The authorities are undertaking a legal and judicial counter-offensive against the "occupy" camps that have sprung up in central locations in New York and London. But scores of camps remain across north America and western Europe, part of a diffuse and dispersed phenomenon that has acquired a life of its own within a few short weeks.
These protests echo others earlier in 2011, including the turbulent actions in Greece and the extensive mobilisations in Spain (see "A time of riot: England and the world", 11 August 2011). They also connect with developments elsewhere: the mass student demonstrations in Chile that moved from opposition to a failing education system to a much wider campaign against marginalisation, and the protests by middle-class Israelis against their more restricted life-chances (albeit such conditions are still far outranked by the great poverty in the nearby occupied territories, notably Gaza).
This upsurge of demonstrations is largely a response to the renewed economic crisis and to the enduring spectacle of financial institutions paying huge salaries and even larger bonuses to their elites while the majority of populations bear the brunt of government-imposed cuts. More broadly it recalls the large-scale anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s, not least around the Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001) summits. This movement receded after 9/11 and the launch of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - but it has now returned, albeit in a different guise, as a result of the accumulating economic crises of 2007-11.
The double problem
These protests, demonstrations and movements may well be sustained or they may (at least in the short term) recede. Yet in a global perspective they reflect two processes that lend them deep importance.
The first, and an extraordinary aspect of the last few months in particular, is the growing acceptance that free-market capitalism simply is not working. This outlook has permeated the consciousness even of traditional economists - a marked contrast to the "end of history" era of the early 1990s, when the Soviet centrally-planned system had been consigned to the dustbin of history, the Washington consensus was "freeing" countries in the global south from the supposed rigidities and inertia of a mixed economy, China was embracing the market, and "turbo-capitalism" was the order of the day.
The assumption took root then that free-market capitalism was the only way forward, and anyone who thought or said otherwise was either deeply misguided or even malign. Yet the reality has failed to live up to the claim: in 1980-2010, overall international economic growth was lower than it had been in 1950-80, and (far more important) the later model has greatly increased the world's socioeconomic divide, with 20% of the world's people now owning 84% of household wealth (and the richest 1% alone reported to have more than 20%).
The second process runs in parallel: the huge if relative improvements in education, literacy and communications across the majority world of the global south, which ensure that far more people are aware of their own marginalisation. This phenomenon, detailed in many past columns in this series, has already resulted in radical and sometimes violent social movements, not least the Maoists in Nepal and the Naxalites in India, as well as the persistent (and under-reported) problems of social unrest in China(see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008).
The Arab awakening of 2011 can be viewed in this light. The triggers of the phenomenon may include opposition to stultifying autocracies, but a further key factor is the demographic bulge of educated and knowledgeable young people with few job prospects. Some estimates, for example, suggest that Tunisia has 140,000 unemployed graduates amid its population of just over 10 million.
The underlying trend of a widening global divide was ignored by economists until 2007-08, amid widespread belief that overall growth at a reasonably sustained level would diminish any dangers. The onset of major financial crisis made that extremely doubtful, as bottomless debts from a variety of mechanisms - sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps, collateral debt obligations - came close to bringing large parts of the western banking system to collapse.
After the initial patchwork response, an illusion took hold in the 2008-10 period that "business as usual" was returning. This has now disappeared as a full-scale slump begins to look probable. Even orthodox economic analysts are realising that unfettered and largely unregulated free-market capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable, and that basic rethinking of how the global economy is allowed to develop is essential.
The system fix
An even larger reality overhangs these developments, one that may appear unconnected to them yet is in fact central: namely, global environmental constraints, especially climate change. The dominant model of free-market capitalism seems even less able to respond to these "external" constraints than to its own "internal" systemic problems.
If there is a saving grace here, it is that the economic crisis is unfolding some years ahead of the moment when the full and unavoidable impact of the environmental limits to growth hits. In turn, however, the implication is that essential economic reform must be truly radical - capable of addressing both the fundamental inequities and the evolving constraints. This "double problem" requires over the next two or three decades a readiness to change that matches its scale and depth.
In this respect, the "occupy" demonstrations and the many other responses to the financial crisis draw timely attention to the woeful inadequacy of the current economic system - timely, because they are giving voice to this truth before the system faces up to the epic challenge of a constrained world system. By doing so, they might make it a little more likely that real change will indeed come before it is too late. The protesters in their tents may be doing everyone a much bigger favour than they, or we, appreciate.
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