedness and empowerment fostered by the internet and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This phenomenon first surfaced in the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia and Egypt. By now, these means of communication globally are the currency of protest movements anywhere.
To understand this emerging phenomenon of transnational protest, we need to retrace our steps to the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it the socialist project in most parts of the world produced a triumphalist declaration of victory for capitalism (Francis Fukuyama declared it the ‘end of history’, i.e. the final and irreversible victory of free market capitalism and liberal bourgeois democracy). Blind faith in the private sector as the engine of unlimited progress and the panacea for all of humanity’s problems led to de-regulation of the dominant financial sector. A seemingly innocuous sub-prime mortgage sector collapse in the US soon set off ripples that exposed the underbelly of a mountain of debt and paper based on it, the mounting default of which produced a spectacular collapse of the heights of the banking and financial sector worldwide. Banks and financial institutions declared ‘too big to fail’ were temporarily bailed out through public funds (i.e. the taxpayers’ money). Soon, it seemed like business as usual, with the banking and finance elite once again enjoying its perks, privileges and huge remuneration, while the spreading effects of the finance sector’s collapse caused the real economy (manufacturing, industry, etc) to also tank. High unemployment followed, and seems insoluble, leading to young people in the developed and developing world being confronted by the prospect of no prospects for their future. The Arab Spring protests, as the current Occupy movement, enjoy a large representation of this youth in their ranks. In the developed world, their uncertainty is compounded by the debt they incurred while seeking educational qualifications and which, in the absence of jobs, they are hard put to it to retire in the foreseeable future.
While Europe wrestles (with hoped for IMF help) to recapitalise its failing banks to prevent countries such as Greece, Ireland and others from seeing their economies go down the tube, the people on the streets have acquired, as part of their alienation from the system, a sense of helplessness in the face of control of their lives by global forces beyond their reach or ability to change. The political elites stand accused of trying to salvage the system from the debris on the backs of the ordinary people. The post-Second World War Bretton Woods architecture of the global economic and financial system seems incapable of finding viable solutions to arguably capitalism’s greatest recessionary crisis since the Great Depression.
Pakistan’s young constitute 65 percent of our population. They too are going through similar thoughts and perceptions. The system offers them little or no hope, the political elites are visionless, corrupt, self-absorbed and indifferent. All the makings are there for an explosion of indignant protest. Why has it not happened already? Perhaps because the complexity of Pakistan’s crisis and the dominant narratives that seek to explain it are creating more confusion than light and clarity. Lest the political elites be lulled into complacency on this account, it would be in their interest to read the writing on the (global) wall and seriously fear the emergence of a protest movement that would be aimed at all of them, without exception, and that would threaten to sweep all their shenanigans away and dump them in the dustbin of history.