FED UP! The Middle Class Take to the Streets

The middle class of the world is Fed Up! And, their finger pointing is aimed directly at the establishment, whether governments, corporations or the wealthy. As a prelude to this madness, the Arab Spring of two years ago may have been a wake up call. People of every stripe, including doctors, teachers, pilots, laborers, and engineers are taking to the streets like never before, and they are Fed Up!

Who would’ve thought a bus fare increase in Brazil would bring the middle class out of their easy chairs and into the streets in massive protest. The issues are multi-fold, but, in general, the protests, occurring in over 100 cities involving over one million people, are all about inadequate healthcare, education, and corruption.

One commonly heard chant is, “I’ll give up the World Cup. I want money for health and education!”

Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s spin on the recent Brazilian street demonstrations, “… a school of thought in development economics about why seemingly better-off middle class populations have taken to the streets across the emerging world from Turkey to Chile. The idea is that populations begin to demand more of their leaders as their own economic conditions improve. Citizens who are better off have the luxury to focus on social grievances that seem less pressing to impoverished people whose biggest concerns are earning enough to feed themselves.”1

Talk about putting your foot in your mouth!

Essentially, the WSJ article says: If you keep ‘em poor and starving, they do not have the “luxury to focus on social grievances,” or the energy to take to the streets.

And, furthermore, as economic conditions improve for the rising middle class, they focus on “social grievances that seem less pressing to impoverished people.” Well now, isn’t it a crying shame that people focus on social grievances, like health care and education! When, in fact, health and education should not necessitate protests in the first instance.

This WSJ article is demonstrative of a severe case of callous, barbaric heartlessness, and it is irresponsible, as well as immature. Who’s behind this “school of thought in development economics?” Their thesis is comparable to saying, “Let them eat cake.”

As it goes, the middle class street protests are indicative of a major disconnect between the ‘establishment’ and the middle class. And, thinking it over, it’s a wonder more people are not in the streets. When the middle class hits the pavement en masse, bells and whistles should be going off in the highest reaches of government. It may be the start of a middle class movement against the establishment of moneyed-interests. Then, what?

As it goes, the old world economic theories (never expressed but silently practiced) of enrichment of a tiny sliver at the top while starving masses at the bottom may be coming full circle as the freedom of social contact, via the Internet, spawns a renewal of the rationale behind the French Revolution of the late 18th century, when the common people displayed the bloodied heads of aristocrats in the public square. Back then, as the common people in the streets of Paris starved, the ostentatiously lavish lifestyles of the rich glared them in the eye. Until, it was too much to stomach.

Middle Class Protests of the “Dictatorship of the Markets”

The distant past, in many ways, is never that distant; for example, in a strange regression to the socio-economics of kings/queens/squires and landed gentry, capitalism has conquered the world, much as the monarchies of prior centuries conquered the world, mostly by brute force of armies. Today’s monarchs are the elites of capitalism who have conquered the world via economic policies of the “free market” and “globalization.”

Middle class people are demonstrating today for the same reasons common people revolted against the monarchy and the aristocracy in 18th century France, meanwhile beheading 40,000 during the Reign of Terror (1793-94.)

Recently, in Europe, thousands of people took part in street demonstrations “People United Against the Troika,” i.e., the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary fund, to protest European austerity measures while chanting: “We are starving for help!” These street demonstrations took place in Germany, France, Portugal, and Spain.

“Thousands of people took to the streets to demand the end of the austerity policy in Europe and financial blackmail on citizens, and demanded more democracy against the dictatorship of the markets.”2

Elsewhere in the world, “The last three weeks witnessed large scale protest in three forefront countries of the emerging markets… Turkey… Brazil… Indonesia… These protests in three forefront emerging markets show an underlying trend… that there is a growing pubic angry discontent of citizens against governments misuse of public funds, corruption, and disregard for public welfare.”3

And, taking matters all the way up to the pinnacle, Vatican City (May 2013), Pope Francis chimed in with a strong call for world financial reform: “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”4

Way back when, several hundred years ago, monarchs were the pawns of the papacy. Nowadays, the papacy is taking pot shots at the aristocracy, showing that power complexes do change over time, and the Pope condemning the ‘heartbeat of capitalism’ may indeed be an additional clarion call to the streets.

