The snowballing worldwide protests against bankers, their politician-enablers and government austerity are feeding on the same youthful energy, indignation and social-media dexterity that fuelled this year’s Arab uprisings.
But the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its regional derivations in driving political change in the developed countries may depend on an as yet uncertain factor: whether the middle class joins in.
If there is a unifying theme to the demonstrations that have leapt from continent to continent in recent days – with more to come, including a promised “large impact” protest outside the Toronto Stock Exchange on Monday – it is anger at the growing concentration of wealth among the top tier of income earners across the developed world.
The emphasis of the protests differs somewhat according to the location. In Italy, where demonstrations turned violent on the weekend, the protesters complain about the roll back of education, welfare and pension benefits that leave young people facing grimmer economic futures than their parents’ generation. The same is true in much of Europe.
In North America, the participants seem to be driven less by the specifics of their own economic insecurity – though that is one motivating factor – than the perceived injustice of recent bank bailouts, financial-sector salaries and capitalism’s moral lapses.
Barack Obama sought on Sunday to legitimize the demands of the protesters, all while preaching moderation, using a speech at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington to harness the present political moment.
“Dr. King understood that … aligning our reality with our ideals often requires the speaking of uncomfortable truths and the creative tension of non-violent protest,” the U.S. President said. “But he also understood that to bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation.
“If he were here today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there.”
In a way, the OWS groups share their foundational principles with those of the American Tea Party movement, which targets most of the same “culprits,” but articulates a right-wing populist prescription for change.
Neither movement has made job-creation its top demand. That, however, is what polls say middle class voters consider most pressing. North Americans appear less concerned with overturning the current political and economic systems and more interested in making them more responsive to the plight of the middle class.
That could change. The outrage toward financial and political elites remains a palpable and broadly based sentiment in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. As long as the political elite on both continents fails to address this anger in meaningful enough ways, it is giving the middle class a reason to back one or the other of these protest movements.
For the middle class, the real irritant is the sense that average folk can no longer reasonably aspire to get ahead.
The dream of upward mobility – in essence, the social contract at the heart of democratic capitalism – has been shattered. The evidence turns up in two-tier wage structures in the auto sector and other industries; in rollbacks in pension and health benefits; and, among the jobless, in a proportion of long-term unemployed in the United States that surpasses Depression-era heights. This is an explosive recipe for unrest.
In pushing their cause, the OWS protesters have some important advantages over Tea Partiers. They are overwhelmingly young; Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly middle-aged or older. And the OWS participants are technologically savvier – witness the live-streaming of their events and the creativity of their communications strategies.
But in the United States, the OWS movement faces a serious challenge for political airtime from the Tea Party movement. By raising oodles of money and mastering the existing political process to effect change, the Tea Party has sent a record number of small-government Republicans to Congress and the state legislatures.
The OWS movement’s fate depends on whether it can mount a prolonged and compelling enough opposition to the Tea Party to sway public opinion in its direction.
The Tea Party calls for less regulation of Wall Street; the OWS seeks more. The Tea Party wants less income redistribution; OWS wants much more of it.
It may be up to the middle class to decide which, if either, gets its way.
By the numbers
$245-billion - Value of the U.S. government's 2008 rescue package for banks
$45-billion - The amounts received and repaid by both Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc.
$20-billion - Amount the U.S. Treasury expects to earn as a profit on top of the repaid funds.
(all U.S. dollars - Source: Associated Press)