The year 1848 is noted for the revolutions that swept across much of Europe. Historians in the future may write of the revolutions of 2011. What started as a popular revolt in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread throughout the Arab world has now gone worldwide as people gather everywhere to protest the current order.
In the United States, the protest on Wall Street in New York City has been continuous for over a month, and gives no sign of ending soon. This past weekend, protests were staged in 80 or more countries around the world including Canada. A protest in Vancouver is estimated to have drawn 4000 people and some say that they plan to stay and protest till the New Year. In Nanaimo, about 500 people gathered to protest, and the list goes on with local protest groups springing up everywhere.
The underlying reasons for the revolutions of 1848 were in some ways much like the ones driving the protests of 2011. Demands for greater political participation and a fairer share of the economy are threads that run through both.
One might question why in such an affluent society as the one in North America above the Mexican border, or some of those in Europe and Asia, people would protest. The answer lies in the economic numbers, and in the decline of the system built to repair the damage of the Great Depression and World War II.
Out of that depression came social programs to strengthen society and temper the effects of a predatory economic system. Public responsibility for the welfare of all citizens was acknowledged and taxes raised to meet that responsibility. The business community was better regulated to prevent some of its socially destructive excesses. Historic civil rights wrongs were addressed, or in some cases at least acknowledged. Then came the ’80s and the regressive backlash.
Over the last thirty years many governments have caved in to the regressive elements in society, the corporate class, and proceeded to unravel as much of the progressive policy of the mid 20th century as they could, reducing both the power and the income of the bulk of the population. The result is that many people feel powerless today, whether they be rank-and-file Reform Party-types, Tea Partiers or the Occupy groups that are now threatening to eclipse all others.
The numbers tell a story that explains why such dissatisfaction can arise and go viral. Using the United States as an example, we see that in 1922, before the Great Depression, the richest 1 per cent of the population held almost 37 per cent of the wealth. By 1976, it had shrunk to about 20 per cent. Then, policies changed and by 2007, it was up to almost 35 per cent. Canada has a similar tale of growing wealth disparity.
Most people born in the past 40 years, if they are not in the top percentile of wealthy, have had a life of falling behind as the rich get progressively richer in comparison. And, the wealth increase of the rich is built on reduced public protection and services, including education, and reduced employment opportunities as jobs are sent off shore to cheaper labour pools.
What we see today with the protests now happening around the globe is a clash between populist, progressive values, and the regressive, elitist values of the corporate class and their flunkies. The economist Robert Reich hit the nail on the head recently when he wrote:
“Progressives believe in openness, equal opportunity, and tolerance. Progressives assume we’re all in it together: We all benefit from public investments in schools and health care and infrastructure. And we all do better with strong safety nets, reasonable constraints on Wall Street and big business, and a truly progressive tax system. Progressives worry when the rich and privileged become powerful enough to undermine democracy. Regressives take the opposite positions.”
Although some good came from the revolutions of 1848, mostly they were crushed, often brutally. What will happen here, now, remains to be seen.
Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada’s West Coast.