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Protest Planet, by Juan Cole

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This story originally appeared atTomDispatch.com.

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Here's the simple truth of it: American priorities couldn't be clearer at the moment.  You would have to be blind not to notice. The numbers, almost any numbers you care to look at, tell the story.  In fact, you can hardly turn on the TV news or read a newspaper these days without being whacked over the head by a new set of staggering figures, each shocking in more or less the same way. 

You want a crystal ball to see the future?  No need.  Just check out, for example, the recent Pew Research Center study showing that, in 2009, households headed by adults 65 or older had 47 times the wealth of households headed by someone younger than 35.  The actual numbers feel more startling yet: $170,494 to $3,662. In 1984, the ratio was 10 to 1.  Consider that as your modern American history lesson for the day.  We're talking about the widest "wealth gap" on record.

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Those figures tell a tale about the likely lives of upcoming generations: not as good.  But let's not be too cheery about the elderly either.  After all, the most recent figures from the Census Bureau show poverty rising among seniors to 15.9%, or roughly one in six of elderly, many driven into debt and poverty by "out-of-pocket medical expenses."  About one in seven Americans now fall below the official poverty line, the most, writes Business Week, "since the Bureau began gathering that statistic" 52 years ago.  In the meantime, median family income declined by 2.3% in 2010, a year in which the economy expanded by 3%.  (Into whose pockets, I wonder, could that money be going?) 

If you want to think about American priorities another way, consider this figure: the price tag for a year at elite Princeton University ($37,000) is less than for a year in a New Jersey state prison ($43,000).  The U.S., in fact, has more people incarcerated than any country on the planet, but places only sixth in college degrees.  Its national spending on higher education rose by 21% from 1987 to 2007, but 127% in the same period for correctional spending.  Oh, and full-time college students are now borrowing 63% more for their educations than they did a decade ago and graduating, on average, more than $25,000 in debt into a job-poor universe.  Which brings up an obvious question: Which society is more likely to prosper, one that puts its money into incarceration or one that puts its money into education?

Right now, as the numbers pour in, the question isn't: Why are all those kids out there in parks and squares and plazas raising a fuss?  It's: Why isn't everyone protesting -- or 99% of us anyway?  TomDispatch regular Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment website is a crucial companion for anyone who wants to understand the Middle East, explains just why, in 2011, we find ourselves in an age of activism globally.  If the young are protesting nearly planet-wide, there's a reason: the world was screwed up in remarkably similar ways in almost any country you care to consider. Tom

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Protest Planet
How a Neoliberal Shell Game Created an Age of Activism

By Juan Cole

From Tunis to Tel Aviv, Madrid to Oakland, a new generation of youth activists is challenging the neoliberal state that has dominated the world ever since the Cold War ended.  The massive popular protests that shook the globe this year have much in common, though most of the reporting on them in the mainstream media has obscured the similarities.   

Whether in Egypt or the United States, young rebels are reacting to a single stunning worldwide development: the extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands thanks to neoliberal policies of deregulation and union busting.  They have taken to the streets, parks, plazas, and squares to protest against the resulting corruption, the way politicians can be bought and sold, and the impunity of the white-collar criminals who have run riot in societies everywhere.  They are objecting to high rates of unemployment, reduced social services, blighted futures, and above all the substitution of the market for all other values as the matrix of human ethics and life.

Pasha the Tiger

In the "glorious thirty years" after World War II, North America and Western Europe achieved remarkable rates of economic growth and relatively low levels of inequality for capitalist societies, while instituting a broad range of benefits for workers, students, and retirees.  From roughly 1980 on, however, the neoliberal movement, rooted in the laissez-faire economic theories of Milton Friedman, launched what became a full-scale assault on workers' power and an attempt, often remarkably successful, to eviscerate the social welfare state. 

Neoliberals chanted the mantra that everyone would benefit if the public sector were privatized, businesses deregulated, and market mechanisms allowed to distribute wealth. But as economist David Harvey argues, from the beginning it was a doctrine that primarily benefited the wealthy, its adoption allowing the top 1% in any neoliberal society to capture a disproportionate share of whatever wealth was generated. 

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In the global South, countries that gained their independence from European colonialism after World War II tended to create large public sectors as part of the process of industrialization.  Often, living standards improved as a result, but by the 1970s, such developing economies were generally experiencing a leveling-off of growth.  This happened just as neoliberalism became ascendant in Washington, Paris, and London as well as in Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund.  This "Washington consensus" meant that the urge to impose privatization on stagnating, nepotistic postcolonial states would become the order of the day. 

Egypt and Tunisia, to take two countries in the spotlight for sparking the Arab Spring, were successfully pressured in the 1990s to privatize their relatively large public sectors.  Moving public resources into the private sector created an almost endless range of opportunities for staggering levels of corruption on the part of the ruling families of autocrats Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis and Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.  International banks, central banks, and emerging local private banks aided and abetted their agenda. 

It was not surprising then that one of the first targets of Tunisian crowds in the course of the revolution they made last January was the Zitouna bank, a branch of which they torched.  Its owner?   Sakher El Materi, a son-in-law of President Ben Ali and the notorious owner of Pasha, the well-fed pet tiger that prowled the grounds of one of his sumptuous mansions.  Not even the way his outfit sought legitimacy by practicing "Islamic banking" could forestall popular rage.  A 2006 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks observed, "One local financial expert blames the [Ben Ali] Family for chronic banking sector woes due to the great percentage of non-performing loans issued through crony connections, and has essentially paralyzed banking authorities from genuine recovery efforts."   That is, the banks were used by the regime to give away money to his cronies, with no expectation of repayment.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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