Occupy. The one per cent versus the 99 per cent.
It was, and is, more than a slogan.
It was, and is, an expression of global economic injustice.
It may have been spurred on by the financial crisis of 2008, a crisis born in corporate greed and government indifference or worse — blind adherence to the orthodoxy of neoliberalism and deregulation,
but the Occupy movement was inevitable.
It was inevitable because masses of people were being left behind at a time of extraordinary economic expansion and unprecedented economic wealth.
It was inevitable because the vast majority of those economic gains were being accumulated by the few, by the one per cent. Forbes Magazine reported last year of the 37 million companies in the world tracked by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a mere handful, 737, control 80 per cent of the global economy. An even smaller handful, just 147 companies, control 40 per cent.
Occupy was inevitable because the understood social contract between citizens and their governments was undergoing serious erosion — some would say it had been broken. That social contract between citizens and our governments is founded on the principle that rights will be protected and upheld in democratic societies.
But growing inequality had tipped the scales. Rights, collective and individual, were being re-shaped, and not in a good way.
More and more people were feeling abandoned by their governments — governments of all stripes — who catered to the one per cent, delivering massive tax cuts to them, while services for the 99 per cent were being eroded and while many were facing grim economic realities through no fault of their own. Deregulated and out-of-control banks were bailed out with taxpayer dollars. Citizens lost their homes, education systems faced cutbacks and people’s pensions vanished in a turn of the stock market.
In Canada, the crisis was not as bad, mostly because a move in the 1990s to change rules and regulations for banks had been fought by citizen groups like the Council of Canadians. But Canadians, especially Canadian workers, have taken a massive hit. In many provinces and neighbourhoods, the middle class is under threat.
In our own province, that social contract is still strong especially when compared to other jurisdictions. (The reasons for this deserve separate attention.)
But even in Newfoundland and Labrador, the way our economic pie is lopsidedly shared leaves a lot to be desired.
For the most part, the same inequality medicine was dispensed in Canada, too.
Our governments deregulated, privatized and delivered massive tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.
The economic pie has not been shared fairly. And the majority of Canadians also worry about the impact of growing inequality on our society and on our economy.
Yes, Occupy was inevitable.
So what did Occupy do for us?
It changed the debate. Forever. It named the problem. (Of course, others had been doing so for a generation, but Occupy managed to take advantage of a giant window of opportunity. It captured our attention.)
And it forced others, in powerful positions, to agree that Occupy had a point.
Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney noted that the movement was an understandable result of the increase in inequality and that these “democratic expressions of views” were “entirely constructive.”
But there has also been significant pushback against Occupy. Some commentators, those who do not enjoy having their orthodoxy questioned or proven wrong, have tried to dismiss the movement.
But try as they might, they cannot dismiss an idea whose time has come.
Academics are studying inequality, more so than before Occupy. This issue is not merely the preoccupation of those economists like Armine Yalnizyan, who has a considerable history examining the growing gap.
Others have now picked up the mantra. Even the Conference Board of Canada has said that “high inequality can diminish economic growth if it means that the country is not fully using the skills and capabilities of all its citizens or if it undermines social cohesion, leading to increased social tensions. Second, high inequality raises a moral question about fairness and social justice.”
A 2012 study by University of British Columbia economists for the Canadian Public Policy Journal concludes that “if the gains from economic growth continue to accrue in a lopsided fashion, public support for pro-growth strategies and policies is likely to wane.” Even those who may not care about inequality, the authors note, may want to ensure that economic growth benefits everyone in our society.
In my opinion, it is rock musician Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine fame) who deserves to be quoted about the impact of Occupy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, he had this to say about the movement's staying power:
“The one thing that Occupy has been very successful at is forever changing the dialogue around the great, unspoken five-letter word in American politics, and that’s ‘class.’ The people who were in the streets … those people haven’t gone away. Their ideas haven’t gone away. The mistrust and resentment toward the status quo hasn’t gone away.”
The success of Occupy?
It is in having changed the debate.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Her column returns Oct. 6.