Why do people demanding greater democracy today call themselves Indignados?

Because they’re furious. At greed, ostentation in the face of poverty, loss of jobs, loss of good jobs, of homes, gaping inequality, declines in schooling and health care — in a word, their grievances are economic.

Yet their call is for more democracy — Real Democracy Now, as they say in Spain.

That’s surprising. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people under economic stress looked for economic solutions: communism, fascism, reformed capitalism, democratic socialism. This time the crisis is economic but the response has been democratic. That may change.

Neo-fascist parties are on the rise in Greece and elsewhere — but for now, democracy is the default solution.

Yet it’s not surprising. Economics and democracy were always entwined. The French Revolution wasn’t just about liberty; it was equally about equality. The American Revolution was about independence. But the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville travelled the U.S. in the 1830s because he viewed it as the perfect lab for studying equality, which he considered the condition from which political democracy grows. Throughout the 19th century, the rich resisted universal voting rights because they couldn’t see why the majority wouldn’t use their votes to transfer all the wealth to themselves. (It didn’t happen but it’s still a great question.) There’s always been an interplay between economics and what you could call democratics.

What brought people into the streets of Tunisia — the Arab Spring’s first stop — wasn’t the early years of torture and repression under dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; it was the greed and corruption of his last decade. There were rumours of his wife flying to Paris on weekends to shop and a WikiLeaks report that he had a pet tiger and flew ice cream in from France. Torture may almost seem understandable — those with power want to hang on to it after all — but greed far beyond any reasonable need is just infuriating and makes you angry enough to act.

At a march in Madrid, people pointed up at police helicopters and could tell you the costs of surveillance, compared to lost health and educational services. If Spain had one euro left, they said, the politicians would give it to bondholders, not pensioners. Everyone seemed to know the details of payoffs and scams, largely through social media. “Their disgust,” said a media scholar, “became a network.”

In Greece, people talk about the thousands of swimming pools, in wealthy suburbs, which owners cover with tarps so overflights by tax inspectors won’t detect them. They say they didn’t incur these loans, so why should they pay the costs in pensions and jobs, while the bailouts go straight back to lenders who shovelled out the loans to start with.

To make the democratic betrayal total, when Prime Minister George Papandreou called for a national referendum on the brutal terms of the hated bailout “memorandum,” other EU nations and central bankers refused. (The Bank of Canada’s Mark Carney was among the few supporting a vote.) They forced Papandreou out and replaced him.

The economic-democratic indignation peaked in the Occupy movements. It wasn’t only that the top 1 per cent had enriched themselves well past anything their contributions merited. Nor that they brought the world economy near collapse. Nor that they demanded a bailout with public funds. Nor that they got it.

None of that lit the fuse. It was lit after the huge, ongoing bailouts, when the rich showed no signs of remorse or gratitude, demanding instead that everyone, everywhere, pay the costs of rescuing them, while elected leaders went sheepishly along. As a result, everyone else paid twice: once in bailing the rich out, and then through austerity programs to cover the costs. It wasn’t the greed, it was the ingratitude.

The link between economics and democratics isn’t statistical, it’s moral. Yet it can’t find real expression through existing political institutions because they’re funded and controlled by those same people at the top. So the solutions can only be new democratic forms and practises.

Israel is an especially interesting case of these connections.

“I don’t even think about politics,” says Stav Shaffir, a leader of the movement there. She’s 26, dynamic, has bright red hair, and is so articulate in English it’s hard to imagine how persuasive she’d be in Hebrew. By politics she means the electoral kind, not the in-the-street type that exploded a year ago.

“I think only about social things,” she continues, meaning the effects on people’s lives of crushing economic forces. “The sense of lack of future from the young is so strong, as you get poorer, you get more radical politically: about crime, racism, extremism. And the way for the political system to protect itself is to be so corrupt that decent people would never enter it. We need an alternative that all the usual parties have to respond to.

“But social movements are risky,” she adds. “Social movements emphasize a lack of trust in the political system and extreme right-wing views can enter” — which happened in Greece — “by implying there’s an easy answer. If we fail, the right will fill the gap.”

Israel may seem an unlikely entrant. It doesn’t have the stats of Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. It lives in the Mideast but it lives like Western Europe. Yet stats are deceptive. Real life isn’t lived in terms of GDP averages.

“Since the ’80s,” says Shaffir, “the middle class is breaking down. Social mobility is the lowest ever. Chances of moving ahead are zero. Reduced services, selling off national resources. And a society so divided the income gap is second only to the U.S.”

It began last July with one young Israeli woman pitching a tent in Tel Aviv because she couldn’t pay her rent. That hit a national, generational chord. Housing is a common cry in all these movements. It’s so plaintive: simply to be able to live somewhere, in comfort and security. And in Israel there are always biblical echoes: Abraham’s tent, Saul’s, David’s. Soon there were thousands of tents everywhere: eloquent, modest, resonant.

“My tent was right here,” says Alona Roded, a PhD candidate in education, pointing out from a cafe patio on Rothschild Boulevard. She says it proudly, the way I felt when I was a student here in the 1960s, when I took my little tent and pitched it blissfully on every biblical site I could find. Rothschild isn’t biblical, it carries connotations of great wealth and luxury, so it was apt for the start of an economic protest.

“At some point, there were 100 camps,” Roded says, “like mushrooms in the rain.” Other things followed, issues were added, also like mushrooms: food co-ops, consumer boycotts.

As for how to transform the situation democratically, Roded says there are predictable divergences. One group wants to work in the system; another, to start a new party; a third believes that’s all wasted energy: the point is citizen activism.

