FREE SPEECH ZONE | Distilling the cause of current world protests


A teacher pickets the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin…a student protests in Cairo…a shopkeeper joins militant crowds in Bahrain…and those who oppose the government in Iran bravely take to the streets. All seemingly different stories. All seemingly different reasons. All apparently different goals. But, all have one common denominator.

The stated goal of the teacher is the right to organize; the student to overturn the Mubarak regime; the man in Bahrain to remove anarchy; and the brave Iranians to seek rights not allowed under the religion-dominated government in Teheran.  But while those are the stated and apparent goals; the real driving force is: a rebellion of the “have nots” against the “haves” worldwide.  The demographics tell much of the story. 

Poverty is the principal cause of hunger. The causes of poverty include poor people’s lack of resources, an extremely unequal income distribution in the world and within specific countries, conflict, and hunger itself. In 2008 (2005 statistics), the World Bank estimated that there were 1,345 million poor people worldwide who live on $1.25 a day or less. This also relates to the later UN Food and Agriculture Administration estimate of 1.02 billion undernourished people. The rising cost of food is now an underlying cause of the Mideast riots and elsewhere in the world. 

Then there are the children. According to the World Bank, 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world). 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, and 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day). The parents of these “have nots” are not willing to see their offspring live in the conditions they themselves have endured. That’s what these protests are really about.

But poverty is not the only determent between the “haves” and “have nots”.  Money brings power – the power to influence, the power of submission, the power of the media and the power to maintain control. Sometimes. It cannot always control the power of the people. Witness the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the frequent overthrow of South American dictators.  The reason is simple: there are far more “have nots” than “haves” and eventually that discrepancy plays itself out.

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A 2006 UN report found the richest 1% of adults in the world own 40% of the planet’s wealth, according to the largest study yet of wealth distribution. Extending this, the report found the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total of global assets. Half the world’s adult population, however, owned barely 1% of global wealth.  What makes this especially interesting is that the statistics for the United States are not far off this model. Which brings us to Madison.

Clearly the Madison protesters are not among the most poor or destitute, but again confirming that power is a corollary to the distinction of “haves” and “have nots”, the Madison revolt is less about unions, the right to strike, wages and so on, than it is a battle between the common man (the middle class in this case) against the power of the “haves”. “Haves” like the Koch brothers and much of corporatist America, are intent on preserving their power, position and riches.  Breaking the unions, who have the capability to oppose them in an organized fashion, is a stated goal. And it is being actively coordinated in many states run by right leaning governors.

So as you drill deeper into the many protest movements now evolving around the world, they all have surface goals that may differ; but drill deeper into the movements, and you can see a common goal of bettering the lives of the “have nots” and their children.  The questions remain – will these movements gain any traction? Will the internet continue to drive revolutionary fervor? Will this be a defining moment on earth when a more equitable distribution of wealth may mean better lives for many? Will America be on the right side of history going forward? Are the “have nots” “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”? Will these revolutions morph into something less than democratic? And/or, will the power of the “haves” prevail, and snuff out any hope of making the earth a better, fairer, and healthier place to live.  As Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam pointed out, “The good news is that redistribution (of wealth) would only have to be relatively small. Such are the vast assets of the rich that giving up a small part of their wealth could transform the lives of millions.”

There is a lot happening now on our little blue planet. It may be a historic moment in which we are living…or maybe just another abortive attempt and return to the legacy of the past. We shall soon know.