A Global Call for Sharing and Justice

In a dramatic series of events since late 2010, a new and intensified phase of public protest has erupted across both wealthy and poor regions of the world. Right across Europe, harsh programs of financial austerity have led to escalating protests and mass public campaigns; in the Middle East and North Africa, a revolutionary wave of civil unrest is gripping the international media; and less reported are countless smaller anti-government demonstrations taking place across diverse continents. As commentators struggle to keep up with the rapid unfolding of these events, it is worthwhile to reflect on the basic connections between these varied struggles, and to pose a simple question: are we witnessing the birth of a truly international public voice calling for wealth redistribution and wholesale political reform?

The pan-European protests were sparked by government plans to cut public spending, slash welfare benefits and freeze pay in response to economic recession and the debt crisis. With European Union finance ministers agreeing rules that would punish countries that fail to bring their debts under control, a new austerity drive swept across the 16-nation eurozone as governments struggled to trim their huge budget deficits. Both the German and UK coalition governments approved their biggest austerity plans since World War II; Italy and Spain joined Europe’s austerity club with massive cuts to public services; France announced its controversial plans to cut spending and raise its retirement and pension ages; while the most debt-stricken countries in the EU – Portugal, Greece and the Irish Republic – committed to draconian austerity packages to please international investors, not to mention the ongoing budget cuts in various other EU countries such as Hungary, Latvia, Romania and the Netherlands.

What’s most striking about the public outcry that followed is not only the vast scale of civic protests, but the sense that a majority of European people believe that government austerity measures are unnecessary and deeply unjust. On 29th September 2010, the European Trades Union Confederation (ETUC) organised coordinated demonstrations in European cities, with hundreds of thousands of union members across the region amassing under the banner ‘No to Austerity’. Countless new campaign groups and social movements have also highlighted the distorted priorities of governments who cut public spending as opposed to targeting the excesses of big corporations, bankers and international investors. This included the voices of leading economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Christopher Pissarides who argued that austerity measures go in exactly the wrong direction, and are more likely to result in lower economic growth, worsening unemployment and protracted recession. In the words of Attac, the French campaign group who stood by the anti-austerity protesters across Europe:

The radical austerity policies now demanded by the EU are a solution in the interest of the wealthy and the financial actors alone. EU governments intend to implement austerity policies everywhere. …Their policies can only deepen social inequalities and the present crisis, while making the economic situation in Greece and the rest of the EU even worse.

Out of the scores of anti-cuts groups still springing up at a local and national level across Europe, one that has captured the public imagination more than most is UK Uncut. In late October 2010, a group of London-based young activists thought up an ingenious way of highlighting an alternative to the British governments harsh austerity measures. Rather than simply protesting against public spending cuts, they focused upon the tax-avoidance strategies of rich individuals and big corporations. In a series of direct action protests organised spontaneously through the internet, the informal group has mobilised local protests and temporarily closed down more than a hundred stores in towns and cities across the country. The message of an alternative to austerity measures was brilliantly straight-forward: if the government clamped down on corporate tax avoidance, it would greatly reduce the need for public spending cuts. As the fastest-growing protest movement in the UK, its focus is now shifting to the greed and reckless practices of high street banks. And it’s now emerged that similar protests are being organised in North America under the banner US Uncut, with more than 30  demonstrations planned for 26 February – the date of UK Uncut’s second “day of action” against the banks.

No to Austerity and Ideology

Common to all the protests in Europe is a recognition of the pro-market ideology that is driving government policies to the detriment of the public good. Since the world stock market crash of 2008, it is increasingly evident that a number of governments are using the economic crisis as an excuse to re-shape the economy in the interests of business. In the UK, for example, George Monbiot recently wrote an article in the Guardian showing how the Chancellor of the Exchequer plans to allow money that has passed through tax havens to remain untaxed when it reaches the UK, accompanied by a rapid reduction in the official rate of corporation tax – the lowest rate of any major Western economy. At the same time, the British government is slashing social benefits and public-sector jobs, cutting budgets for government departments, transferring the onus for creating new jobs onto the private sector, and incrementally privatising the National Health Service and state education (with an attempt to privatise thousands of hectares of England’s national forests being recently defeated in Parliament). There is no shortage of commentary in the UK pointing out that such policies are ideologically-driven, opportunistic while the country is on the brink of bankruptcy, and even wider in scope than Margaret Thatcher’s swingeing program to cut government presence in the economy during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Greece’s 110 bn euro rescue package was agreed on the back of a huge austerity drive, civil service and pension cuts, the easing of restrictions on private-sector layoffs, and a large privatisation and structural adjustment programme that is geared more to saving European banks than protecting the livelihoods of the Greek public. The Irish Republic is suffering a comparable fate in return for a joint EU-IMF bailout package worth 85 bn euros. Alongside the harshest tax hikes and budget cuts in the nation’s history, the terms of the bailout stipulate that Ireland must get its budget deficit to 3 percent of GDP by 2015 – promising further budget cuts year-on-year regardless of the effect on jobs, welfare rights or the living standards of the majority. Portugal, Spain and possibly Belgium are all lined up for similar treatment. The message is clear: it is not the nation’s people that must be bailed out but the financial plutocrats who hold the nation’s debt, even if this spells the destruction of the entire post-war European social welfare system.

