Last August, the UK made headlines around the world as protests and riots rocked London and other major cities throughout the country. Today, hundreds of people occupy Wall Street, Indignados are protesting in Madrid and a further 3,000 demonstrators are camping in London’s Square Mile. In the last week, unrest has erupted in 900 cities in over 80 countries.
Politicians have shrugged the protests off as unrepresentative of the opinion of the greater population. However, despite the incongruous messages, there is a central chord being struck among demonstrators. A typical slogan reads: “The 1 per cent have gained at the expense of the 99 per cent”.
It is clear that the financial crisis is biting: inflation far out-passes bank saving rates, youth unemployment has skyrocketed into the double figures and the spectre of future tax increases looms over an already struggling economy. People have sought a source of blame and the oft-chosen targets are bankers.
Not since the 1930s has global economic ideology been challenged on such a scale. Social democracy in Europe has proved too expensive and the free market has not fulfilled the promise of continuously improving living standards. While living standards have seemed in a perpetual spiral upward since the mid-1980s, this generation of students fears the lack of employment prospects facing them upon leaving university.
Politicians would do well not to ignore the ever-increasing indignation displayed in the streets, which reveals a stockpile of deep-seated grievances. Ed Miliband spoke of ‘predatory businesses’ at the Labour Party conference and the moderate French socialist, François Hollande, is finding anti-rich rhetoric increasingly alluring.
America faces an even greater issue. With an election next year and its two parties drifting further from the centre, fiscal policy is becoming a no-go area. A form of ‘obstructive nihilism’ has taken over in Washington, the Economist writes, which has led to a virtual moratorium on taxation legislation.
Moving forward, the European crisis must remain the focus of the international community. However, actions demonstrating longer-term intent might reveal a deeper understanding of people’s difficulties. In the UK, where the government has demonstrated to the market its willingness to implement austerity measures, there is an opportunity to trade short-term spending for medium-term austerity. It is clear that the state cannot rely on foreign demand from the EU. Such a shift in focus will require strong leadership and great flexibility amidst an ever changing and evolving economic environment.
“Politicians would do well not to ignore the ever-increasing indignation displayed in the streets”
It may be unwise for politicians to pass off recent demonstrations as evidence that areas of society are ‘sick’. These largely peaceful protests reveal that real issues must be addressed. Continuing to sweep these movements aside may only lead to further disillusionment.