Opinion: The globalisation of protest

Protesters around the world say they are part of a generation that played by the rules but has no hope for the future – Published on AlJazeera, by Joseph E Stiglitz, November 6, 2011.

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. Globalisation 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 … //

… The protesters have been criticised for not having an agenda. But this misses the point of protest movements. They are an expression of frustration with the electoral process. They are an alarm.

The anti-globalisation protests in Seattle in 1999, at what was supposed to be the inauguration of a new round of trade talks, called attention to the failures of globalisation and the international institutions and agreements that govern it. When the press looked into the protesters’ allegations, they found that there was more than a grain of truth in them. The trade negotiations that followed were different – at least in principle, they were supposed to be a development round, to make up for some of the deficiencies highlighted by protesters – and the International Monetary Fund subsequently undertook significant reforms.

So, too, in the US, the civil-rights protesters of the 1960s called attention to pervasive institutionalised racism in American society. That legacy has not yet been overcome, but the election of President Barack Obama shows how far those protests moved America.

On one level, today’s protesters are asking for little: A chance to use their skills, the right to decent work at decent pay, a fairer economy and society. Their hope is evolutionary, not revolutionary. But, on another level, they are asking for a great deal: A democracy where people, not dollars, matter, and a market economy that delivers on what it is supposed to do.

The two are related: As we have seen, unfettered markets lead to economic and political crises. Markets work the way they should only when they operate within a framework of appropriate government regulations; and that framework can be erected only in a democracy that reflects the general interest – not the interests of the 1%. The best government that money can buy is no longer good enough. (full text).

(Joseph E Stiglitz is University Professor at Columbia University, a Nobel laureate in economics, and the author of Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy).

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