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From Tunisia to Oakland, How a New Age of Activism Was Born

On both sides of the world, young activists are reacting to a single stunning development: the extreme and expanding gap between a very wealthy few and the rest of us.

| Thu Nov. 10, 2011 2:43 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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.

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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 percent in any neoliberal society to capture a disproportionate share of whatever wealth was generated.

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.

Tunisian activists similarly directed their ire at foreign banks and lenders to which their country owes $14.4 billion. Tunisians are still railing and rallying against the repayment of all that money, some of which they believe was borrowed profligately by the corrupt former regime and then squandered quite privately.

Tunisians had their own 1 percent, a thin commercial elite, half of whom were related to or closely connected to President Ben Ali. As a group, they were accused by young activists of mafia-like, predatory practices, such as demanding pay-offs from legitimate businesses, and discouraging foreign investment by tying it to a stupendous system of bribes. The closed, top-heavy character of the Tunisian economic system was blamed for the bottom-heavy waves of suffering that followed: cost of living increases that hit people on fixed incomes or those like students and peddlers in the marginal economy especially hard.

It was no happenstance that the young man who immolated himself and so sparked the Tunisian rebellion was a hard-pressed vegetable peddler. It's easy now to overlook what clearly ties the beginning of the Arab Spring to the European Summer and the present American Fall: the point of the Tunisian revolution was not just to gain political rights, but to sweep away that 1 percent, popularly imagined as a sort of dam against economic opportunity.

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