A quite extraordinary thing has happened in American, and even world, politics. It used to be the case that great wealth and income inequality were topics that were not mentioned in mainstream discourse and to suggest that this was not healthy for a democracy was to be accused of being envious or creating class warfare or attacking capitalism itself.
But how things have changed. Now the vast disparity in income and wealth between the top 1% and the remaining 99% is front and center. The gulf between the former and the latter is a major topic of discussion in almost all venues. Mitt Romney is being portrayed as an out of touch plutocrat and his extreme wealth is being seen as somehow reflecting negatively on him even among conservatives. Rick Perry (!) accused Romney of being a ‘vulture capitalist’ and Newt Gingrich demanded that he release all his tax returns and chastised him for being supported by big banks and acting like a corporate raider while working at Bain Capital, taking actions that resulted in people being thrown out of work and losing their homes. Could that really be Newt Gingrich siding with the workers against the investors?
And all this is taking place within the Republican party, whose entire platform used to be predicated on the assumption that wealth is a measure of one’s ability and virtue and even nobility, and that it should be rewarded even more. The reason these Republican critics of Romney are now doing what would have been unthinkable before is that they know that the growing divergence between rich and poor has become a major concern of the general public. Investment banks and Wall Street executives, the revolving door between big corporations and the government and their lobbying power that has resulted in the subversion of law and regulations, have all become the targets of public ire.
Romney and the party establishment have clearly been put on the defensive by this unexpected turn of events. As a result of this onslaught, Romney has been forced to make the truly risible claim that he actually pays about 50% in taxes, by including the taxes paid by his company. This may be the one truly novel idea he has come up with. Too bad it is stupid. They have also responded by charging that Newt Gingrich, of all people, is attacking capitalism itself and engaging in class warfare and warning them that they had better get back in line.
The unrest over inequality is everywhere. Even in the UK, this issue has gained potency with the Conservative-led government threatening to withdraw a knighthood given to the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, that received the costliest bank bailout worldwide and essentially ended up in government receivership. The current head of RBS was forced to agree to forego his bonus because of the threat of a parliamentary vote condemning the government for failing to block it.
Even the mood at the annual oligarchic festival at Davos that ended recently was subdued, because of the realization that the party may be coming to an end because of rising unrest over income and wealth inequality threatening the social order.
This has to be alarming to the oligarchy. They flourish when they work behind the scenes, quietly controlling the levers of government. To have the spotlight on them and being forced to justify what they do and what they earn is not something they are used to or are comfortable with. This change in the national, and even global, conversation is what the Occupy movement achieved and is to their lasting credit.
When people criticize the Occupy movement for being rudderless or lacking focus or clear goals or staying power, they miss the point. No single movement or political party can achieve major social change. They just don’t have the resources to do so. Such movements will rise and fall, ebb and flow.
What leads to change is when there is a national consensus that some things are simply wrong and must change. Just about six months ago, the issue of extreme income and wealth disparity was not part of the debate in the US. By demonstrating and sitting in public spaces and becoming so visible, the Occupy movement has helped us make huge strides towards creating such a consensus and for that we have to be truly grateful to them.