Turns of the Century


Martin Eiermann in The European Magazine (photo by Eitan Abramovich):

As I am writing this, 300,000 people are marching in Rio de Janeiro against corruption and public sector cuts ahead of next year’s soccer World Cup. It must be bad if Brazilians start anti-soccer riots. In Greece, protests have been ongoing for several years. In Spain, Italy and Portugal, popular discontent has ousted several governments and continues to cause a headache for their successors (in Greece, the government coalition is crumbling right now). In Great Britain, cuts to the National Health Service inspired regular demonstrations and a special segment during the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012, which defiantly celebrated the NHS as one of the great achievements of modern British society. Look at any newspaper front page today, and you are likely to see one or more photos of police in riot gear, shooting tear gas into crowds of protesters.

The decades since World War II have brought unprecedented increases in expectations about living standards in much of the world. I’m saying “expectations” because the actual increase in wealth and living standards has often been highly stratified: Those at the top benefit the most, sometimes at the expense of those at the bottom. In many countries of the Global North, inequality has increased significantly since the 1970s as real wages have stagnated or declined for many income groups. In the countries of South America, Asia, and parts of Africa, living standards for the middle class have increased somewhat, but the amount of money accumulating at the top meant that middle class expectations often continued to outpace actual improvements. No wonder, then, that protests in Rio have driven a broad cross-section of the population into the streets. As the BBC’s Paul Mason reminds us, the chances for upheaval are much higher when the middle class grows frustrated: “Even where you get rapid economic growth, it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.”