2011 was a strange and uncomfortable year.
It’s hard to remember year with more news in it – tsunami, nuclear meltdown, the Arab spring, Lybia, Pete Posthwaite, Liz Taylor, phone hacking, Murdoch in parliament, and bin Laden to name just a few.
But if you ask me what the big – genuinely big – story of 2011 was, I’d have to say Occupy.
It may not have made much of an impact on your life. You may think it was just a passing fad. But I suspect it will have long-term effects on us all. And I suspect it’s indicative of a new phenomenon which will influence the way we live for a long time to come.
But I’ve been wrong before.
Things are bad
This should hardly come as big news to you. But what are politicians doing about it?
If I were Cameron, Obama or Hu, I’d be doing what I’ve always done – paddling desperately, trying to hold the centre, maintaining the status quo, and hoping the public can’t see how frantic it all is below the surface.
But at the back of my mind I’d be wondering if the internet is going to change the game once again. Because even 5 years ago the public had no real way of sharing startling information about how fucked up and unfair the world is. We relied on old-media, which was owned by people at the tiny “winning” end of the capitalist wedge, and tended not to let anybody know what’s actually going on.
The Occupy movement happened because we now have millions of web-enabled, educated, savvy, desperately poor middle-class kids who are sharing information about how unbelievably unfair things are. And it’s happening more all the time.
The poor are used to being poor. From an early age they’re raised to accept it. But the middle-class have always been raised to expect to do well, to have opportunities, and to believe that their brains and family connections would land them a promising first job in a local accountancy firm (at worst).
Now that’s changed. Now the middle-class are really struggling. Their kids, with their university educations and Guardian-reading habits, are finding themselves in the world of the underclass. No jobs, no prospects, no housing, no money and no future.
The level of inequality in the UK today is literally the same level as it was the year of the French Revolution. The poor aren’t as poor, but the rich are much richer. The ratio of richest 0.01% to the average income is the same as in the last days of The Sun King, and he ended his days on a scaffold, being suddenly made a foot shorter than he’d ever been before.
Aristocrats aren’t wealthy or influential any more, but hereditary wealth and opportunity are as bad now as they were then. If you’re Bernie Ecclestone’s useless daughter, you get to spend £1.4 million on a bathtub. If you’re a 1:1 Oxford graduate, you get to work as a slave at PoundSaver for zero wages, just so you get to keep £44 per week benefits. 98% of employees in parliament and London print/TV media are privately educated. There is almost no chance of the rest of us getting a sniff of a chance.
It’s a closed shop, even moreso than the closed shops of 70s union domination. But rather than just controlling who worked at British Leyland, the closed shop of today’s oligarchy controls everything: money, politics, jobs, investment, policing, wars, media… everything.
And we’re starting to learn it. And we’re not at all happy.
Those who are still doing OK appreciate the unfairness in an abstract way. But if you have a decent salary and don’t really worry about how you’ll eat tomorrow, it’s unlikely you’ll appreciate how very, very angry people are. A very large number of people, even in a rich country like ours, genuinely worry about how they’ll eat. Including me, occasionally. And I’m rich compared with millions of others.
And I’m not 21 and full of beans and aggro.
And that’s a problem that I don’t think Obama, Cameron or Hu have grasped yet. Young, connected, informed, and angry is a dangerous mix, expecially if you also sense you’re being ignored in order to protect vested interests of old, failed business models.
So although 2011 was a busy year for news, I think the bigger news will happen in 2012. I expect we’ll look back on 2012 and see one huge story that changes everything. It will be the year of social breakdown in the developed world. It will be the year Occupy becomes a major player in world politics, even if Occupy is in a different form to it’s current one.
It will be revolutionary.
But for Pete’s sake, no guillotines, please!