As many analysts are now pointing out, these savage austerity packages being unleashed across Europe mirror the fate that many developing nations have faced for decades. Scores of indebted countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have long endured the savage IMF structural adjustment programmes that Ireland, Greece and other EU countries are now suffering. A recent briefing by the Jubilee Debt Campaign (JDC) explains the similarities and differences between the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and responses to the debt crisis in the Global South by international financial institutions since the late 1970s. Zambia, for example, made extreme cuts in government spending throughout the 1980s and 1990s under pressure from the IMF, yet the cuts failed to prevent the country’s debt from doubling while its economy plunged into recession.

A similar logic was applied to Asian countries following the financial crisis in 1998; foreign private lenders were bailed out, government spending was severely cut back, public companies were further privatised, yet the economy still continued to decline. According to JDC, a common theme is that the public face the costs, not private lenders. And not only is private debt paid for by the public, but the cut-backs in public spending by no means guarantees a reduction in national debt. In effect, ordinary people are forced to pay for the reckless behaviour and mistakes of the financial sector – a reality that is now shared and understood by citizens in both the Global North and South.

Growing gap between rich and poor

A major difference for people in the South is that there is often no guaranteed state provisions or social safety nets that exist for them in the first place. Even in those developing countries still experiencing economic prosperity, most notably in the globalisation “success stories” of India and China, rapid GDP growth is being matched by deepening inequalities and social insecurity. As we know from the World Bank’s global poverty statistics, at least 80 percent of the 1.1 billion people who live in India somehow manage to survive on less than $2 a day. In China, still 36 percent of its population survives on less than $2 a day, while the rural-urban income gap has continued to widen alongside increases in inequality of health and education outcomes. As what some call “the greatest migration in world history” continues across China, rural migrant workers arriving in industrial areas often find themselves trapped in abysmal working and living conditions, many without basic health and safety protections.

This definite growth in inequality and the lack of economic opportunity and social security that underpins it has long been a recurring theme across the world. A recent UNCTAD report revealed that there are now twice as many low-income countries than there were 30-40 years ago, and twice as many poor people living in them. Even more indicative of this worrying trend in global inequality is the evidence that a new ‘bottom billion‘ of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries – a dramatic change from just two decades ago when the majority of the poor lived in low-income nations. A growing gulf between the rich and poor is also continuing in many high-income countries, not least in the United States where the top 20 percent of wealthy individuals own about 85 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent own very near 0 percent. As the Economist magazine is keen to point out in a special report, there is an ongoing rise in the share of income going to the very top – the highest 1 percent of earners – who constitute a global power elite or ‘superclass’ in many countries. At the other end of the scale, evidence suggests that the number of people living in relative poverty could possibly be 4 billion and rising.

This is the context in which we can better understand the sudden eruption of civil unrest across North Africa and the Middle East. Whilst much of the mainstream media focused on the repression of public freedoms, corruption and a lack of democracy as the main cause of popular insurrection, common underlying factors also include the growing levels of inequality, ongoing hikes in the price of basic food and energy, and poor access to housing and welfare services. Whilst Mubarak left office in Egypt with a reported $70 bn dollars of stolen public money, citizens remain saddled with $30 bn of debts despite a poverty rate of 1 in 4 and a recurring food crisis. Tunisia, a regional poster child for the success of pro-market reforms, is in a similar predicament with crippling graduate unemployment rates of up to 46 percent, despite strong GDP growth. This underlying pattern of protest against social and economic deprivation alongside political repression is being repeated across Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iran, Morocco, Oman, and a number of other countries in the region. All have been spearheaded by the countries’ youth, fuelled by social media and television, yet broadly supported by the middle class. In an unprecedented outpouring of goodwill and solidarity, these millions of people on the streets are claiming their democratic right to a fairer share of the vast wealth that their rulers have hoarded for decades.

The pan-Arab protests clearly have much in common with those reacting to austerity across Europe, as well as the millions who have mobilised in support of debt cancellation and an end to ‘economic adjustment’ in the South. In every country, the widespread outcomes of debt, austerity, poverty and inequality are the product of political choices – the consequences of a disastrous neoliberal approach to managing a nation and its finances. What we may be witnessing in the popular responses to these hardships is an emerging global consensus in favour of a fundamental reordering of government priorities. In the space of barely a few months, the rapid growth of anti-austerity demonstrations across Europe and massive anti-government protests all over the Middle East indicate the potential for public opinion to take on an international dimension. Given the determination of policymakers across the globe to continue with business as usual, the strengthening of a world public opinion in favour of a more equitable distribution of resources may constitute the first step toward meaningful reforms.

