NEW YORK – The protest movement that began in Tunisia in January, subsequently spreading to Egypt, and then to Spain, has now become global, with the protests engulfing Wall Street and cities across America. Globalization and modern technology now enables social movements to transcend borders as rapidly as ideas can. And social protest has found fertile ground everywhere: a sense that the “system” has failed, and the conviction that even in a democracy, the electoral process will not set things right – at least not without strong pressure from the street.
In May, I went to the site of the Tunisian protests; in July, I talked to Spain’s indignados; from there, I went to meet the young Egyptian revolutionaries in Cairo’s Tahrir Square; and, a few weeks ago, I talked with Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York. There is a common theme, expressed by the OWS movement in a simple phrase: “We are the 99%.”
That slogan echoes the title of an article that I recently published, entitled “Of the 1%, for the 1%, and by the 1%,” describing the enormous increase in inequality in the United States: 1% of the population controls more than 40% of the wealth and receives more than 20% of the income. And those in this rarefied stratum often are rewarded so richly not because they have contributed more to society – bonuses and bailouts neatly gutted that justification for inequality – but because they are, to put it bluntly, successful (and sometimes corrupt) rent-seekers.
This is not to deny that some of the 1% have contributed a great deal. Indeed, the social benefits of many real innovations (as opposed to the novel financial “products” that ended up unleashing havoc on the world economy) typically far exceed what their innovators receive.