Winning the Future

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the future is won, but no model for organizing against income inequality, cuts to public services, and tax evasion by the wealthy is used.

Juan Cole on Google exec Wael Ghonim’s organizing model in Egypt:

He wants an end to Egypt’s crony capitalist state, which allowed Hosni Mubarak to accumulate a fortune of $70 billion while 40 percent of Egyptians live on $2 a day or a little over that. Ghonim told CNN, “The plan was to get everyone on the street. The plan was number one we’re going to start from poor areas. Our demands are going to be all about what touches people’s daily life. And by the way we honestly meant it. One of the very famous videos we used all the time to promote this was a guy eating from the trash.”

He added, ‘we truly believe in these demands. Like the minimum wage. Like talking about the end of, the end of unemployment…reducing unemployment or at least giving people some sort of compensation to make living.’

Ghonim’s emphasis on labor demands came about because the uprising in Egypt is largely a labor uprising. It is an alliance of blue collar workers with white collar workers, all of them supported by a progressive youth movement and college students. It is therefore not actually a surprise that some 200,000 working class people joined in the protests on Wednesday, striking, encouraging strikes, and demanding a proper minimum wage.

“Muhit” reports that as the revolutionary movement entered its third week, thousands of workers in a number of factories and establishments launched sit-ins, strikes demanding better pay and better working conditions.

In the United Kingdom, a free form group called UK Uncut has been doing non-violent direct actions against tax dodgers to draw attention to public service cuts. The Nation has a long, must-read profile of UK Uncut this week. Here’s an excerpt:

Amid all these figures, this group of friends made some startling observations. Here’s one. All the cuts in housing subsidies, driving all those people out of their homes, are part of a package of cuts to the poor, adding up to £7 billion. Yet the magazine Private Eye reported that one company alone—Vodafone, one of Britain’s leading cellphone firms—owed an outstanding bill of £6 billion to the British taxpayers. According to Private Eye, Vodaphone had been refusing to pay for years, claiming that a crucial part of its business ran through a post office box in ultra-low-tax Luxembourg. The last Labour government, for all its many flaws, had insisted it pay up.

But when the Conservatives came to power, David Hartnett, head of the British equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, apologized to rich people for being “too black and white about the law.” Soon after, Vodafone’s bill was reported to be largely canceled, with just over £1 billion paid in the end. Days later George Osborne, the finance minister, was urging people to invest in Vodafone by taking representatives of the company with him on a taxpayer-funded trip to India—a country where that company is also being pursued for unpaid taxes. Vodafone and Hartnett deny this account, claiming it was simply a longstanding “dispute” over fees that ended with the company paying the correct amount. The government has been forced under pressure to order the independent National Audit Office to investigate the affair and to pore over every detail of the corporation’s tax deal.

“It was clear to us that if this one company had been made to pay its taxes, almost all these people could have been kept from being forced out of their homes,” says Sam Greene, another of the protesters. “We keep being told there’s no alternative to cutting services. This just showed it was rubbish. So we decided we had to do something.”

They resolved to set up an initial protest that would prick people’s attention. They called themselves UK Uncut and asked several liberal-left journalists, on Twitter (full disclosure: I was one of them), to announce a time and place where people could meet “to take direct action protest against the cuts and show there’s an alternative.” People were urged to gather at 9:30 am on a Wednesday morning outside the Ritz hotel in central London and look for an orange umbrella. More than sixty people arrived, and they went to one of the busiest Vodafone stores—on Oxford Street, the city’s biggest shopping area—and sat down in front of it so nobody could get in.

“What really struck me is that when we explained our reasons, ordinary people walking down Oxford Street were incredibly supportive,” says Alex Miller, a 31-year-old nurse. “People would stop and tell us how they were terrified of losing their homes and their jobs—and when they heard that virtually none of it had to happen if only these massive companies paid their taxes, they were furious. Several people stopped what they were doing, sat down and joined us. I guess it’s at that point that I realized this was going to really take off.”

These are just two examples of how people are taking initiative to organize popularly outside of the US. Conditions are ripe to do so here. Republicans are pushing austerity measures. Attacks are being made on public workers and public worker pensions. State budgets are brutally slashing services. The social safety net is at risk. Simultaneously, corporate profits are at all time highs, as are Wall Street bonuses. If anyone other than the richest Americans wants to win the future, it’s going to take organizing. Now.

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