It may sound chaotic but it was productive. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set up a commission when it saw the level of public support for protests — more than 80 per cent sympathized — and some actual policies changed, such as lowering the age for free public education and stopping a tax cut for the rich.

The protesters created an “alternate” commission and took various directions, some educational, some intervening directly in parliamentary politics, by monitoring the elected members. This spring, when the movement relaunched, the government took a harsher line, arresting people who set up tents. It seems to have only toughened the protesters.

About 70 per cent of Jewish Israelis now support the renewal of protests, pollsters report, and about one in four say violence might become necessary. Most shockingly, two Israelis immolated themselves this month in protest — exactly how the Arab spring began in Tunis.

But how does this movement deal with the overarching issues of Israeli life: relations with Palestinians, security and, especially for a movement whose motto is The People Demand Social Justice, the occupation and settlements?

They’ve dealt with it so far by avoiding it. “To me it seems as if we’re always talking about how we’re not talking about it,” says Roded. “But if the occupation had been up front, all the rest would never have happened. Those issues have swallowed everything else for as long as I’ve lived but we have to talk about other things: citizenship, participation. . . “

Prof. Yossi Yona, whose field is educational philosophy, co-chairs an advisory body to the movement. “The occupation is a stain on our character,” he says. “But avoiding the issue was the instinct of the young protesters, and I respect it: first try to build a sense of citizenship that transcends boundaries and ancient conflicts.” He calls it, in a deft phrase, “a modular sort of solution.”

Before I arrived in Israel, this refusal to take a moral stand on justice for Palestinians seemed to me an obvious flaw in the movement. Yet almost as soon as the plane touched down, it looked just as obvious that avoidance was the right way to go. Otherwise nothing else could be accomplished, and everything would stay, in Stav Shaffir’s term, “stuck.”

Besides, democracy has often gone together with conquest and colonies. It did in ancient Athens, imperial Britain and many other cases. Progress isn’t one big whole piece of cloth, it’s usually a patchwork.

In fact, a pragmatic withdrawal from extreme demands seems typical of these movements for democratic renewal. It contrasts with the kind of politics Yona — and I — engaged in when we were in our 20s. We tended toward the messianic or utopian and denounced anyone who fell short as compromisers who were part of the problem.

Perhaps those were times when utopian solutions simply seemed more doable, for various reasons. The Jewish tradition itself is full of messianism, in fact Judaism is one of its sources. For millennia, Jews waited for a messiah to restore them to their homeland, then in the late 19th century — as national states were established all over Europe — some grew impatient and decided to do it for themselves. There are times when messianism doesn’t seem all that messianic; it feels practical and realistic.

In that case, what seems practical may simply have changed. Everywhere I went for this series, I found mild echoes of modest goals, things a normal NDPer, Liberal and even many Conservatives here would feel at ease with: some narrowing of income inequality, the desire for a robust public sector in health care and education, firmer regulations for the financial sector, concern about the environment.

The “priorities” of Spain’s 15M movement are “equality, progress, solidarity. . . culture, sustainability and development, welfare. . . ” Nothing about destroying capitalism there.

“We are through and through social democrats,” said Yona, speaking for his colleagues in the Israeli democracy movement. “We want an end to neo-liberal policies in Israel, like decreasing the percentage of public expenses in GDP.”

That sounds pretty measured. Shaffir, the 26-year-old leader, is less patient. When I described the Spanish notion of gradually adding neighbourhood assemblies to the existing system, she said, “We don’t have time for that here. Israel is almost gone.” Her tone may be messianic, but her politics less so. Maybe she’s like a social democrat in a hurry, the way Canada’s NDP used to be called Liberals in a hurry.

This modesty also suggests an answer to the earlier question: why didn’t the majority ever vote to expropriate the rich and take all their stuff? Perhaps it isn’t that they were duped by media or agreed with the way things were. Maybe their ambitions were always modest: they didn’t begrudge the 1 per cent what they had, so long as it left a decent life for them and their families.

Most people I know are fair-minded in that way. Perhaps, too, they’d rather not do unto others what’s been done to them, reducing themselves morally in the process. When the recent eruptions began, it was only because the 1 per cent finally went too far. There’s also the fact that in current circumstances a small narrowing of the income gap, a reintroduction of regulation and some concern for the environment may seem almost as utopian as a workers’ revolution used to.

I hadn’t been in Israel since my student days. At passport control, the official asked when I visited last. I told him. “And you’ve never been back?” he scolded. “Why,” I asked, “has anything changed?” He paused, then said, “Nah, same problems.”

That’s true to some degree, and always will be. The biblical prophets railed against the rich and the inequalities of their time. They denounced their rulers’ corruption. They threatened their people with divine punishment and exile for its economic blemishes.

But every grand tradition like Judaism contains modest pragmatic elements alongside drastic apocalyptic ones. Take the earthy biblical concept of a Jubilee Year, when debts are forgiven and land reverts to its original owners. That evokes the crisis in Greece right now: how to handle a debt that’s unpayable and catastrophic — mostly for the debtors but also in its consequences for many creditors. A “Jubilee” cancellation for Third World debt was floated a few years ago; now it looks modestly realistic on an even larger scale.

As for democracy, my 13-year-old son Gideon was with me in Israel. He knows he’s named after a biblical hero who was, by my account, both a skeptic (he rejected a divine command to lead his people until he checked the angel’s credentials by demanding some miracles) and a democrat (after Gideon led them to victory, his people asked him be their king). He declined. God will be your king, he said. I’m going back to my farm. If things heat up again, let me know and I’ll come do what I can. He was a modest fellow himself.

This is part five of a six-part series.This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Jared Rodriguez/Truthout/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.