As this increasingly global call for justice unfolds across several continents, an underlying demand being voiced by protesters in different countries is the urgent need for redistribution. Calls for an end to austerity measures, more progressive taxation and the cancellation of debt in the developing world all reflect the need to redistribute wealth and political power downward. An implicit understanding common to all these demands is that governments are better able to secure basic human needs for their citizens through the provision of more effective welfare and social services. The question that remains is whether the need for redistribution can be recognised at the international level where the unequal distribution of power and resources manifests in extreme differences in living standards between the richest and poorest nations. If the case for international sharing captures the public imagination as quickly as the calls for distributive justice in individual countries, the elimination of global poverty could finally become a realistic possibility.

Adam Parsons is Editor of Share the World's Resources and can be contacted at adam@stwr.org; Rajesh Makwana is the director of Share The World's Resources and can be contacted at rajesh@stwr.org Read other articles by Adam Parsons and Rajesh Makwana, or visit Adam Parsons and Rajesh Makwana's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on February 24th, 2011 at 8:27am #

    I wouldn’t greatly disagree but it must not be forgotten that the fundamental problem is that the plutocrats in question are American. Thus, austerity in Europe is not the pursuit of some neo-liberal agenda on the part of our own leaders but is intended to defend Europe’s people and, indeed, its welfare state, by breaking once and for all the stranglehold which the American speculators, who are very definitely are pursuing a neo-liberal agenda and are indeed seeking to destroy our welfare state, have on Europe’s economy. It is that distinction, namely that European governments are in debt to American, not European, plutocrats, that makes all the difference and it is the instinctive understanding of that situation that has caused the protests in Europe to calm down and not escalate. The demonstrations in Greece are now fairly routine stuff by the standards of that country. There have been no demonstrations in Ireland for quite some time and Friday’s election will not produce any radical changes in the way the country is going. I would compare it to the situation in Britain during the Blitz. People were furious at being bombed but they blamed that on Hitler, not Churchill, and they accepted that the “blood, sweat and tears” that Churchill offered was the least painful way to put an end to the problem.
    There is, of course, a parallel with what’s going on in the Middle East. In 1989 – 91, the corrupt one-party regimes on which the current Middle East regimes are modeled were overthrown in Eastern Europe. According to, for example, the Catholic analysis, “capitalism” and “communism” are just two sides of the same morally evil, materialist coin and logically, therefore, once communism collapsed, it would sooner or later drag capitalism down with it. That is indeed what seems to be happening. That won’t please the “end of history” crowd or the “we won the cold war” crowd but the wily old Polish Pope is having the last laugh, wherever he is!
    Small point of etiquette: one does not say “Irish Republic”. The name of the state is “Ireland” and may be distingushed from Northern Ireland by expressions such as “Republic of Ireland” or, in an appropriate case, “the South”.

  2. bozh said on February 24th, 2011 at 9:01am #

    parsons, mawana
    “are we witnessing the birth of a truly international public voice calling for wealth redistribution and wholesale political reform?”

    yes! my question. i’ve been wishing that the protest are not ad hoc, w.o. leadership, or just monetary! or even anti a leadership but anti every fascist leadership! tnx

  3. bozh said on February 24th, 2011 at 9:19am #

    makwana, parsons:
    “This included the voices of leading economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Christopher Pissarides who argued that austerity measures go in exactly the wrong direction, and are more likely to result in lower economic growth, worsening unemployment and protracted recession.”

    lower economic growth [ i am on a limb here; i do not know what growth means to these people. is it just another snake oil?] might be the best thing that cld happen to biota, animals, and people.

    if these peoples wld reduce consumption by 50-90%, it wld be good for them and biota. tnx

    and especially if the progress results in unforseen or deliberately produced regress.
    we’ve hardly had any progress w.o. also grievous regress to all living beings.

    in my knowledge, the economists listed above practice age-old sorcery and not a science.

  4. bozh said on February 24th, 2011 at 9:40am #

    parsons, makwana:
    ‘As what some call “the greatest migration in world history” continues across China, rural migrant workers arriving in industrial areas often find themselves trapped in abysmal working and living conditions, many without basic health and safety protections.’

    some call it the greatest migration in world history. who are these “some”?
    depiction of people living on $2 or less leaves out many pertaining facts.
    one fact omitted is that people in the west–depending on individual countries– cld live on quite well on $20 a day.

    in add’n, why haven’t the two writers invited or chinese or other socialists to tell us what is going on in china?

    much of what these two writers say cld be evaluated as untrueand not conducive to ecopeace, plant-, biota, animal-, and people-friendliness. tnx

  5. Josie Michel-Bruening said on February 24th, 2011 at 10:35am #

    Well, I enjoyed reading this “Global Call for Sharing and Justice”
    by Adam Parsons and Rajesh Makwana very much!
    However, the comments to it are reminding at my grandmother when ironically referring to the opposition of the youth saying: “What is it about? – I’m against it!”

