The Occupy Wall Street protest movement seems to be on the move.
From the downtown financial district in New York, where they started, anti-capitalist demonstrations have spread this week to Rome, Madrid and London. There were similar outbursts in South America and Asia.
So far, these events have been relatively peaceful, and contained by the authorities with commendable restraint (with the exception of a particular incident last week in mid-town Manhattan). But as the protests expand and diversify, as seems likely, will they become increasingly violent, inviting more brutal forms of retaliation? That seems probable. And does it mean that we are in for prolonged spells of social unrest hitherto unknown in the advanced countries of the West? That seems at least possible.
What surprises me is not that there are street protests, but that they have been so long in coming.
The summer riots in Britain (which began with a family protest against a police killing, an isolated event that local law enforcement officials foolishly ignored) quickly spread like an epidemic from suburb to suburb, and town to town. While those particular disturbances arguably had less to do with the desperation of deprived citizens than with the opportunism of gangland criminals, it is hard to ignore the reality that the persisting world economic crisis provides the perfect excuse for vigorous social – or if you prefer, anti-social – expression.
The Occupy protesters don’t seem to have a simple message, probably because economic hardship varies in both form and degree from one country to the next. But a common theme is apparent, one that differs from past demonstrations on economic issues, like those seen at G8 summits. This time around the concerns of protesters no longer reflect the lofty idealism of those affronted by the economic gulf between the advanced industrial nations and those of the so-called third world, but rather the genuine fears of those offended by the growing gap between rich and poor within their own society.
In short, the economic and financial inequalities are now in evidence closer to home. In some cases they are on foreclosed doorsteps.
This time the politicians are not the only villains, perhaps not even the leading villains. Hapless politicos have been joined in the public stocks by a motley crew of greedy bankers, clever-clogs stockbrokers and corporate fat-cats – the same people who proclaimed not so many years ago that self-regulating markets, not interfering governments, were what made the western economies efficient, stable and safe. Add to the list of the resented obstructionist civil servants and generously-pensioned public sector employees. And that is before we get to obscenely overpaid pop stars, footballers and assorted celebrities of ill-defined talents.
The public appetite for the assignment of blame has been whetted. It will need to be satisfied.
If citizens of the most successful market-led, laissez-faire economy on earth, forever the beacon of hope to the world’s deprived, have been driven to storm the citadels of Wall Street, it suggests that something more fundamental is going on. Even the campaigns to save whales and rain forests have gone quiet.
Public disquiet will only gather momentum until the global economy recovers. Many are actually starting to doubt that it can recover, convinced that society has gone beyond the limits of sustainable affluence.
Until there is resolution, there may be revolution. Look out for civil disturbances at a venue near you.