This Pope may, or may not, prompt a new series of crusades but the enemy is no longer Muslim territories like Pope Urban II’s crusade (the First Crusade) in 1095. Obviously, the new enemy is excessive amounts of money controlled by too few people, in reference to the Pope’s statement: “the dictatorship of an economy” run by modern-day monarchs who wear Rolexes rather than crowns.

Worldwide Capitalistic Hegemony

It should come as no surprise that the middle class is restless. After all, the world press has been filled with articles about the 1% and how only a few people have captured the world’s wealth at the expense of nation-states and individual citizens.

Thereupon, as soon as an event as minor as an increase in bus fares hits the news, like in Brazil, this serves as a spark that, overnight, turns into a powerful incendiary. At that moment, pent up anger is released, and that anger is directed at an imbalanced world, a throw-back to the era of kings, and we all know how our American forefathers, for example, George Washington, responded to King George III.

After all, the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme refers to good ole King George:

Humpty Dumpy sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

“The worldwide shift to greater reliance on the market in the management of economic affairs, and what many call the ‘retreat of the state,’ are integrating national economies everywhere into a global economy of expanding trade and financial flows… Many commentators have noted a profound shift from a state-dominated to a market-dominated world.”5

The market-dominated world referred to by Robert Gilpin, in a strange way, echoes the profound words of Herbert Hoover’s “rugged individualism,” as to how hard times should be handled. In short, social Darwinism or as Hoover saw it, the federal government should not interfere with the American people during the hard times. We all know how well that worked out.

Well, Hooverism may be resurrected. The options for federal governmental assistance are rapidly becoming extinct because, as capitalism evolves into a non-state global hegemony, nation-states are increasingly at the mercy of the theory of “rugged individualism” because nation-states are running out of revenues as capitalists shirk responsibility to pay taxes. The capital class increasingly enrich themselves at the mercy of nation-states and citizens. And, they get away with it!

The world press is filled with articles of how the masters of capitalism enrich themselves at the expense of nation-states, e.g., Google sells billions in the UK but only pays taxes of a few million by “booking sales” in a low tax country, or of how the super wealthy, like Mitt Romney, have money stashed away in tax-havens as well as only paying 15% taxes on what is “declared.” Imagine how closely the U.S. came to electing its first ever president with money stashed away in tax havens, which are prototypes for dodging taxes. This brings into question the integrity of the Republican Party, which selected Romney as its candidate. But, on second thought, the most influential members of the party probably have secret bank accounts offshore, same as Mitt. So, for them, it’s okay, the American way!

These are the bits of information that average middle class people absorb over time, of how their political candidates of the highest rank are cheating their own country by hiding assets offshore, of how hedge funds have trillions offshore to avoid American taxes, or how major corporations do the same, or how “carried interests” allows corporate raiders like Romney’s former firm to pay taxes of only 15%, and of how the American public is left out in the cold with a federal government going deeply into debt because of the policies of Supply-Side economics brought forth by Reagan and Thatcher (“Bottom-Feeder Economics” based upon the theory that incentives, i.e., tax breaks for the rich will cause them to “invest” and create jobs… the “trickle down theory” which has worked splendidly these past years… correct?)

These are incidents that average middle class people hear and, over time, the incidents come to surface as protests on the streets when a spark ignites their pent-up frustration, combined with knowledge that they are being duped by the upper class. In France in the late 18th century, a similar scenario not only brought protestors into the streets, it also brought the dreaded guillotine!

At 12:15 PM, the butchers and candlestick makers along with all the commoners of Paris cheered as executioner Charles Henri Sanson held Marie Antoinette’s head up for thousands to see at Place de la Révolution (present-day Place de la Concorde.) Her famous last words were: “Pardon me monsieur, I meant not to do it,” as she stepped on Sanson’s foot after climbing the scaffold. Afterwards, her headless body was tossed into an unmarked grave. She was arrested and tried for trumped-up crimes against the French Republic.

