The Ground Is Shifting

Though Americans pay lip service to the idea that “all men are created equal,” as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence, we have always taken huge inequalities for granted.  Obviously, some of us are smarter, stronger and prettier than others.  Jefferson’s point is that the playing fields of society should be level enough for us all to participate in games that are essentially fair.

Now, again, the shock waves from the contradiction between our ideals and our practice are destabilizing our world.  The Occupy Wall Street movement calls attention to the “1 percent” who control 40 percent of our wealth, and a rigged political system that protects their interests.  The other “99 percent” include not just the unemployed, the marginal and the ill but the whole middle class.

In America protests are spreading to other cities and college campuses.  But the issue is world-wide.  In the UK, demonstrators call attention to the disparity between the support government has given bankers and the drastic cuts in social benefits for students, workers and ordinary citizens.  The Arab world is marked by challenges to the hegemonic power of its ruling class.  In Spain, the “indignatos” have taken to the streets.  Israelis are camping out in Tel Aviv.  Indians protest corruption in Dehli.  Dozens of protests are erupting.

The old privileges were held in place by convictions, largely unconscious, that the inequalities were non-negotiable.  That is, they were wrong and galling, but they could not be challenged.  Several powerful psychological reasons stood min the way.  People tend to protect themselves from failure by not trying to do what they believe they can’t accomplish.  They also fear feelings of hopelessness, especially if their anger ends up making them feel even more impotent.  Finally, they fear destabilizing the accommodations they have made with their own communities.  It’s hard to go out on a limb in front of your neighbors.  Now, however, new forms of collective awareness make change seem possible.

Why is this happening?  Each movement has its own motivations and dynamics, of course, but they are influenced by two common factors.  Globalization has linked our economies together, usually with grossly different costs and benefits.  But, now, the financial crisis has spread economic pain around the world.  The Euro crisis, the American recession, widespread unemployment and economic stagnation are making the effects of these problems more and more apparent everywhere. The second factor is that with economic retrenchment has come a significant loss of opportunity.  With fewer ways out for individuals, more are feeling trapped in a system that is no longer working.

Regular citizens are noting the extraordinary salaries and bonuses of bankers, but establishment voices are speaking up as well.  Last week, for example, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote a comprehensive account of these world wide events and joined a growing list of world class economists calling for reform. (See “The Globalization of Protest.)

So the ground is shifting.  The rumblings from our growing economic inequality can no longer be suppressed.  We can’t know for sure how this surge of protests will end.  But, perhaps, where there was hopelessness and rage, some form of hope will emerge.