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The Gathering Storm

Austerity and Social Unrest

by DAVID ROSEN

Whatever the long-term fate of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, it has made two major contributions to the warming 2012 political climate.

First, OWS put the concept of economic and social (in)equity, of the haves and have-nots, the 99%-ers, of class, center stage in national political discourse.  This is no insignificant accomplishment.  For the last half-century, there has been an unstated ban on acknowledging the concept of class in political discourse.  It was an agreement shared in politics, education/academia, the media and the labor movement.  “Workers” became the “middle class” and the sins of capitalism forgiven.

OWS’s second contribution has been to recover direct action, particularly mass social mobilization, as a valid form of political engagement.  There is a growing perception that petition signing, marches and voting mean little, rituals confirming predetermined outcomes.  People on all sides of the growing number of political and social issues (including grassroots Tea Partyers) are discovering their voices, mobilizing and getting busted.  Not surprising, activists often use high-tech communications media to accomplish miracles.  Direct action is likely to take still new and unexpected forms as the economic crisis deepens, drags on and social unrest mounts.

The U.S. has a different political culture than, say, Europe (e.g., the UK, Italy and Greece) or North Africa (e.g., “Arab Spring” countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya).  And a different political culture leads to different forms of social unrest, whether expressed in anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, riots, political assassinations or attempted revolutions.  In each geo-political region and each country within it, social contradictions are played out differently, uniquely.  In the U.S., it found expression in the now-global slogan, “We are the 99%!”

In the U.S. during the 20th century, there were two major periods of massive social unrest.  The first was born from the failure of the Great Depression and led to widespread union organizing.  The second grew out of the promise of the Great Society and was expressed in the social struggles over civil rights, the Viet Nam war and popular culture.  In addition, during the last century the U.S. witnessed repeated assassinations and assassination-attempts of presidents and other officials; however, there were no attempted revolutions.

Today’s struggle, whether occupying Wall Street, London or Cairo, is an attempt to address yet another crisis of capitalism.  In the U.S., the powers-that-be and their enforcers, including many within the media, are playing the race card, characterizing the crisis as the consequence of foreclosures resulting from suspect mortgages awarded to lower-class people of color by complicit government agencies.  While oft repeated, few believe this lie.  As has become evident to increasing numbers of Americans, the only ones who made out like bandits were the bandits … the bankers, mortgage brokers and rating agencies.

The OWS movement highlights the deepening antinomies of austerity and prosperity that define early-21st century capitalism.  More social wealth was created during the last century than any time in history.  Much of it was squandered in wars and other forms of social madness.  However, over the last quarter century, social wealth has been increasingly unevenly distributed.  OWS taught Americans a moral lesson, reminding us that there’s something wrong when so many suffer for the benefit of so few.

Unrest throughout the world is driven by one underlying, shared (if unstated) perception:  Today’s economic (i.e., financial) recession represents a structural crisis of capitalism.  More than money is at stake; global capitalism is being realigned; American society is being restructured.

More inchoate is the sense that the powers-that-be are using the state apparatus to save the banking and financial sector while letting the rest of American to sink or swim on their own.  The nearly all-powerful 1% is using the crisis to further redistribute social wealth … upwards.

The recent period of more equitable distribution of social wealth, from the post-WW II period through the 1970s, is popularly known as the “American Century.”   It was an era in which, for many, prosperity fueled optimism.  The period suggested that post-modern society had the means to create an ecologically-grounded, post-scarcity nation.  OWS and other insurgencies across the globe are reigniting the great utopian promise that capitalism claims as its historic legitimacy and could be its undoing.

In the U.S. and Europe, austerity is the new religion of the corporate state, its virtues endlessly extoled by the media.  Finance capital is in crisis and social wealth is being plundered; the victims are told they are the cause of the crisis.  And, as the crisis intensifies, academics and policy analysts throughout the world are starting to analyze the relationship between austerity and social unrest.  The coordinated campaign by police forces throughout the country against local OWS improvisations is a sign of the further militarization of American life.