  6. Josie Michel-Bruening said on February 24th, 2011 at 10:40am #

    Meanwhile, calls for joining their protests are reaching me frequently, for instance from ANSWER Coalition and Codepink in USA. Well, I cannot participate at the demonstrations in Wisconsin but only at those in Germany.

  7. Rehmat said on February 24th, 2011 at 2:57pm #

    The western power will make sure that this utopian idea doesn’t materize otherwise the rich people of these powers will end up living like people in the developing countries. If world powers practice “sharing and justice” – then Americans who make less than 6% of world population would not be able to consume 40% of world’s resources while producing 50% of world garbage. the best result of the “justice” – would be NO ISRAEL!!

  8. mary said on February 25th, 2011 at 4:22am #

    Sitrep Libya

    The EU’s phony (ie appointed by the cabal and not elected by the taxpayers) Foreign Minister Baroness Ashton is promising #restrictive actions# against Gaddafi.

    There is an emergency cabinet meeting at No 10 this morning. Cameron has cut short his arms selling tour of the ME and the deputy Clegg has cut short his skiing holiday! Meanwhile the Brits who took Gaddafi’s (and BP’s) shilling are still holed up in the oil drilling camps. The Hague evacuation efforts have been disastrous disastrous.

    The revolting John Simpson with a tongue as smooth as a snake this morning assured the radio 4 audience that all would be well in Libya (ie the oil would keep flowing) as those Libyans who were in control in the East were ‘ mostly Western educated’ (ie in the Is US UK EU NATO pocket). Couldn’t make it up as they say.

    ‘President Obama and David Cameron have promised a joint approach to the Libyan crisis after Colonel Gaddafi went on state TV to blame the unrest on al-Qaeda. World affairs editor John Simpson analyses the situation in the country, the BBC’s Nahed Abou-Zeid and James Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton White House, give their analysis of the uprising.’

    {http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/b006qj9z/console} 2HRS 10 MINS IN

    ps London Stock Exchange closed today – market date issue???? Shock horror – they won’t make any shekels today.

  9. mary said on February 25th, 2011 at 6:04am #

    Another ‘Couldn’t make it up. Bliar still lives.

    The Britiish PM/arms salesman threatens Gaddafi with an investigation into his war crimes. This from a member of the coalition of the willing which has just killed five more civilians in Afghanistan including two children.

    25 February 2011 Last updated at 12:32
    Libya unrest: Cameron backs ‘war crimes’ investigation

    David Cameron: “In the last 24 hours there have been six flights that have left Libya and there will be more on the way if necessary”

    David Cameron has said the UK wants an investigation into whether the Libyan regime has committed “war crimes” in its crackdown on protests.

    International justice “had a long reach”, the UK prime minister said, and Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi would be “held to account” for his actions.

    He said the UK would push for Libyan assets abroad to be frozen and a travel ban on senior figures in the regime.

    Another five civilians, including two children, killed in airstrikes in Afghanistan.

    Bringing the reported total for civilian deaths from violence at the hands of NATO forces over the last seven days to about 75 (the actual total is undoubtedly much higher).


  10. mary said on February 25th, 2011 at 6:30am #

    The massacre continues… Just numbers to those who killed these people of course.

    25 February 2011 Last updated at 07:46

    Afghan probe says Nato killed dozens of Kunar civilians

    By Paul Wood
    BBC News, Kabul

    Those killed and injured were said to include women and children Afghan government investigators have told the BBC that 65 civilians, including 50 women and children, were killed in a Nato operation last week.

    But the Nato force, Isaf, says its initial findings show that no civilians were killed in Kunar province.

    It said more than 30 insurgents died in an overnight raid in the area.

    On Sunday, the provincial governor said civilians had been killed in recent Nato-led air strikes in a remote mountainous district.

    Afghans – from President Hamid Karzai down – believe that in Kunar province, indiscriminate Nato firepower killed 20 women, 29 children, and more than a dozen unarmed men.



  11. MichaelKenny said on February 25th, 2011 at 8:19am #

    Three posts, one after the other, and each more frantic the previous one! Nothing could be more encouraging to those of us who see the EU as Europe’s bulwark against the American/Israeli jackboot than the frantic hysteria with which the “Israel always wins” crowd seek every possible opportunity to smear it! Clearly, the EU is “winning” whatever Israel wants it to “lose”! Mary: would you please name the foreign minister of any country you choose who is ” elected by the taxpayers”.