The Systematic Erosion of Young People's Dreams Has Fuelled the Emergence of a Global Movement for Economic Justice

By Fazila Farouk · 15 Oct 2011

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Picture: Chris Devers
Picture: Chris Devers

It’s always been understood that the one group with the greatest potential to bring about change is the youth. After all, it’s their future that’s at stake. And this year, young people all over the world have been at the forefront of news making struggles. 

The one thing we should not forget about Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who set himself alight catalysing the fall of dictatorships throughout North Africa, is that his immediate demand was about direct constraints on his life. Bouazizi may have understood his predicament within the broader context of being forced to live under a crony dictatorship, but in the immediacy of his actions, he was protesting the fact that every attempt he had ever made to earn an honest living and make a decent life for himself had been thwarted by a system that kept wealth within the hands of a small and wealthy elite.

Sound familiar? Like Bouazizi young people all over the world are having their dreams methodically smashed by a system that’s designed to distribute wealth upward to a tiny elite. Never mind dreaming about becoming an astronaut or a rock star, even the banal goal of one day having “a job, a house, a car, two kids and a dog,” seems a colossally unattainable goal for the average young person of today.

However, despite constant bombardment from a mass media spouting pop psychology, today’s youth have fortunately realised that their lack of achievement can’t simply be put down to a case of personal failure. Rather it is a case of being failed by a system of economic oppression underpinned by sham democracies. 

This reality was driven home in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. The public was appalled when banks that caused the crash were being bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars, while ordinary people lost their jobs, homes and social benefits. To add insult to injury, bailout recipient, Goldman Sachs, fingered as one of the architects of the crash, paid out the company’s highest bonuses in its 140-year history, shortly after this enormous transfer of public funds into private hands.

The upward transfer of wealth and growing inequality between global elites and ordinary citizens has become untenable for people whose outrage at the injustice of the system is mounting. And the year 2011 has borne witness to many acts of public dissent from protests in the United Kingdom (UK), to sit-ins in Spain, to violent demonstrations in Greece, to the consolidation of a revolution in Iceland and now, the Occupy Wall Street encampment threatening to mobilise a global movement of people against corporate greed and economic inequality.

The media may be dismissive of this global movement, but the truth of the matter is that it’s been a long time brewing. 

Few South Africans know about the three-month sit-in by Spain’s youth amongst whom unemployment is said to be as high as 43.5%. For months, Puerta del Sol, a square in Madrid was the meeting place for disciplined discussions and debates about alternatives to the current economic system. While the Spanish Indignados have inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement, the spirit and letter of their message was never fully captured by the mainstream media that seized upon the moment when their encampment was dismantled to make way for a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. In one fell swoop, the shorthand of mainstream journalism reduced three months of direct democracy to a tense standoff between anti-capitalist heathens and crucifix brandishing religious youth.

Similarly, despite deep historic ties between our two countries, the fact that half a million people took to the streets of London one Saturday in March this year in one of the biggest public protests against austerity measures, was simply ignored by our media. They were protesting the “deepest cuts to public spending since World War II,” and marching against economic treason, as the Cameron government developed plans to cut 300,000 public sector jobs while simultaneously and somewhat bizarrely reducing corporate taxes, even as the country faced a shortfall in tax revenue.

Perhaps the most shocking example of the media’s blackout of a people’s resistance to the corporate-political nexus is the story of Iceland’s peaceful revolution that has demonstrated how real democracy can lead to economic justice. 

Deena Stryker, an American activist who’s written about Iceland’s revolution in alternative media outlets, reports that after Iceland’s banks were privatised in 2003, the new bankers brought the country to financial ruin as a result of reckless international lending, which exposed the country’s banking system to enormous foreign debt. The result: Icelandic banks collapsed in the 2008 financial crash and had to be re-nationalised, the country’s currency lost 85% of its value against the Euro and Iceland, as a nation, was forced to declare bankruptcy. Meanwhile the international community demanded that the people of Iceland repay the debt notched up by the country’s private bankers.

