Where next for the fight against economic inequality?
Photo credit: *eddie
January 5, 2012 // By: Faiza Shaheen
In 2011 we saw protests of epic proportions, and I’m not just referring to the Arab Spring. The global scenes of thousands of regular citizens chanting and waving banners with the slogan of “we are the 99 per cent” brought joy to those of us who have been harping on about the injustice associated with economic inequality for some time. I still can’t quite believe it. But it did happen and, despite the Occupy movement’s mother camp in New York City being forced out of its original site, protestors from London to Los Angeles refuse to be silenced. As we look ahead to 2012, the question is whether the Occupy movement is a game changer – will policy actually be modified as a consequence or will the 1 per cent continue to reign? Did 2011 mark the watershed moment I’ve been waiting for?
I believe so. Yes, I know that the richest 1 per cent continue to have much too much say in our politics and can block change. I know too that the economic outlook is depressing right now - the on-going Euro crisis, the growing impact of cuts and increasing unemployment would suggest more doom and gloom for the year ahead. But I do think that progress will be made on the problem of economic inequality over the next year. These are the reasons why:
1. Economic inequality has become a middle class issue. The problem of economic inequality is no longer just about the growing difference between the richest and the poorest, but between the richest and everyone else. Median wages have stagnated in both the UK and the US since 2002, and the fiscal squeeze now means people in the middle are seeing their incomes decline in relative terms. This is fundamentally important for the cause because as inequality begins to affect the middle classes, political parties will be under much more pressure to do something about it. It was clear from Obama’s speech in Osawatomie that at least he has taken note of the issue, stating that “this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all.”
2. Being in vogue. The Occupy Movement may not have caused a shift in policy yet, but do not underestimate the power of making an issue common discussion. Two main factors will keep the issue in the headlines:
- Growing inequality: The regressive impact of public spending cuts and unemployment will continue to highlight just how unfair things are. This will only increase the likelihood that people will be camping outside St Pauls Cathedral and protesting in 2012 and should raise more questions about acceptable levels of inequality among the general population and in the media.*
- Economic inequality as a worldwide virus: In the
past 20 years economic inequality has been increasing, to different degrees,
in the majority of developed countries. This includes countries renowned for
their relatively low levels of inequality like Japan and even Nordic nations.
This makes economic inequality a global issue, and as the socio-economic
consequences of economic inequality continue to raise their ugly heads across
different nations, more populations will begin to wise up
3. The growing voice of reason from unlikely places. The idea that current levels of inequality are damaging for financial stability, social mobility and community cohesion (see our brief 10 reasons to care about economic inequality) is gaining credibility. Leading economists and organisations, including the OECD and the IMF, not traditionally associated with left-leaning economic policy, are increasingly highlighting the links between the Great Recession and economic inequality, urging governments to tackle current disparities as a matter of priority.
In short, there is going to more pressure on governments to do something about economic inequality. Of course, for policy change to take place we cannot just sit back and hope the wheels are all in motion. More research needs to be done, campaigns run, politicians harangued and perhaps more tents put up around St Paul’s Cathedral. nef will be continuing to make noise about how important the issue is and why, as well as working on innovative ways to address economic inequality that do not depend on the traditional but unpopular route of tax and spend.
All I ask of you is to keep discussing with work colleagues, friends and family about how wrong it is that bankers are still getting bonuses or how unaffordable buying a house is, or even what is really motivating those sleeping in the Occupy camps over the winter months.