Rage against the machine

FROM Seattle to Sydney, protesters have taken to the streets. Whether they are inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York or by the indignados in Madrid, they burn with dissatisfaction about the state of the economy, about the unfair way that the poor are paying for the sins of rich bankers, and in some cases about capitalism itself.

In the past it was easy for Western politicians and economic liberals to dismiss such outpourings of fury as a misguided fringe. In Seattle, for instance, the last big protests (against the World Trade Organisation, in 1999) looked mindless. If they had a goal, it was selfish – an attempt to impoverish the emerging world through protectionism. This time too, some things are familiar: the odd bit of violence, a lot of incoherent ranting and plenty of inconsistency. The protesters have different aims in different countries. Higher taxes for the rich and a loathing of financiers is the closest thing to a common denominator, though in America polls show that popular rage against government eclipses that against Wall Street.

Yet even if the protests are small and muddled, it is dangerous to dismiss the broader rage that exists across the West. There are legitimate deep-seated grievances. Young people – and not just those on the streets – are likely to face higher taxes, less generous benefits and longer working lives than their parents. More immediately, houses are expensive, credit hard to get and jobs scarce – not just in old manufacturing industries but in the ritzier services that attract increasingly debt-laden graduates. In America 17.1% of those below 25 are out of work. Across the European Union, youth unemployment averages 20.9%. In Spain it is a staggering 46.2%. Only in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria is the rate in single digits.

It is not just the young who feel squeezed. The middle-aged face falling real wages and diminished pension rights. And the elderly are seeing inflation eat away the value of their savings; in Britain prices are rising by 5.2% but bank deposits yield less than 1%. In the meantime, bankers are back to huge bonuses.

History, misery and protest

To the man-in-the-street, all this smacks of a system that has failed. Neither of the main Western models has much political credit at the moment. European social democracy promised voters benefits that societies can no longer afford. The Anglo-Saxon model claimed that free markets would create prosperity; many voters feel instead that they got a series of debt-fuelled asset bubbles and an economy that was rigged in favour of a financial elite, who took all the proceeds in the good times and then left everybody else with no alternative other than to bail them out. To use one of the protesters’ better slogans, the 1% have gained at the expense of the 99%.

If the grievances are more legitimate and broader than previous rages against the machine, then the dangers are also greater. Populist anger, especially if it has no coherent agenda, can go anywhere in times of want. The 1930s provided the most terrifying example. A more recent (and less frightening) case study is the tea party. The justified fury of America’s striving middle classes against a cumbersome state has in practice translated into a form of obstructive nihilism: nothing to do with taxes can get through Washington, including tax reform. Worryingly, politicians are already in something of a funk. The Republicans first denounced the occupiers of Wall Street, then cuddled up to them.

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Rage against the machine