Monday, October 24, 2011

OWS without wows.

When you see a dog clip_image002chasing a bus, the imp in you prompts a thought about what the dog would do if it caught the bus: would it become a passenger, or the driver, or even claim ownership of the bus? I had a similar thought in following the latest protests of “Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy Whatever” in different parts of the world. What indeed would this motley group do if they had to deal with the fruits of their “occupation”?

As someone who has written a fair amount in “The Human Touch” on Moneyweb and before, on the subject of inequalities and disparities in the modern global economy, I could have been basking in some state of “I told you so”. But that would have been inexcusably presumptuous. For one thing, as a journalist and ex-news reporter one is more often than not guided by the writings and views of economic gurus and experts than by one’s own insights. For another it has been such a glaring issue for some time that predicting growing public dissent and protests would merely have been stating the obvious.

For all of that, I like many it seems, am relatively unmoved by these public expressions of outrage. The activists themselves appear to be blaming the main stream media, including public broadcasters, for not giving much attention to their cause. Perhaps they have missed a point about these institutions. They have always been guided more by form and technique (what and how) than by content (why). Unless the rallies attract hundreds of thousands and are led by an iconic figure such as Martin Luther King, they seldom attract the news cameras. Of course, if they turn violent like in Rome this past week, then they will make the news headlines.

There could be many other reasons why this particular “movement” is so far failing to generate much of a “wow” factor, especially in South Africa It is being tainted again with hackneyed ideological cold war rhetoric – for the most part taking a broad swipe at a system rather than behaviour and broken parts in that system. It smacks a bit of hypocrisy against the background of severe deprivation for many over a number of decades. For example, a global protest against the starvation of masses in Somalia would have been more authentic than marches against greed in the relatively affluent streets of New York. It is also easy to discount these grievances as being little more than envy on the part of those who have not caught the bus. Are they protesting against the injustice of wealth disparity, or simply saying “I also want what you have”? Is it a case of a little greed challenging big greed?

An important postulate of capitalism has always been that success breeds success; that the wealthy represent “a dream” that can be embraced by anyone in a free society and inspire them to greater things. In addition, it has been argued, wealth is never generated in a vacuum and by its very nature encourages wealth creation and productive pursuits around it.

The failure of this tenet in the last few decades and growth without jobs in many countries, has changed the perfectly normal human habit of comparison from aspiration to expectation and into a social time bomb.

And when success is perceived to be largely the outcome of cronyism, greed and corruption, or the spinning of some Lottery-like numbers in executive board rooms, then comparison breeds anger and social discord.

It would be a mistake to see the 99% whimper as insignificant. Taking a step back then other, more dramatic events such as the MENA rebellions, the London riots and Greek protests against austerity measures all have to be seen in the same context. One could argue that service delivery protests and labour strikes in South Africa also have a strong disparity element.

Wealth inequality has always been a fundamental issue in economics ever since it was raised by Adam Smith when he wrote: "No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable". Today the voices of concern have widened across a very broad spectrum to include the likes of Warren Buffett. Recently, economist Nouriel Roubini put it more ominously: “Any economic model that does not properly address inequality will eventually face a crisis of legitimacy”.

The OWS protests are clearly a challenge to this legitimacy. It remains to be seen whether they will gain sufficient momentum to make a difference and strongly influence an outcome. For now they are a feature of the vexing question ever present in economic modelling: the balance between the principles of liberty and equality.

This balance can never be achieved unless it is informed by an even higher principle: that of justice.

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