Matt Stoller has a post up at Naked Capitalism, which, while worthy to be read in full, draws out another set of lessons from the revolution in Egypt qua model for economic change movements in the United States:
Egyptians are trying to throw off the IMF-imposed austerity measures that created such a system for their country. The new government there is proposing raising taxes on oligarchs, increasing food subsidies, and reducing inequality. Their new cabinet is letting more people apply for “monthly portions of sugar, cooking oil, and rice.” The previous cabinet, “which was comprised of businessmen and former corporate executives”, had refused this.
And look at how Egypt is treating public employees: “Temporary workers who have spent at least three years working for the government will now be given permanent contracts that carry higher salaries, and benefits such as pension plans, and health and social insurance.”
Pension plans, health, and social insurance, oh my! How are they planning to pay for this? One member of a left-of-center party made it quite clear:
Confiscating wealth looted by cronies of the former regime, more egalitarian distribution of wealth, gradual taxation, better government oversight, and placing “a reasonable ceiling” on profitability of goods and services sold to the public are among the measures that should restore an economic balance to society, he said.
It is too early to pretend like this is a done deal, but it is certainly the case that the mass exercise of people-power in Egypt made this far more possible than it had been before. Even after Mubarak resigned, and even when the army tried to ban labor gatherings, the Egyptian labor movement continued to strike, gather, and make demands.
What’s so powerful about this is that it based in soundly liberal economic ideals: before some people have too much, everyone must have a baseline of wealth. Workers don’t exist to be exploited. Government doesn’t exist to speed a transfer of wealth from the poor and working class to the rich. In fact, it should work to ensure that there is upward economic mobility in society through basic things like education, livable wages, retirement security, and healthcare. These things are eminently achievable if there is a willingness in society to prioritize them over the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few.
People around the US, in the UK and in the Middle East are finding that they can get things done by going outside existing power structures and organize together. Common vision for economic life and common analysis of inequalities that keep them from achieving the life they want to live have brought workers into the streets around the world. Success has bred success, which has bred more courage for people to take action in the face of repressive and unresponsive forces.
For those of us in the labor movement, working on economic justice issues more broadly or working within Democratic politics the challenge is clear: either wake up to the fact that people are hungry for an economy that works for them or wake up to the fact that you’re irrelevant at best and a big part of the problem at worst. Mass change movements tend to come in cycles. Waves roll as far as they can reach and then stop. We’re in the midst of a big wave right now and while there is little professional activists can do to existentially change it, there is still a role for dedicated organizing to make this grow farther and wider. After all, saying Egypt happened because of Facebook is like saying the civil rights movement happened because Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. There is still a major role for people who seek to develop strategic methods for strengthening the hand of the workers in the streets of Madison, New York, London and Bahrain. Involvement would be a statement of commitment, of trust with the folks in the street and a readiness to keep up the pressure.
The largest problem that Americans fighting for economic justice face is a not thinking big enough. What’s happening in Wisconsin can’t be just about saving collective bargaining or protecting a larger slice of public worker pensions. The goals must be systemic and the end vision must be inspiring. In so doing, the pressure should shift from a defensive posture around basic worker rights to an offensive one which calls the question of how we got to where we are today and who is responsible for the destruction of our economy and our governments’ abilities to provide an adequate social safety network. If all this happens, great things could be possible.