Fighting the fat cats
You can’t help but sympathize with the people camping out in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, and the thousands of others in parks and plazas and street corners, protesting the inequities in American society.
Here’s the country where ``all men are created equal” ― didn’t we learn that line from the Declaration of Independence in primary school? – and we’re now learning that the inequalities in American life are some of the most pronounced on the planet.
The failure of American society to live up to the promises of its founders has deep repercussions abroad. U.S. propagandists, whether diplomats or missionaries or do-gooders or teachers or writers, are going to have a lot more trouble convincing anyone of the values of American-style democracy and capitalism when their own system is now betraying the country’s underlying values.
Where are the checks and balances that were supposed to keep the executive, judicial and legislative branches in creative tension needed to prevent the rise of bullies and tyrants and proponents of special interests from gaining power at the expense of everyone else? How did Americans manage to elect senators and representatives who seem more beholden to narrow special interests on those they rely on for donations for multimillion-dollar campaigns?
Just as the United States has exported some of the forms of democracy, so it’s logical that Americans should be setting an example for protests in so many other countries where the gap between rich and poor is turning into a yawning chasm. The greed of fat cats whose success in devising ever more ways to extract benefits for themselves, charging exorbitant prices, extracting hidden fees, paying off officials and politicians, knows no bounds.
In Korea, while President Lee Myung-bak talks about the need to encourage small and medium-sized businesses and to narrow differences in income and opportunities, the opposite has happened since he took over in 2003. The sprawling family-held empires known as chaebol, far from seriously retrenching after the 1997-1998 economic crisis, the ``downturn” of 2008 and the current global malaise, have grown bigger and richer.
The Korean case would seem to exemplify the adage, ``plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, as that great American phrase-maker Yogi Berra is said to have said, ``It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Certainly the moneyed people learned how to avoid some of the mistakes that precipitated the crisis of nearly 14 years ago, but they’ve provoked a more serious crisis by willfully ignoring the impact of middle-class stagnation and the suffering of a majority struggling to pay rising prices on everything from rents to school fees.
In the late 19th century, the phenomenon of an entrenched aristocratic class lording it over everyone provided the framework for the rise of socialism and communism beginning in Europe. Radical ideology offered relief from overwhelming class differences during the industrial revolution and lured millions with the prospect of a brave new world in which truly people would work together for the common good.
Millions of those in search of opportunity fled to the United States. In Russia and eastern Europe, socialist and communist systems provided conditions for new elites to take over, implanting reforms that benefitted a sector as narrow and self-interested as today’s capitalist ``1 percent” that the other 99 percent is fuming about.
The kind of communism that survives today in China and Vietnam has cast off many of the ideological constraints, encouraging capitalism as long as it poses no challenge to ruling bureaucrats and politicos. Communism in Cuba seems all about perpetuating the rule of Fidel Castro and his brother Raul over their troubled island. As for North Korea, the communism that endures there is a cover for some of the world’s worst excesses of dynastic, dictatorial exploitation and cruelty.
All of which leaves the protesters grappling with a question. What ideology or unifying set of beliefs is going to emerge from the milieu of colorful carrying-on that we see on television? It would be too easy to say surely the targets of their rage are listening and will soon be heeding their demands and forgoing bonuses and stock options and expense accounts while offering pay raises and incentives guaranteed to satisfy the malcontents. That’s not going to happen. What is more likely is that the movement will gather steam for explosions, sooner or later, no telling when, with consequences that are not nice to contemplate.
It would be comforting to think that something quite different will happen, that voters will elect leaders and representatives capable of bringing common sense into the process and undoing the damage. That denouement would show the success of democracy as envisioned in the American Revolution. Realistically, though, it’s a little late. How do you deal with a legislature that’s bent the rules so extremely to the will of a tiny minority as to make it impossible to bend them back again?
Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, is the author most recently of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.