It's the political puzzle of our times: Why, in the wake of the most spectacular failure of free-enterprise in 80 years, was it the global right that became stronger, not the left?
In the 1930s, the last time capitalism failed so destructively, radical opposition movements won the day: Demanding both immediate aid for the Depression's suffering, but also bigger structural changes in the economy. Pressured by these radical forces, governments' response went well beyond "stimulus." Instead, government was given powerful, countervailing powers to offset the skewed dominance of business and wealth – everything from unemployment insurance to stronger regulations (aimed especially at finance) to union-friendly labour laws.
This time around, in contrast, the stronger political response to crisis has come from the other direction. Justified by deficits that were the consequence of the meltdown (not its cause), tough-love conservatives have so far seized the offensive. For every socialist out denouncing the failure of capitalism, there have been 10 Tea Partiers on the streets demanding a purer, harder incarnation of it.
The financiers who pushed us over the edge in 2008 are back in business, as profitable as ever. Most of us, meanwhile, can barely keep our heads above water. That teetering imbalance should be a recipe for left-wing revolt. So where is it?
Judging from the spirited, friendly, and optimistic crowds at this weekend's occupation protests, perhaps that sleeping radical giant has finally been awakened. I joined the event in Toronto, with a couple of thousand others who marched through downtown and set up camp on the eastern fringe of the financial district. Nearly a thousand similar events happened around the world – further adding to the surprising momentum sparked by Occupy Wall Street.
Many have noted the diverse, spontaneous, unfocused feel of the protests. Yet the organizers still pulled together all the basics: Porta-Potties, a medical tent, food. Other details will come together with time. If it lasts, the occupation will become a place for the activists to build stronger networks, and a sharper political program.
Most importantly, the occupations may become a symbol of the moral authority that is a precondition for successful social change movements. Despite the carnival-like assemblage of people and causes, they are strongly unified behind an accurate and legitimate single complaint: Namely, that economic and social policies have enriched the 1 per cent, at the expense of the 99 per cent, and that must change. Their activism has been further unified by a constructive, cooperative and peaceful attitude – disarming those who've tried to demonize and criminalize protest in our harsh post-9-11 political culture.
In retrospect, the radicalism of the 1930s didn't exactly charge out of the gates following the 1929 crash. It took years of trial and error, in the context of the continuing failure of the economy to fix itself, before the left really got going. So perhaps the current occupations will come to constitute, for this decade, something like the 1935 On to Ottawa March was to the 1930s. It started out as a small, rag-tag expression of frustration over years of human hardship. It came to symbolize a powerful, broad demand for change, influential far beyond its numbers.
It's telling that, like the 1930s, the impetus for the current upsurge of protest did not come from the established institutions of Canada's left: unions, social service groups, or the NDP. These groups have been mostly preoccupied with repelling ongoing attacks from the ascendant right (big spending cuts, attacks on labour rights and more). Thus hunkered down, they haven't found the mechanisms or the messages to tap into widespread (if so far latent) anger over the growing imbalance of society.
Let's see if these traditional progressive forces can catch up to the new tweeting generation of activists. If their policy and organizational know-how were combined with the enthusiasm and moral credibility of the occupiers, together they'll constitute a force that could indeed challenge the Tea Party … and perhaps beat them.
Jim Stanford is economist with the Canadian Auto Workers.