The central puzzle has often been wondered about in a thousand and one fora since the global financial crisis that began in 2008 erupted, wreaking havoc with several economies and millions of lives: how is it that social convulsions have not been the resultant of the financial crisis, the deep depressions it led to in the major economies of the West, the misery inflicted on millions, and the super-elite-pampering policies introduced to deal with the crisis? Why did puny efforts at protest like Occupy Wall Street and its many imitators vanish like candlelight in a storm?
In the new e-book, The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent,[i] Alasdair Roberts, who is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, takes on this puzzle and offers an explanation.
The core case he makes can be found on page 99:
"In the last three decades, the two countries that led the free-market revolution –the United States and Britain – have found one way of dealing with the tensions inherent in the globalized free market system. Their formula includes measures designed to limit popular mobilization of discontent, enable quick containment of unrest, and give primary responsibility for economic crisis management to technocrats. This is not a doctrinally elegant combination of policies, but for the moment it works. It has allowed a globalized free-market economy to continue functioning. How long it will continue to work is a different question."
Roberts’ long form essay – which is what this book really is – deals with a current and all-important subject. In the last few months, both Pope Francis and President Obama have, in the course of major interventions, drawn attention to rising inequality, the vastly uneven and unfair sharing of the benefits of globalization. And it has become clearer, as these reflections have piled up, that a global super elite is running away with most of the benefits of globalization, and the other segments of these societies seem to have lost the ability to hold members of this super elite to account or make them afraid to so recklessly and prodigiously indulge their appetites.
In that sense, Roberts’ powerful reflection can get you depressed. He is saying: look, they have figured out how to control dissent; so, they can keep this going for a while.
I urge you to read the text. It is a good, bracing and quick read. You will find plenty to both agree and argue with in it. Roberts is forthright. He makes his case forcefully with little of the typical academic ifs and buts. And I like that. However, given how short the text is, I don’t want to give details of the argument away. But I would like to draw attention to what surprised me the most in the text, something that I found thoroughly illuminating.
The prevailing myth of the early 21st century is that we are in the age of networked protests, when ordinary citizens empowered by amazing new technological tools can overcome their collective action challenges, launch revolutions, change governments, humble the powerful and create a brave new world. Roberts shows that all that is overly dreamy. At the heart of the text is a policing and law- and- order story. It is the story of how the authorities in the major economies of the West figured out how to contain, manage and immobilize the hordes of networked protesters. It is the story of how lessons were learned from the early anti-globalization protests and systems, laws and mobilizing frames were deployed to deal with the perceived problem. Add to the list the growing weaknesses of labor unions, and the wizardry of technocrats (like the Central Bankers who led the response to the financial crisis) and it is hard to believe that ordinary citizens will win this fight anytime soon.
It does seem that, for a while at least, the majority of the gains from globalization will keep going to a global super elite, until something changes. But, right now, nobody knows what that ‘something’ is.