* * *

Two Spanish scholars, Jacopo Ponticelli (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and Hans-Joachim Voth (Center for Economic Policy Research), recently published a very influential study on the relationship between the economy and social unrest, “Austerity and Anarchy:  Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009.”  It’s a bloody tale of 20th century social crisis.  One of their key findings is cuttingly simple:  “Economic conditions can deteriorate further and faster if political and social chaos follows attempts to reign in spending.”  They insist that there is a direct link between cuts in social spending and an increase in social unrest.  As they insist: “With every additional percentage point of GDP in spending cuts, the risk of unrest increases.”

A second model of popular unrest is the “Predictive Societal Indicators of Radicalism Model of Domestic Political Violence Forecast.”  It was developed by Sam Bell, with Amanda Murdie, both at Kansas State University, and David Cingranelli, of Binghamton University (NY).  Most illuminating as to the current state of state-supported academic research, the forecast was developed for Milcord, of Waltham, MA, a company that “builds knowledge management solutions for federal agencies.”  It claims to have “predicted” civil unrest in Peru, Ireland, Ecuador, Italy and Tunisia; Iran is on its watch list.  Most disturbing, it has also developed unrest models for Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Italy and 35 other countries.  One can only assume it has developed one for the U.S., but it is the property of the FBI, DoJ, Homeland Security or another federal agency.

Anticipating concerns regarding social unrest and austerity, the Political Instability Task Force (PITF) was formed in 1994.  It proclaims itself to be “a panel of scholars and methodologists that was originally formed … at the request of senior policymakers in the United States Government.”

Patricia Justino, a professor at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (UK), has intoned with the authoritative voice only an academic could utter:  “Rises in economic and social disparities between the poor and the rich, systematic social exclusion and other forms of perceived unfairness in social relations often result in the accumulation of discontent to a sufficiently high level to break social cohesion.”

Justino, along with most scholars of social unrest, warn that governments tend to first resort to unpredictable civil unrest in a predictable manner: they use of police and military forces.  She warns:  “This can be a counterproductive measure since it does not address direct causes of conflict.”

Academics are not alone in their concern about the relationship between austerity and social unrest.  In 2008, the U.S. Army War College published a study, “Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development.”   This is a very scary document.  It calls for the U.S. military to prepare for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States.”   Such actions would violate a long-established precept of American democracy, the Posse Comitatus Act (18 U.S.C. § 1385) of 1878, that keeps the military out of domestic affairs.  The study advocates that “[u]nder the most extreme circumstances, this might include use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States.”

Some at the heart of the Obama administration share this perception.   Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, argued:  “The global economic crisis … already looms as the most serious one in decades, if not in centuries … Economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they are prolonged for a one- or two-year period.”

* * *

The perception that austerity contributes to social unrest is growing among ordinary Americans.  An August 2011 Rasmussen survey found that nearly half (48%) of all Americans believe that government spending cuts will lead to civil unrest on a scale similar to London’s spring uprising; 13 percent felt that social unrest was very likely.

Most surprising, people under 50 years of age think unrest is more likely and a third of those of surveyed believe that further tax hikes and stock market instability will contribute to social uprisings.

The OWS movement has pushed social unrest to a new level. Mass popular assembly has been growing as a tactic since the Seattle days-of-rage in 1999 opposing the World Trade Organization (WTO).  It was further adoption as a strategy during the Republican conventions held in New York in 2004 (when over 1,800 people were arrested) and again in St. Paul in 2008 (when nearly 300 people, including many journalists, were busted).

In responses, local police forces and federal agencies have been actively coordinating their respective plans to contain or halt social unrest.  In the wake of Oakland OWS police actions, Mayor Jean Quan acknowledged that she had participated in a conference call with the mayors of 18 cities discussing tactics to suppress popular assembly.  In addition, an official with the Department of Homeland Security revealed that that agency and the FBI were working with local municipal officials to plan how to shut down OSW protests.

As the social crisis intensifies and austerity and class become increasingly more compelling electoral issues, social unrest is likely to mushroom.  Popular recourse to OWS-style direct action initiatives will likely draw even more coordinated responses from local police and federal authorities.  Be prepared for the worse.

David Rosen  is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net.