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Occupy Wall Street, Janlokpal and the pressure of justice

india Updated: Nov 07, 2011 14:10 IST
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Although it has been the trigger to bring people on the streets and brave the cops, the cold and the criticism, the two big protests in public space today - Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its tributaries running through the US and moving to the rest of the world, and the India-specific Janlokpal - are neither about money nor power. Sure, the origin of OWS protests lie in the income inequalities of the US, where top 1% of the population controls 40% of the country's assets and receives 20% of its income. And though corruption largely is about financial bribes we have to pay for routine entitlements, the Janlokpal protests are not about power.

From my meetings with dozens of protestors, participants and academics in the US last month, I see an emerging synthesis of a quieter, gentler and more complex message. A group of four at New Haven, who along with about 70 or so other protestors have been braving the cold in the university town's park, said "We're here to get our voice heard". What is it they are protesting? "The way a few have managed to control all our money." Did they have a solution? "No, each of us has a different view," one of them said. "I think the gap between the highest paid CEO and the lowest paid guy is too wide."

I asked them whether they had seen the recently-released Andrew Niccol's In Time at Bow Tie Cinemas, a five-minute walk from their blue tents. "No…should we?" I said yes - it's a good film and definitely if you believe in Robin Hood. They shook their heads. "Absolutely not." That would be undermine the American system, where if you worked hard you deserved the money. So, is there a goal? "Right now, we just want the authorities to know that we're unhappy and together in this."

But don't miss this lack of clarity for the movement having no agenda. Around the time I was meeting OWS protestors in New Haven, New York and Provincetown, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz was prevented by the police from using a megaphone to address the movement at New York. "The rise in inequality is the product of a vicious spiral: the rich rent-seekers use their wealth to shape legislation in order to protect and increase their wealth - and their influence," he wrote last week. His definition of the OWS agenda: "A democracy where people, not dollars, matter, and a market economy that delivers on what it is supposed to do."

At the New Haven Green, protestors were not allowed to use heaters, even at sub-zero temperatures that had turned snow into ice. That took me to New Delhi's Ramlila Ground where Anna Hazare led a protest for Janlokpal following his arbitrary arrest and release at Tihar Jail. Go further back into Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and once again, the actions of the authorities left a lot to be desired.

Governments across the world are unable and unwilling to see that on-ground protests of even a few are loud enough to cobble a much larger support. On Twitter alone, @occupywallst has more than 100,000 followers; @janlokpal is close to 175,000. These too are mere tips of a greater iceberg — in flights, over dinner tables, conversations with cab drivers, college students and professors I found their minds occupied with this protest. Yale’s Robert Shiller, for instance, told me that he is worried about the way finance is being seen to be a place where only the evil go.

This iceberg of aspirations is moving to disrupt the old way of working, thinking and is clashing with the two systems, political and economic, that have delivered a huge amount of good in the past — capitalism and democracy. While economic disparity may be the fuel of OCW and power abuse in the case of the Arab Spring and Janlokpal, there is a far stronger force lurking behind. The real fight is about the capture of capitalism and democracy by vested interests; not the systems per se. To regain their legitimacy, both systems will have to morph into what they promised and bow down before a greater force driving these protests — justice.