In this series, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada’s leading public-affairs forum, discusses issues and trends just over the horizon with renowned analysts and policy-makers.
Unpack for us why you think we live on the cusp of a great revolutionary moment?
As a journalist, I have covered two Palestinian uprisings, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Milosevic. You know as a reporter the tinder is there; you never know what ignites it. Even the purported leaders of the movement don’t know what the spark will be – it is a mysterious force. But as long as the state does not respond rationally to the needs and rights of the citizenry, as long as it continues to exploit, there is always blowback.
And the system of global capitalism is breaking down. It is no longer able to expand the way it did in the past. It has consolidated wealth into the hands of a tiny, global, oligarchic elite.
More importantly, the ideological foundation of unfettered, unlimited capitalism is losing its hold on the imagination of large numbers of people who are not benefiting from this global system. And you see it in terms of people turning against their political elites. For example, the approval rating for the U.S. Congress is in the single digits, and voter turnout is at all-time lows. That there is something seismic happening below the surface is undeniable. When it will play out, how it will play out, what it will look like – having covered these things in the past – it is impossible to predict.
Why do you think so-called “elites” are to blame?
They have destroyed the liberal institutions and mechanisms that made piecemeal and incremental reform possible. And that is when you reach a very dangerous moment; in essence, the system seizes up. Liberal institutions are designed to ameliorate and address the suffering of the underclass. That is what happened when capitalism broke down in the 1920s and 1930s, and we got the New Deal. [U.S. president Franklin D.] Roosevelt said his greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism. But we’ve lost those mechanisms in the name of anti-communism and the implantation of a neo-liberal, free-market ideology that has eviscerated the safety valves by which liberal capitalist democracies could address the problems of the dispossessed.
Yet the global capitalist system you condemn has also produced incredible advances in life expectancy, raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and showered the world in technology innovation.
I wouldn’t agree that it has benefited the ordinary worker. It has created a system of neo-feudalism where wages for workers have been driven down to below subsistence levels. Sweatshop workers in Bangladesh are making 22 cents an hour. In China people are sometimes not even paid at the end of the month if they don’t meet their quota. There are rashes of worker suicides. Pollution is rampant because there aren’t controls. It is completely Dickensian.
The idea of “trickle down” wealth has been exposed as a lie. It has made a tiny global oligarchic, corporate elite fabulously wealthy. It has also unleashed global speculation as a form of wealth creation, which is extremely dangerous because it overinflates a market until you get a bubble like the dot-com crash or the 2008 crash with subprime mortgages. And the effects on the global economy are devastating.
How do you respond to critics who say your attacks on corporate elites sound a lot like what you hear from the conspiracy-obsessed far right in America?
The focus of the far right is not on corporate power but on perceived government control and abuse. What the right in the U.S. wants to do is destroy government. They want to destroy specific federal government departments, like the Department of Education.
Yet, at the same time, the right venerates the military as if it is not part of government. I support democratically controlled government power, as I don’t think there is any other effective mechanism by which corporate power can be regulated.
Where do you see this revolutionary surge coming from when the idea of revolt would seem the last thing on the mind of average middle-class families?
The Occupy movement. The sons and daughters of the middle class who left college in the United States with tremendous debt and found there was no place for them in the workforce. Canada is also moving in this direction. You have walked away from the Kyoto Protocol and passed one of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the industrialized world – in some ways, it’s even worse than that of the United States.
Canada, like the U.S., has also militarized its police forces. Your government carries out wholesale surveillance. The destruction of privacy itself is quite worrying when, as we know, governments that accrue this kind of power use it for their own ends.
How does progress that has been made in the U.S. on raising the minimum wage fit, or not, into your prediction of a coming revolutionary moment?
Forcing people to live with chronic debt is a form of social and political control, as any African-American will tell you. You cannot sustain a family on $7.25 an hour without benefits. I think a $15-an-hour wage frees families from this crippling debt and gives them a possibility to live above a subsistence level, which is extremely important.
It also unites kids, who largely drove forward the Occupy movement with service workers, many of them undocumented. And those alliances, along with the alliances with groups like Black Lives Matter, are potent and powerful coalitions that stand in opposition to the corporate state.
Are you calling for revolution in the face of perceived injustices, or predicting this will be part of our future?
I’ve lived through disintegrating societies. Anarchy frightens me because it can very easily devolve into violence, as it did in Yugoslavia. I don’t want this to happen. I wish that we lived in a functioning democracy where real electoral and social reform is possible. But the United States has a very violent culture. As long as corporate power has a stranglehold on our institutions and our government, including our mass media, it will do what it’s designed to do and that is to exploit until exhaustion or collapse. And eventually there will be a response, as we’re already seeing in the streets of Baltimore and the streets of Ferguson. And eventually there will be a confrontation. Don’t forget: They rolled out tanks on the streets of Ferguson against unarmed demonstrators. I fear this is what will continue to happen unless we find a mechanism to check and thwart corporate power.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Report Typo/Error
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