The Whole World Is Rioting … Why Aren’t We?

by on February 3, 2009 · 5 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Economy, Labor, War and Peace, World News

Americans are rightfully angry about the economic decline, but with a few small exceptions, quietly so. Why? It depends on whom you ask.

Vilnius, Lithuania, 16 January 2009: Riot police stand in formation as they are bombarded with snowballs from angry protesters in front of parliament Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

By Joshua Holland / AlterNet / Posted February 3, 2009.

Explosive anger is spilling out onto the streets of Europe. The meltdown of the global economy is igniting massive social unrest in a region that has long been a symbol of political stability and social cohesion.

Vilnius, Lithuania, 16 January 2009: A protester carries the national flag as thousands demonstrate against an austerity drive in front of parliament. At least one officer and one protester were injured in troubles which erupted only three days after similar protests in neighbouring Latvia also turned violent. Police said 7,000 people attended the Vilnius rally called by trade unions Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not a new trend: A wave of upheaval is spreading from the poorer countries on the periphery of the global economy to the prosperous core.

Over the past few years, a series of riots spread across what is patronizingly known as the Third World. Furious mobs have raged against skyrocketing food and energy prices, stagnating wages and unemployment in India, Senegal, Yemen, Indonesia, Morocco, Cameroon, Brazil, Panama, the Philippines, Egypt, Mexico and elsewhere.

For the most part, those living in wealthier countries took little notice. But now, with the global economy crashing down around us, people in even the wealthiest nations are mad as hell and reacting violently to what they view as an inadequate response to their tumbling economies.

Sofia, Bulgaria, 21 January 2009: Protesters wave the national flag and shout slogans during an anti-government protest in front of parliament in the capital. Bulgarians have held a rally to demand that the government resign because of alleged corruption and a deepening economic crisis Photograph: Petar Petrov/AP


The Telegraph (UK) warned last month that protests over governments’ handling of the crisis “are widespread and gathering pace,” and “may spark a new revolution”:

A depression triggered in America is being played out in Europe with increasing violence, and other forms of social unrest are spreading. In Iceland, a government has fallen. Workers have marched in Zaragoza, as Spanish unemployment heads towards 20 percent. There have been riots and bloodshed in Greece, protests in Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria. The police have suppressed public discontent in Russia and will be challenged again at large gatherings this weekend.

Nikea, Greece, 26 January 2009: Tractors block the Athens-Thessaloniki motorway near the city of Larisa, as farmers continue to occupy key junctions on the route and other roads in northern Greece, effectively slicing the country in two (Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/Getty)

Consider a snapshot of a single week of unrest, courtesy of the Guardian:

  • Greece: “There are many wellsprings of the serial protests rolling across Europe. In Athens, it was students and young people who suddenly mobilized to turn parts of the city into no-go areas. They were sick of the lack of jobs and prospects, the failings of the education system and seized with pessimism over their future.”This week it was the farmers’ turn, rolling their tractors out to block the motorways, main road and border crossings across the Balkans to try to obtain better procurement prices for their produce.”
  • Latvia: “The old Baltic trading city had seen nothing like it since the happy days of kicking out the Russians and overthrowing communism two decades ago. More than 10,000 people converged on the 13th century cathedral to show the Latvian government what they thought of its efforts at containing the economic crisis. The peaceful protest morphed into a late-night rampage as a minority headed for the parliament, battled with riot police and trashed parts of the old city. The following day, there were similar scenes in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital next door.”
  • France: “Burned-out cars, masked youths, smashed shop windows and more than a million striking workers. The scenes from France are familiar, but not so familiar to President Nicolas Sarkozy, confronting the first big wave of industrial unrest of his time in the Elysée Palace.”France, meanwhile, is moving into recession, and unemployment is going up. The latest jobless figures were to have been released yesterday, but were held back, apparently for fear of inflaming the protests.”
  • Iceland: “Proud of its status as one of the world’s most developed, most productive and most equal societies, Iceland is in the throes of what is, by its staid standards, a revolution.”Riot police in Reykjavik, the coolest of capitals. Building bonfires in front of the world’s oldest parliament. The yogurt flying at the free market men who have run the country for decades and brought it to its knees.”

    Reykjavik, Iceland, 21 January 2009: Protesters burn an effigy of the Icelandic prime minister, Geir Haarde, during a demonstration over the handling of the financial crisis Photograph: Thorvaldur Kristmundsson/AP

  • Britain (via the Times of London): “Wildcat strikes flared at more than 19 sites across the country in response to claims that British tradesmen were being barred from construction jobs by contractors using cheaper foreign workers.”
  • Russia (via Al-Jazeera): “Thousands of protesters have rallied across Russia to criticize the government’s economic policies and its response to the global financial crisis.”Russian police forcefully broke up many of the anti-government protests on Saturday, arresting dozens of demonstrators.”

At least in Western Europe, cries of “burn the shit down!” are being heard in countries with some of the highest standards of living in the world — states with adequate social safety nets; countries where all citizens have access to decent health care and heavily subsidized educations. Places where minimum wages are also living wages, and a dignified retirement is in large part guaranteed.

The far ends of the ideological spectrum appear to be gaining currency as the crisis develops, and people grow increasingly hostile toward the politics of the status quo.

"Black Thursday" - Paris, France, 29 January 2009: A regional train enters the station as commuters wait on a platform in the capital during the one-day nationwide strike.

