Stalled youth at the heart of a global political awakening

Excerpted from Pankaj Mishra:

“In India, tens of thousands of middle-class people respond to a quasi-Gandhian activist’s call for a second freedom struggle – this time, against the country’s venal “brown masters”, as one protester told the Wall Street Journal. Middle-class Israelis demanding “social justice” turn out for their country’s first major demonstrations in years. In China, the state broadcaster CCTV unprecedentedly joins millions of cyber-critics in blaming a government that placed wealth creation above social welfare for the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou last month.

Add to this the uprisings against kleptocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, the street protests in Greece and Spain earlier this year, and you are looking at a fresh political awakening. The specific contexts may seem very different, ranging from authoritarian China to democratic America (where Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man, publicly denounced a “billionaire-friendly Congress” last fortnight). And the grievances may be diversely phrased. But public anger derives from the same source: extreme and seemingly insurmountable inequality.

As Forbes magazine, that well-known socialist tool, describes it, protesters everywhere are driven by “the conviction that the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class” (and the working class too, whose distress is not usually examined in Forbes).

Certainly, the strident promoters of globalisation – politicians, big businessmen, and journalists – will have to work much harder now to bamboozle their audiences.

For years now, the mantra of “economic growth” justified government interventions on behalf of big business and investors with generous tax breaks (and, in the west, the rescue of criminally reckless investors and speculators with massive bailouts at the taxpayer’s expense). The fact that a few people get very rich while a majority remains poor seemed of little importance as long as the GDP figures looked impressive.

In heavily populated countries like India, even a small number of people moving into the middle class made for an awe-inspiring spectacle. Helped by an entertainment-obsessed and “patriotic” corporate media, you could easily ignore the bad news – the suicides, for instance, of hundreds of thousands of farmers in the last decade. However, the carefully maintained illusions of globalisation shattered when even its putative beneficiaries – the educated and aspiring classes – began to hurt from high inflation, decreasing access to education and other opportunities for upward mobility.

Economic growth is no defence against the frustration of the semi-empowered. The economies of both India and Israel have recorded dramatic growth, especially in their service sectors, in recent years. But inequality has also grown spectacularly. The Financial Times, which recently compared India’s oligarchic business families to Russia’s mafia-capitalists, pointed out two weeks ago that “the 10 largest business families in Israel own about 30% of the stock market value” while one quarter of Israeli families live below the poverty line.

Last month the Indian supreme court blamed increasing social violence in the country on the “false promises of ever-increasing spirals of consumption leading to economic growth that will lift everyone”. Obviously it is not the supreme court’s remit to define India’s economic policies. Nor should Anna Hazare be entrusted with establishing the office of an anti-corruption ombudsman, a moral rather than political mission that amounts to nothing in a country littered with compromised and impotent institutions.

Still, they respond, however incoherently, to a profound crisis of legitimacy afflicting their country’s highest institutions, and their supposed watchdog, the media. In India, for instance, a lot of public anger in recent months has focused on the country’s senior journalists who were recently caught making deals between corrupt politicians and businessmen.

In the last decade, billionaires, “billionaire-friendly” legislators and CEO-worshipping writers and journalists have together constituted what the political economist Ha Joon Chang calls a “powerful propaganda machine, a financial-intellectual complex backed by money and power”.

Nevertheless, the real facts about “economic growth” are getting through to those most vulnerable to it in both the east and the west: the young. Denouncing “the corruption among politicians, businessmen, and bankers” that leaves “us helpless, without a voice”, the manifesto of the Spanish indignados released after their massive demonstrations in May could have been authored by the Indian supporters of Hazare.

Even as they export jobs and capital to Asia, economic globalisers in the west continue to preach the importance of upgrading skills and retraining at home. Yet the dead-end of economic globalisation looms clearly before Europe and America’s youth: little chance of stable employment, or even affordable education.

The violence in European cities this year comes at the end of a long cycle of steady socioeconomic growth. In postcolonial India and China, where billions are now being coerced into a transition from agrarian to urban industrial economies, this cycle had barely begun before it began to splutter. A secure and dignified life seems even more remote for most as a tiny minority hives off the fruits of “economic growth”. Worried by the prospect of social unrest, China’s communist leaders frankly describe their nation’s apparently booming economy as “unstable, unbalanced, unco-ordinated and ultimately unsustainable”. Its fumbling response to Anna Hazare reveals that India’s democratically elected government has no better ideas about how to deal with the anger of an overwhelmingly young population, whose dramatically raised expectations stand little chance of being fulfilled.”

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