But Icelanders were having none of it. They protested vehemently, pushing their government to hold a referendum on the repayment of the debt. A staggering 93% voted against repaying the debt and the will of the people was honoured. Better still, according to Stryker, ”With the support of a furious citizenry, the government (also) launched civil and penal investigations into those responsible for the financial crisis.” And the Icelandic people even went a step further by drafting a new constitution for the country, which freed them “from the exaggerated power of international finance and virtual money.”

This is what real democracy looks like. But you won’t read about it in the mainstream press.

Indeed, media reports of the current “Occupy” protests were slow to surface. Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, a media monitoring program, commented on the initial media blackout of the Occupy Wall Street protests highlighting a key concern of the activists, viz., the strong ties between the mainstream media and the corporate sector. “Coverage was initially slow in coming, the protestors say, because the corporate system they are seeking to change has connections with the mainstream media that run deep,” reported Richard Gizbert of the Listening Post.

Even as the movement galvanised in a 20,000 strong rally in New York on Wednesday, October 5, with support from many quarters including organised labour, the media has continued to present it as a ragtag army of tech savvy anarchists with too much time on their hands and an incoherent agenda with too many disparate strands and no specific demands.

But disparate and incoherent they are not. Their arguments reach deep into the systemic nature of the global financial crisis, which affects all aspects of life and the movement is determined to have a coherent conversation about transforming a deeply dysfunctional and interconnected system. 

Michael Hudson, professor of economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City, argues, “It’s a strong point of the movement that they haven’t made specific demands.” Activists are concerned that the reductionist logic of sound bite journalism will disguise the debate by diverting attention to technocratic demands, which will not address the systemic nature of the crisis.

And if Wall Street, Greece, Spain and the Eurozone crisis sound too far away from South Africa for any of us to care about (notwithstanding our own problems). One need just be reminded that South Africa’s finance minister returned from a meeting of emerging markets in Washington last month, only to inform an unsuspecting South African public, that many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of our public funds would have to be contributed to the IMF kitty to assist with the Eurozone crisis.

Greece’s sovereign debt, we are told, is at the heart of the Eurozone crisis. However, what we are rarely told about is how Goldman Sachs helped the former Greek government mask the country’s real debt to enable it to gain entry into the European Union.

According to Stacy Herbert, political analyst at Russia Today, it came about through a complicated deal that involved cross currency swaps. Goldman Sachs devised a special kind of swap with fictional exchange rates and secretly arranged an additional one billion dollars of credit for the Greek government. According to Herbert, much of the instability in European credit markets can be traced to the “uncertainly about hidden debt.” The Greek people, for example, had no idea what the real size of their debt was.

And according to Hudson, European banks that bought this dubiously constructed Greek debt (which can’t be paid back) are demanding that the Greek government impose severe austerity measures on its people in order to repay it. But the Greek people are out on the streets saying they will not be forced to pay for a deal that they were not part of and had no knowledge of. 

Whether the Greek people will be able to push their government in the same direction as Iceland remains to be seen.

One thing is certain; the grassroots “Occupy” movement has captured the imagination of people all over the world, evident in the many spin-off protests that have sprung up. More importantly, the movement is turning the world’s attention to an important source of our common economic crisis – the financial capitals of this world. 

South Africans too are showing their support for this important international movement through Occupy South Africa – Operation Ubuntu.

The Johannesburg chapter of Occupy South Africa is right to target Johannesburg’s Stock Exchange in Sandton in the heart of South Africa’s financial district. Not only are they showing solidarity with the struggles of people all over the world, but the struggles of South Africans who live in the most unequal country in the world under an economic system that is scandalously unresponsive to their plight, may also finally get the attention it deserves.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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joe slovo
14 Oct

Justice is Coming

15th October 2011.

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15 Oct

Right On

Fantastic piece. Right on. We either seize this moment now or another generation is lost to the ruthless greed of the super rich.

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16 Oct

Applause for Author

Well done. I applaude your artical and will share with as many people as I can. Thank you

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3 Dec

Banks that Pay No Interest on Checking Accounts

Do not leave any more money in a checking account that pays no interest than is required to keep the account open, any excess money should go to the purchase of gold or silver. Remember they loan out your money at up to 15%.

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