Occupy Toronto is not the real threat to civil society

TheStar.com – business
Published On Thu Nov 10 2011.   By David Olive, Business Columnist

The backlash to the Occupy movement has begun in earnest.

Politicians in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Quebec and New York are clearing out Occupy encampments or threatening to do so. Saboteurs last week turned a peaceful Occupiers shutdown of the Port of Oakland into a violent confrontation with police.

The stakes could not be higher. A gross economic injustice has been perpetrated on the middle classes of the developed world, whose incomes have stagnated for the past three decades. That’s a backward step inhibiting humanity’s progress in confronting abysmal living conditions in the developing world.

A yawning gap between rich and poor, and all the social evils arising from that, is what the Occupiers seek to galvanize public opinion around. They’re giving a voice to hundreds of millions of people getting a raw deal out of a capitalist system that for all its virtues has in recent decades been in service to a tiny privileged elite.

In contrast to the U.S. Tea Partiers, Occupy groups have sprung up worldwide. Yet developed world leaders seem oblivious to how the Occupiers’ message is akin to the upheaval in North Africa spurred by chronic inequality. Is the deprivation in Cairo so different from conditions in the U.S. Rust Belt, the northern suburbs of Paris, the British slum districts that saw rioting across Britain this summer?

Yet precisely the wrong “corrective” has taken hold among our political leadership class. Its fiscal austerity schemes are driven by ideological fixation and not Economics 101 or common sense. And these are preventing a resumption in job creation and a rise in middle-class incomes that are the sole long-term means of balancing the books.

The Occupiers are a threat to that wrong-headed conventional wisdom. And the first impulse of a status quo is to resist progress. That was the fate of the Depression-era “On-to-Ottawa Trek” and the U.S. Bonus Army marchers on Washington, each violently suppressed by the powers that be. Their “crime” was to protest a periodic failure of capitalism.

Every progressive movement, from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (later the NDP) to workplaces organizing drives to correct a power imbalance between employees and the owners of capital, has been vulnerable to mischaracterization by the ultra-comfortable few.

The CCF was accused of harbouring communists. As recently as the George W. Bush administration, the president’s education secretary was referring to teachers’ unions as “terrorist organizations.” Recently the ostensibly centre-left opinion journal New Republic dismissed the Occupiers as “an unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents.”

Certainly this is the hour of our discontent. That discontent is income inequality. The spectacular disparity between the super-affluent and the rest of us is a leading, if not root, cause of widespread ill health, stunted education opportunity, and intolerably high rates of crime and racial discrimination in our communities. You don’t have to look far even in multicultural Canada for a rise in resentment toward New Canadians in times of economic distress.

Never mind the 1 per cent that the Occupiers have identified as having so large a portion of wealth at our expense. In the U.S., the top 0.1 per cent of households have reaped income gains of 390 per cent between 1979 and 2007, compared to a meager 5 per cent gain for the bottom 90 per cent in that time. And the top 0.5 per cent of Americans hold close to 40 per cent of the nation’s wealth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The last three years of the Clinton administration were marked by fiscal surplus, the first narrowing in the gap between rich and poor in two generations, the creation of a record 23 million new jobs, and declining rates of crime. All that reverted to the disturbing post-1980 norm of rising income inequality during the subsequent “jobless recovery” of the Bush years.

Economic injustice is not an act of God, but of man. The now-tattered social safety net we built we can repair. The wealth of nations is jeopardized by allowing the middle-class backbone of our communities to corrode, a process already too far along.

Both the Vatican and the Church of England, bastions of the old establishment, have recently urged a restoring of healthy balance between have and have-less. Felix Salmon, the top-rated economics commentator for Reuters and not a usual suspect in calling for social justice, wrote this week that “If America really aspires to be the greatest country in the world, it can’t have 16.1 per cent of its population living in poverty.”

Those now working to shut up and shut down the Occupiers are in denial about the real threat to civil society. And it’s not the tents and yurts of Occupy Toronto’s peaceful encampment in St. James Park.

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