An autumn of protests in the West

2011-10-18 00:00

WHILE the Middle East is rocked by a spring of protests against entrenched political dictatorships long protected by some of the world's major democracies, the Western world of democracy and liberty is witnessing an autumn of protests of its own.

They protest the dictatorship of capital or the dominant brand of capitalism that encourages banks and other executives to receive millions in bonuses after leading the world economy into a near recession. The use of taxpayers by major Western countries to pay in the form of stimulus packages for the errors of the same fat cats incenses them.

But on close examination the protests cast doubts on the limited nature of the current democracies of North America and Europe. A close examination of the motivations for the protests that started in New York a few weeks ago and spread to other parts of the Western world suggests that a large number of people have gradually been marginalised in the politics and economics of these democracies.

You will recall that after many decades of elections without much change, citizens in these countries had come to see democracy as a form of dictatorship. The influence of money, established political practices, a small pool of political elites working in cohorts with a small business class have over time rendered democracy a mere ritual in elections, procedural systems and a façade to the marginalised. Whatever the side of the left-right divide alternative political parties are on, for these disaffected Westerners years of elite consensus means that they have to choose bet­ween two or three versions of the same elite, agendas and philosophies.

None of the political parties is able or willing to rein in market dictatorship, the excessive power of capital that the ideology of free-market economy promotes, a free rein that expresses itself most obviously in the form of political lobbies that have immense influence over the outcomes of elections, policy-making and legislative processes.

Unwilling to choose where there were no real alternatives, many didn't vote. The result is that you have governments in big and old democracies that are chosen by a percentage of half the voting population. A 40% voter turnout is regarded as ast­ounding, but very little thought is given to the other 60%.

It seems that a part of this de-mobilised political society is resuming political involvement, but it is choosing alternative political spaces and rejecting the façade of elite democracy and the dictatorship of corporate greed. They are generally decent people in the middle class whose circumstances have worsened directly as a consequence of unbridled capitalism and routine democracy. They have been forced to confront the situation. This group realises that no amount of individual effort will secure its world from the apocalyptic consequences of a combination of weakened social democracy and the lack of social responsibility in the current brand of capitalism.

The United States protests have focused on shutting down the Wall Street stock exchange, the most prominent symbol of American capitalism, rather than merely focusing on the symptoms of the problem; namely, falling standards of living, rising costs of living, loss of homes, weak social security and so forth. They seem to have understood that these issues epitomise a more fundamental cause of their troubles.

Of course, last week the protests inspired others in many parts of the world to join the American protesters in calling for an end to the inhuman form of capitalism. "The global protests against greed" on Saturday spread to Europe, parts of Asia and the Pacific. They coincided with the meeting of the G20 ministers of finance and central bankers in France to discuss the debt and deficits of Western countries. They were meant to send a clear message to this new platform for international economic co-operation that its preference for bandages over scalpels in resolving the global economic crisis is wrong.

What is surprising is that the moral voices of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and many more have been silent, hoping that the protests will lose steam and disappear. They have squandered an opportunity to fashion together with the marginalised, a new post-neolibera­l consensus for rebuilding the world.

In SA we should worry about a decline in middle-class people who do not vote. It may lead to a revolution of sorts.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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