Occupy Wall Street: Poverty and Rising Social Inequality, Interrogating Democracy in America

December 15th, 2011

Published on Global Research.ca, by Prof. Joseph Tharamangalam, December 13, 2011.

By highlighting rising inequality and poverty in America and asking why “the one percent” has been so successful in tilting state policy in its favour, the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OSW) is raising old and new questions about the nature and quality of the country’s democracy. 

It has brought into the spotlight the fact that the vast majority of the country’s citizens are unable to exercise the countervailing power needed to wrest for themselves some basic entitlement that are largely available to citizens of many social democratic countries.

Whether the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) can sustain its fight for a more equitable America remains to be seen. But it has succeeded in raising two critical issues. It has highlighted the issue of rising inequality and poverty in America attracting considerable attention from academics and the media.  It has also interrogated the quality of American democracy, raising an old question once again. Why has “the 1 percent” been so successful in tilting state policy in its favour in a democracy that is supposed to favour the majority?  This article attempts to offer some observations that shed light on these questions.

It is organized in three parts:

  • First it briefly examines the evidence showing rising inequality and increasing deprivations of the disadvantaged classes.
  • Second it draws on some scholarly work on comparative politics to argue that the capacity of American democracy to achieve equity-enhancing and redistributive outcomes has continued to be at a very low end in comparison with other western democracies. The decisive factor, it argues, is the absence of a social democratic state and of countervailing movements and parties of the lower classes to counter the power of the corporate elite. For unbridled capitalism, unchecked by democratic pressures from below, in fact results in monopoly capitalism and its political cousin oligarchy.
  • In the final part it offers some comments on the ideology of individualism and anti-statism that supports laissez-faire capitalism in an attempt to shed some light on its persistence and even resurgence in the face of the evidence of the systemic nature of America’s poverty and inequality.

Rising inequality and poverty: … //

… Ideologies, as masks obscuring and mystifying social reality, take on the garb of science or of religious dogma. The current dogma that bankers get bail-out (too big to fail) while the poor get cutbacks of their social safety nets is also presented in the garb of an immutable scientific law governing the health of a country’s economy. That the scientists (in this case neoliberal economists) who propound these laws enjoy certain credibility among the policy makers and chattering classes shows the dominant (if not hegemonic) status of this ideology in today’s capitalist societies.  But the very fact that the OWS movement has spontaneously spread across America and across the world and may even be sustained, albeit in mutated forms , (just as the public enthusiasm generated by the promise of change held out earlier by Obama’s “yes we can” campaign) is evidence that the current form of capitalism and the ideology that buttresses it are not  uncontested, and that  both social criticism and oppositional movements are alive. The extent to which these have the ability to exert greater redistributive pressures on the system is still an open question. (full long text, Notes 1 to 8 and References/Links).

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