(Warning: this is an off-topic blog post about something on which I have no real expertise, only opinion)
I’m fascinated by the rapid spread and widespread support for the #Occupywallstreet and similar protests worldwide. I’m fascinated because widespread inequality and unfairness is nothing new – so why is this movement taking hold now? I don’t know the answer but I have a theory:
Inequality has existed throughout human history, waxing and waning over time, punctuated by at times by revolution, but relentlessly persistent. Even when societies have been remade to be more equal, an elite inevitably emerges who is more privileged financially and more influential politically.
Inequality is not only natural but is probably central to human progress. The possibility of an improved life, greater safety and prosperity is a great motivator of human progress, but it also rewards those who are more talented and hard-working, lucky or already privileged. Technological and social advances have come mainly out of intellectual elites financed by capital from the most wealthy. Most people deep down accept that there are those who have power and influence and who have material wealth and those who don’t – or at least they are resigned to it enough not to actively seek change.
This acceptance of inequality is predicated on three things:
1. Success should be rewarded as an incentive to encourage competition and excellence. Those who earn more in general are also thought to deserve more.
2. If we work hard enough and smart enough, we can also join the elite, or at least our children will be able to.
3. Elites “take care of us” i.e. the net impact of the actions of elites is generally positive, even if they disproportionally benefit from it. I’m thinking here of things like job creation, economic growth, technological advancement, political stability, institutions – all things in which the elite play a significant role.
All of these have been challenged in recent times. The level of inequality, in particular the amount paid to CEOs in comparison with average workers has both massively increased, and the excesses of the wealthy are more transparent and visible to ordinary mortals – due to better data but also media reporting (and possibly reality shows that peer into the lives of the wealthy and celebrate excess). Through this we have become aware that the levels of inequality are not commensurate with the differences in talent and contribution, and also that excessive wealth is – well – excessive.
In reality social mobility was always harder than commonly believed, despite the visibility of a few exceptional individuals. But given increased cost of education, healthcare etc in the industrialized world, and social systems that help perpetuate inequality this is becoming harder, and people’s belief that they can succeed through talent and hard work is declining. This is particularly acute in the US where the myth of “the land of opportunity” is strongest and where the “American Dream” sustains greater tolerance for inequality. If people stop believing that they and their children can become progressively better off – well the results could be revolutionary.
Confidence in the wisdom, good intentions and competence of the elite have also come into question. Elites have helped bring about the financial crisis, environmental destruction and have failed to address global political insecurity and terrorism, making the rest of us feel less secure and confident in the future, while still doing (mostly) quite nicely themselves.
This puts the delicate balance of what is acceptable inequality to the test – and people are feeling frustrated that the system isn’t fair, isn’t delivering for them and that they have little opportunity to change things short of protesting. However agreeing that change is needed is quite a lot easier that agreeing what that change should look like, and what can be done to bring it about including how to persuade or force the elites to go along with it. It will be interesting to see how the protests progress and whether they can coalesce around some common, and actionable goals (and IMHO while these will need to redress some of the current imbalances, realistically speaking they will not undo inequality altogether, but rather make it more tolerable).
These discussions may well seem to be a bit of a luxury to those in some developing countries where similar levels of inequality and lack of opportunity are commonplace and have been durable, and where leadership has not brought the kinds of benefits seen in industrialized countries. But there will be lessons to be shared from the success or failure of #occupywallstreet as well as from successful and unsuccessful attempts to address these same problems in the developing world.