Occupy movement's peaceful assault is proper but worse injustices also demand action

OPINION: The middle classes form the backbone of this global lobby group due to bleak prospects, writes VITTORIO BUFACCHI

OPINION:The middle classes form the backbone of this global lobby group due to bleak prospects, writes VITTORIO BUFACCHI

SOCIAL INJUSTICE is on the agenda. The bailout of financial institutions was by all accounts a necessary evil, but this policy came at a real cost, and ordinary people are paying it. That bankers responsible for financial meltdown are still being paid bonuses only adds insult to injury, and is perhaps an act of hypocrisy too far.

Income disparity and corporate greed are some of the targets of the Occupy movement. A month after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets rallying against banks, financial institutions and government cutbacks, the Occupy movement is not showing signs of withering: protests are still ongoing in Wall Street, London, Dublin, Cork, and many other cities across the United States, Europe, Oceania and the Far East.

At the root of the Occupy movement is a sense of indignation over the level of inequality and unfairness in our society in 2011. The motto of the Occupy movement in Spain reads: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” If the Occupy movement has a shared goal, globally, it is to highlight the social injustice that seems to be at the heart of the basic structure of our society: financially, politically and socially.


The inequality in income and wealth across industrialised nations is as grotesque as it is well-documented. The 400 wealthiest Americans (the Forbes listers) have as much wealth as the bottom 50 per cent of all Americans, or 57 million households. There is something perverse about the world’s millionaires and billionaires, who make up less than 1 per cent of the world population, controlling 38.5 per cent of the wealth.

To its credit, the Occupy movement understands there is more to social injustice than the uneven distribution of income. The issue is not merely economic; income inequality corrupts the democratic fabric of our society. The rest of the 99 per cent of the population are not only excluded from such rich pickings, they are powerless in rebalancing the laws and norms that are skewed in favour of the super-rich. The 99 per cent are effectively excluded from participating in the running of society.

The Occupy movement’s peaceful assault on the bastions of social injustice is legitimate. Their motivations and concerns are commendable. It is not surprising that no politician dares to speak against them, not even billionaire Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. But why are so many people getting involved with this protest movement? And why now? After all, inequality and injustice has always been a feature of our society. Figures from 2003 show the average chief executive in America was paid 531 times the pay of the average blue-collar worker, so why take to the streets now?

One explanation for the popularity of the Occupy movement is that it enjoys the support of a sizeable middle-class contingent. Numbers make a difference, and the middle classes are making up the numbers.

One protester at Occupy Wall Street explained his parents had endured a debt of $100,000 to pay for his college education, but all their sacrifices were to no avail as he was unable to find a job. One is left wondering whether this protester (and many others like him) will still be supporting the cause when, eventually, the economy picks up, levels of unemployment recede, and he can wear a suit to his new job.

When the middle classes once again see a future where they can prosper, the urgency of the Occupy movement will slowly deflate. Many of its activists will trade the streets for offices with their names on a desk, and the world will go back to the status quo of the last few decades, with its inequality, unfairness, exclusion and disempowerment.

The euro zone deal agreed in Brussels may be the first step towards averting the spectre of recession, and millions across Europe anxiously hope we are finally on the way towards resuming business as usual. When that moment comes, and the rich nations steady themselves for another cycle of boom and bust, we will still have 850 million human beings chronically undernourished; 800 million illiterate adults; 220 million child labourers, and 40 per cent of humankind living in severe poverty. That is the worse injustice.

Dr Vittorio Bufacchi lectures in philosophy in University College Cork. His latest book, Social Injustice: Essays in Political Philosophy,is published by Palgrave in January