The importance of protests

It's necessary for elites to fear to citizen unrest in the event corruption becomes too extreme

Published October 30, 2011 6:43PM (EDT)

I'm hoping to return to some semblance of regular posting this week, though ongoing book events may make that difficult. In the meantime, here are several items worthy of note:

(1) Ever since I began writing about politics, the most frequently asked question I've encountered has been: but what can we do about all of this? The reason I find the Occupy movement to be one of the most important, exciting and inspiring political developments of the last decade is that it provides the definitive answer to that question. Though still in what I hope is its incipient stage, this protest movement proves that citizens of all different backgrounds and even ideologies (though sharing common interests) possess the ability to unite, pose a threat to seemingly invulnerable power factions, and demand change beyond the mere act of voting once every two years -- and that they can endure and even grow in the face of abusive police force. Though it has already accomplished substantial good, the protest movement hasn't yet achieved all of that, but it has provided the template and made manifest the possibility.

Having spent substantial time over the past week talking about the protests and speaking to many protesters, I will have a lot more to say about all of this when time permits (my speech to Occupy Boston was unfortunately cancelled yesterday due to weather problems, highlighting the need for support from sympathizers in ways like this). For the moment, I want to make this point: as I've focused on these protests, there is one passage that I've repeatedly thought about from this genuinely important May, 2009 article in The Atlantic by Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the IMF. That article is entitled "The Quiet Coup" -- referring to the oligarchy that Johnson argues has replaced American democracy -- and, as his primary evidence, Johnson describes how America's reaction to the 2008 financial crisis was virtually indistinguishable from those he witnessed first-hand in corrupt, "emerging market" oligarchies of the past when they faced severe financial distress:

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders. . . .

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large. . . .

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets) . . . .But there's a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

It's those two observations in bold that have been at the forefront of my thoughts about the Occupy movement: that oligarchs in a corrupted society will be free from any meaningful checks from the government they own and control, and will continue to pilfer from the rest of the society until resulting social unrest on the part of ordinary citizens becomes too disruptive and threatening to their interests. Put another way, an oligarchical class that operates without any fear in its collective heart of the citizenry will continue to assemble and protect its ill-gotten gains without limits. That is why this protest movement is so vital -- so indispensable -- because it is precisely that fear in the hearts and minds of the elite classes that has been so destructively lacking.


(2) I was on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show this morning for two hours, along with three other guests, discussing a variety of topics, including my new book. Chris is attempting to create something quite unique on television -- a free-floating discussion without the oppressive time constraints that typically (and by design) allow little other than conventional wisdom to be aired -- and, having done the show this morning, I really think he can succeed. The segment of the show discussing my book -- which then led to a discussion of related topics -- is here:


(3) I'll be on the West Coast this week, and there are two events I want to highlight:  one in San Francisco, on November 2 at 6:00 p.m., that is free and open to the public, where I'll be discussing the book with Salon Founder and CEO David Talbot (event information is here), and a just finalized event in Los Angeles, the morning of November 2, at UCLA School of Law (event information here). It's been awhile since I've spoken in San Francisco and I really think the November 2 event will be worth attending, so I hope to see as many readers in the Bay area as possible there. Finally, as an update, the Kindle and ebook version of the book should be available for ordering early this week; it should have been available from the start but wasn't solely due to an error on the part of the publisher.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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