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From Tahrir to Wall Street

Fed Up and Taking to the Streets, But What are the Demands?

by ESAM AL-AMIN

People across the globe are angry. Fed up with their corrupt and inept governments, people have taken to the streets. The furious protesters have come from all walks of life: students, workers and farmers, men and women, young and old, urban and rural, the working poor and the struggling middle class.

Undoubtedly, the Arab Spring has inspired people around the globe to take matters into their own hands. In essence, the masses have given up on their elected officials, whom they see as selling out to the multinational corporations and the super rich in their societies.

From Chile to Greece and from England to India, people are standing up, demanding their rights, and denouncing corrupt policies and systems that favor the haves and stick it to the have-nots.

There’s been a global assault by unrestrained capitalism for the past four decades. From Chile and Argentina and other Latin American countries in the 1970s, to Poland, Russia, South Africa, and the Asian crisis in the 1990s, and from post-invasion Iraq to the tsunami-stricken countries in the past decade, neoliberalism imposed its grand global agenda.

Its main emphasis was on privatization, deregulation, and massive cutbacks of state subsidies that benefit the poor and the middle class. This scheme was forced on numerous societies by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), G-8 countries, and the multinationals, through support of military dictatorships, providing questionable massive debts, and sometimes even by direct military intervention.

Since the 2008 severe global recession, people have witnessed how mega-banks and multinational corporations were bailed out by compliant politicians with several trillion dollars of public money. In return, the multinationals and the super rich continue to bankroll the campaigns of these same politicians who voted for the huge bailouts or handed out massive business subsidies, while cutting down programs that help the middle class or aid the poor. Meanwhile, tens of millions of people were losing their jobs and made impoverished as a result.

In the United States, the richest country on earth, the numbers are staggering:

  • The top one per cent of Americans own forty-two per cent of all wealth, while the richest twenty per cent hold eighty-seven per cent of the country’s wealth. Furthermore, the richest 11,000 American households have more income than the bottom 25 million households (over 75 million Americans.)
  • According to Forbes magazine, during eight years of the Bush administration, the 400 richest Americans, who now own more than the bottom 150 million Americans, increased their net worth by $700 billion.
  • In 1955, IRS records indicated that the 400 richest people in the country were each worth an average $12.6 million, adjusted for inflation. Today, the 400 richest increased their average wealth to $3.45 billion, an increase of 274 fold.
  • In 1955, the richest tier paid an average 51.2 per cent of their income in taxes that included loopholes. Today the richest Americans pay less than 17.2 per cent of their income in taxes, almost the same rate as declared by billionaire-investor Warren Buffet.
  • In 1955, the proportion of federal income from corporate taxes was 33 per cent. Today it decreased to about 7.4 per cent. In 2009, GE generated $10.3 billion in pre-tax income but ended up owing nothing to Uncle Sam. In fact, it recorded a tax benefit of $1.1 billion. Big Oil giant Exxon Mobil, reported in 2009 a record $45.2 billion profit, but paid none of it to the IRS.
  • Meanwhile, fifty million Americans have no health insurance while 46.2 million (one in six, and twenty-two per cent of all American children) live in poverty, the most in fifty-two years.
  • According to the latest labor statistics over 14 million Americans are jobless, while over 30 million are underemployed. Five million people have already given up looking for work after one year.

But if the Arabs’ anger at the repression and corruption of their governments has led to the popular uprisings and protests throughout this year, will the greed and unholy alliance between unrestrained capitalism and the political class, produce mass protests across America?

If the answer is yes -as witnessed by the nascent and growing Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and a dozen other cities- then what are their demands?

Part of the success of the Arab Spring was the lack of central leadership that governments could crack down, as well as its mass appeal, especially among the youth. Similarly, the American protesters have so far lacked a central leadership that can be manipulated or coerced, but in fact the protests have grown and spread through the use of social media, especially among the young people.

In the streets of Cairo, Tunisia, Sana’a, Benghazi, and Hama, millions of demonstrators through unyielding determination and sustained efforts have had clear demands: the fall of the corrupt systems and the call to real democracy and self-determination.

But it is not clear what the American protest movement’s objectives are beyond the general expression of anger of the 99 per cent against the greed and indifference of the super rich and the multinationals in the country.

In short, the movement needs to articulate specific demands that will fundamentally alter the power structure in this country, not only by restraining unchecked capitalism but also by returning the decision-making powers back to the people. While some of these demands might be short-term, others should be long-term, so that decades of reckless policies are reversed and dangerous military adventures are rolled back.

As for such demands, here are a few suggestions:

1) Paying a fair share of taxes. The Bush-Obama free lunch for the super rich should be declared over. Moreover, to address social security insolvency, payroll taxes should be applied on all income over $250,000 with no cap. For the long term, the country must tax not only income, but also wealth over $10 million at perhaps one-half per cent per year. This revenue could be split between local, state, and federal governments, if only to address the deterioration of the country’s basic infrastructure. If a person is to enjoy the country’s security and prosperity, one needs to contribute to that through a small surtax on that wealth.

2) The right to healthcare, education, and a living wage must be guaranteed rights to every citizen. They are not privileges. A person or a family should be afforded health coverage and a decent education, without incurring debts or becoming poor.

3) The end of the police and surveillance state. Constitutional principles and civil rights, which have been encroached upon by the PATRIOT Act and other aggressive and intrusive federal statutes, must be restored. There is nothing more threatening to the American way of life than the undermining of basic rights and freedoms in the name of security.

If a president has the power to declare an American citizen an enemy of the state, and order his execution without the constitutional guarantee of due process of law, then no one is protected.

4) Comprehensive electoral reform that includes the following: Congressional seats must be drawn by independent federal judges according to fair and rational standards. Money in congressional districts and political elections should be capped and limited to individuals from the same districts or states. The media must be required to give equal access to all viable candidates. Elections should be held over multiple days, including a weekend. The archaic Electoral College must be abolished. Presidential as well as senatorial and congressional elections must allow for first and second choices on the ballot so that voting for third party candidates would not be considered a “wasted vote.” In essence, the fate and future of American democracy depends on implementing such reforms.

5) An end to the empire. The policies of funding unrestrained defense budgets, hundreds of military bases and costly adventures around the globe must come to an end. There are over 750 military bases around the globe costing hundreds of billions every year.

The late Chalmers Johnson convincingly made the case in his Blowback trilogy when he said, “To maintain our empire abroad requires resources and commitments that will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and in the end produce a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent. The founders of our nation understood this well and tried to create a form of government – a republic – that would prevent this from occurring. But the combination of huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, military Keynesianism, and ruinous military expenses have destroyed our republican structure in favor of an imperial presidency. We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation is started down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting of forces opposed to imperialism, and bankruptcy.”

In the long term, one of the best policies to democratize the country is to reinstate the draft. Multinational corporations, politicians, and the super rich in this country have no qualms about sending the American military (the overwhelming majority of which is comprised of the poor and middle class) to places around the world to secure their interests. If they knew that their sons and daughters may have to serve and face the ultimate sacrifice, they would think ten times before entangling America in an unnecessary military adventures.

In effect, each American, rich or poor, should be required to serve his or her country for a designated period of 12-15 months. Some could serve in the military, while others could work to rebuild the infrastructure in this country. Still others could serve around the world in a peaceful capacity, for the betterment of humanity.

If the anger and disgust of the American people with the status quo continues to grow and spread, the insistence on these demands will ultimately produce real changes and reforms. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com