When Stéphane Hessel wrote Outraged!, he could have hardly imagined that the name of his short essay would soon become the name of a new political movement. From Athens to Madrid, from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, thousands of students reached the streets to show out their discomfort with a whole set of issues. There is no doubt that, just as some protests developed in a peaceful environment while others turned out to be extremely violent, both their causes and consequences vary from town to town. However, the fact that they took place at almost the same time and that they were decorated with similar slogans is a strong indicator that though every protest is unique, there is at least one unifying motive which helps us explain them.
First of all, if there is something particular about these protests is that there is no common enemy behind them. Looking inside the OWS movement, some “occupiers” use their Ipads in Starbucks to update their Facebook and Twitter accounts on how evil big corporations are; others go after politicians in Washington that are democratically elected by their society; and those of them who point their fingers at their societies as a whole do not even suggest that, by doing that, they are pointing their fingers at them too.
Just as there is no single enemy behind the OWS movement, the ultimate cause of these protests does not seem to be the gap between rich and poor. We all heard the “we are the 99%”. It is true that 1% of the US population controls 40% of the country’s income. And it is also true that these numbers are not as exceptional as they may first seem to be. But was it different before? Why have so many people remembered now to show out their anger with income disparity? According to the economist Joseph Stiglitz (In “The Globalization of Protest”), the reason is that the 1% is mainly composed by financial speculators that took down the global economy while paying less taxes – in proportion to their income – than a low income worker. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (In “A theory of Everything (Sort of)”) looks at the problem from another perspective. He argues that “employers are finding it easier, cheaper and more necessary than ever to replace labor with machines, computers, robots and talented foreign workers …which explains why corporations are getting richer and middle-skilled workers poorer”. Good jobs do exist, but they require more education or technical skills.”
Combining the two author´s opinions we conclude that the Occupy Wall Street movement originated thanks to the 1% who takes, unjustly in most cases, a big part of the cake, while the 99% are struggling to get a good job in an increasingly competitive market. This explanation seems satisfactory with the naked eye, but if we look closer we will find a better one. In my opinion, the main reason why we saw these protests is not the rich-poor divide, the financial speculator’s behaviour, the struggle to find a good job or the sum of all these issues. The driving force behind these protests is an utterly lack of perspective.
While we frequently speak loudly about the 1%’s consuming habits, we do not tend to mention how the rest of the people lives. A Heritage Foundation´s study shows that 99.6% of poor Americans own fridges, 97.7% own a TV, 78.3% own air conditioning, 38.2% own a PC and 29.3% own video consoles. In other words, a 21 century poor American can afford buying a set of goods and services a 19 century millionaire would have given its fortune for.
Those students who have been “occupying Wall Street” are not angry because 22.7% of poor Americans can´t buy an air-conditioning. They are protesting because they got used to living with so much wealth surrounding them, that the mere possibility of lacking it in their future is completely unacceptable. They are protesting because they were always told that a university degree is all they need to get a “good job” with a “good salary”, while the true is those are two outcomes we must always fight hard to obtain. And they are protesting because the current economic crisis, combined with the exponential challenges presented by the job market, made them realize that life is not as easy as they previously thought.
It goes without saying that we should not compare today’s with yesterday’s wealth and turn to other topic after watching the numbers. But here is the problem: if we don’t start to value all the material wealth surrounding us, we will never be motivated enough to keep it and eventually share it, as we will always be unsatisfied with our purchasing power and outraged with they typical scapegoats.
There are thousands of reasons why young college students deserves to make their voice heard. That is why there are places like the South American Business Forum (SABF), where we make questions instead of shouting at our leaders and we try to find actual solutions to specific problems. But when, as in the occupy movement, outraged is justified with slogans for the cameras, it lacks perspective and can even turn to be violent, is not only counter-productive, but deserves condemnation as well.