Today, many of Europe’s largest cities experience protests as a matter of course. One can only imagine they probably leave the police barricades up permanently these days. With the passage of time, the European version of impending outbursts by citizens lead to a crescendo as a result of Europe’s infamous austerity plans, which have come down hardest on the middle class. It is only too obvious that people resent the bankers and governmental eunuchs behind austerity. And, over time, the helplessness experienced by the middle class becomes fodder for rage in the streets. This happens with regularity in Europe theses past 4-5 years.

FED UP and the Days Ahead

Several years ago, renowned economist Lester C Thurow’s The Future of Capitalism, was published by Penguin Books (1996), wherein he stated: “How does a system that believes it takes competition to make the firms within capitalism efficient, adapt to a changing environment and maintain its efficiency if the system of capitalism itself has no competition?” Thurow refers to the loss of alternative economic systems with the downfall of communism. And, it is probable Thurow also foresaw the hegemonic aspects of capitalism’s drive forward. As he said, “The market, and the market alone, rules. No one doubts it…. Capitalism’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century competitors- fascism, socialism, and communism- are all gone.”

According to Thurow, “There have been other periods when the dominant social systems had no competitors- ancient Egypt, imperial Rome, the Dark Ages… In all of these situations the dominant social system lost it ability to adapt.”

Thus, whither capitalism is a fair topic for analytical thought.

One can only guess what the future holds, but if one extrapolates the recent past forward, the socio-economic landscape looks kind of ugly.

According to Michael Sandel (political philosopher, Harvard University), over the years, “market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.”6

Markets now allocate everything, for example, for-profit schools, for-profit hospitals and for-profit prisons, war is outsourced to for-profit private contractors, for-profit private guards outnumber public police; all of this was unheard of 30 years ago. Everything is for-profit.

As it happens, the 2008 financial collapse brought into focus the ability of markets to efficiently allocate risk as a big question mark, and so too does the morality of capitalism come into question. Ever since capitalism’s evolving from a market economy to a market society was punctuated by near total collapse, the warts came to surface, i.e., the 1% versus the 99%, and banker bailouts, as a result of fraudulent practices, at taxpayer expense, and the commoditization of people, ‘outsourcing them is to demean them’. Thus, battle lines are drawn between the 1% and everybody below. The middle class no longer sees a golden glow of upward mobility on the horizon like they did 30-40-50 years ago. They’re stuck like the poor in a rigid caste system that buys and sells humanity as well as material goods.

Capitalism, as a socio-economic system, has evolved into a perplexing conundrum whereby the elite class aspires, and achieves, ever-higher gains whilst the vast middle serve as a commodity, subject to outsourcing to the lowest bidder. As it happens, capitalism auctions people for profit. This dehumanizing nexus will most likely end badly. And, it is unfortunately very likely it may inadvertently prompt police state tactics beyond anybody’s wildest imagination.

As it goes, and unfortunately for King Louis XVI’s head, in 1793, he did not build a national security apparatus remotely close to America’s. Which also implies that street fighting may become the world’s next big series of big events… reserved for those with the wherewithal to stay away and observe from afar. In a macabre sense, similar to the Roman upper classes at the Colosseum (AD 70-80), watching the feeding of Christians to lions, but the contemporary version will likely be middle class citizens beaten by for-profit militia. It’s already here.

  1. John Lyons, Loretta Chao and Matthew Cowley, Brazil’s New Middle Class Takes to the Streets, Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2013. []
  2. Protests Against Austerity in Europe, Pravda, June 6, 2013. []
  3. Lee Ee May, Malaysia in the Emerging Markets Protests Narrative, Malaysian Insider, June 18, 2013. []
  4. Philip Pullella, Pope Rails Against ‘Dictatorship of the Economy’, Urges Reform, Reuters, May 16, 2013. []
  5. Robert Gilpin, The Challenge of Global Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 2000. []
  6. Michael Sandel, What Isn’t for Sale, The Atlantic, April 2012. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.