19/10/2011 - 10:42

What do we want? Don’t know

19/10/2011 - 10:42


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The people participating in Occupy Wall Street and copycat protests around the world are a muddled bunch but they should not be dismissed out of hand.

Those of us with long memories, or good libraries, can recall many street protests that were meant to be the vanguard of a broad social movement, but proved to be nothing of the sort.

The controversial 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was one of those famous events, where a series of peaceful protests planned by ‘yippies’ turned into violent clashes with police and the national guard.

On the other side of the Atlantic that year, there was equally violent civil unrest in Paris, where student demonstrations and wildcat strikes brought president Charles de Gaulle’s government to a standstill.

And what were they protesting about? Well, it seems a familiar refrain – the modern consumer and technical society and the excesses of Western capitalism.

There have been many other famous street protects since then, with equally vague objectives.

Just over a decade ago, the news was dominated by the S11 protests, which were dubbed an anti-globalisation movement – not that anybody could properly define what that meant.

The S11 protesters travelled around the globe, wherever world leaders were gathered.

They dramatically disrupted the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in November 2009.

One year later they came to the streets of Melbourne, to protest outside the meeting of the World Economic Forum.  

Some left-wing romantics like to believe there is direct link to the grassroots protest movement that has gathered unexpected traction this month.

Occupy Wall Street started a month ago, when a small band of determined protesters set up camp near the symbolic home of free-market capitalism in New York City.

The protesters have gradually gathered more supporters, some physical, many viral. The result last weekend was a “global day of action against Wall Street greed”, with an estimated 950 protests in 82 countries across the globe.

Judging by media reports over the past few days, many of those protests were very modest in scale. And where they did draw a crowd, they were helped by the ability of protesters to attach just about whatever meaning they wanted to the event.

In summary, the protests seem to be a rallying point for anybody who is angry, disenchanted or alienated by the current economic and political system.

The fact that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was the headline speaker at the London protest was telling. Mr Assange is a very effective stirrer and agitator, but what does he actually stand for and what can he actually achieve?

Inequality of wealth in the US seems to be one of the recurring issues raised by protesters in that country.

Protesters say they represent ‘‘the 99 per cent,’’ a nod to a study by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz showing 1 per cent of Americans control 40 per cent of US wealth.

That kind of disparity causes discomfort right across the political spectrum.

And when Wall Street bankers and brokers continue to receive large bonuses, despite the carnage across middle America wreaked by the global financial crisis, the concern mounts.

Hence, we hear protesters in the US calling for a fundamental overhaul of their economy, and a challenge against “those who are most powerful who control the global economy”.

Where does this leave us in Australia? The protesters in this country are mouthing the same rhetoric as those in New York, but with a smaller audience and less conviction.

And maybe that’s because Australia does not have same extreme issues as the US or, indeed, much of western Europe.

The Australian economy is growing, unemployment remains low by historic standards and the outrageous inequality in the US rarely occurs in this country. 

In short, the system is working – albeit with a few missteps and stumbles along the way.

For instance, there have been a few examples of business executives getting payouts that far exceed reasonable bounds. 

The instance many people like to quote was the $30 million payout for retiring Telstra boss Sol Trujillo, who left behind a business that was far from its optimum condition.

But that is the exception and it is important that the community continues to be educated about this.


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