The Financial Times quotes Olivier Besancenot, a young leader of “France’s extreme left,” promising “to reinvent and re-establish the anti-capitalist project.” “We want the established powers to be blown apart,” Besancenot said. Europe’s far right is gaining momentum, too, using the economy and populist outrage over immigration to gain a legitimacy it hasn’t enjoyed in some time.

Notably absent from the list of countries where the economic crunch is rending the social fabric is the good ole US of A, a state with the greatest level of economic inequality in the wealthy world.

Outside of a few scattered and quickly contained protests, the citizens of the U.S. — a country born of revolution, but with an elite that’s been terrified of that legacy since immediately after its founding — have been calm, despite opinion polls showing that Americans are more dissatisfied with the direction in which the country has been headed since they began measuring such things.

It’s a baffling disconnect, considering that real wages for all but the top 10 percent of the economic pile haven’t increased in 35 years.

It’s more bizarre still when you consider that while European governments have handled their own bailouts relatively transparently, the U.S. government has doled out close to $10 trillion in bailouts, loan guarantees and fiscal stimulus — if there were a million-dollar bill, that would be a stack of 10 million of them — with a stunning lack of oversight or accountability.

Even the congressional commission charged with overseeing key parts of the banking bailout can’t get answers to basic questions like “who’s getting what?”

Americans are rightfully angry about that state of affairs, but with a few small exceptions, quietly so. Why? It depends on whom you ask.

In a 2006 interview with Harper’s, Barack Obama shared a subtle, but rather fundamental observation about America’s political culture: “Since the founding,” he said, “the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary.”  If there is to be positive change, Obama has argued, it must be gradual; “brick by brick,” as he put it in one of his final campaign speeches.

Mark Ames, author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion — From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, argues that Americans have been beaten down to a degree that they’re now a pacified population, largely willing to accept any economic outrage its elites impose on them.

In a 2005 interview with AlterNet, Ames said the “slave mentality” is stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere, “in part because no other country on earth has so successfully crushed every internal rebellion.”

Slaves in the Caribbean for example rebelled a lot more because their oppressors weren’t as good at oppressing as Americans were. America has put down every rebellion, brutally, from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Confederate rebellion to the proletarian rebellions, Black Panthers, white militias … you name it. This creates a powerful slave mentality, a sense that it’s pointless to rebel.

Anyone who has witnessed the brutal police riots that have become so common since the infamous “Battle in Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999 can tell you there’s some merit to the argument.

It’s also the case that European societies tend to be more homogenous than the mishmash of tribes we call the United States. Whereas Americans are divided by religion, region, ethnicity, urban-rural tensions and all the other trappings of the “culture wars,” the primary split in most European countries is class.

Thomas Frank argued eloquently in What’s the Matter With Kansas that those wedge social issues that the American right nurtures with such care obscure the fundamental differences between the rich and poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised.

Indeed, any hint of discussion of economic inequality in the U.S. is shot down with cries of “class warfare” — exactly what is playing out in the streets of much of the world today.

As the crisis deepens, as virtually every analyst predicts it will, that may well change. As The Nation’s Bill Greider told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “you can’t do this to people year after year — that is, upturn their lives, take away what they thought they had earned, and so forth and so on, without provoking rather intense political reactions. … We’re just, just beginning to see a few bubbles like that around this country. I don’t say we’re going to have riots, but I think … people, out of their own distress and anger, will organize their own politics, and they will make themselves seen and heard around this country.”

Stay tuned.

Governments across Europe tremble as angry people take to the streets

Clermont-Ferrand, France, 29 January 2009: Demonstrations in France were the high point of a nationwide one-day strike called by the country's eight main trade unions to try to persuade President Nicolas Sarkozy and business leaders to do more to help ordinary people overcome the economic crisis Photograph: Rex Features

by Ian Traynor / The Guardian / originally posted 31 January 2009

France paralysed by a wave of strike action, the boulevards of Paris resembling a debris-strewn battle?eld. The Hungarian currency sinks to its lowest level ever against the euro, as the unemployment ?gure rises. Greek farmers block the road into Bulgaria in protest at low prices for their produce. New ?gures from the biggest bank in the Baltic show that the three post-Soviet states there face the biggest recessions in Europe.

t’s a snapshot of a single day – yesterday – in a Europe sinking into the bleakest of times. But while the outlook may be dark in the big wealthy democracies of western Europe, it is in the young, poor, vulnerable states of central and eastern Europe that the trauma of crash, slump and meltdown looks graver.

Exactly 20 years ago, in serial revolutionary rejoicing, they ditched communism to put their faith in a capitalism now in crisis and by which they feel betrayed. The result has been the biggest protests across the former communist bloc since the days of people power.

Europe’s time of troubles is gathering depth and scale. Governments are trembling. Revolt is in the air. …Read more.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Oli February 5, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Thank you OB Rag for raising this important issue.
The people of this nation and others alike have outgrown the outdated and irrelevant institutions that have come to missrepresent us all. The solutions of the establishment are futile and furthermore counterproductive as they are entrenched in a system that by its very nature is prone to the very same kinds of downturns we are now facing today.
The shortcommings of our privatized and over-industrialized economy are more visible than ever before. We are in the midst of an imminent collapse, the like of which has never before been seen.
The widespread instability in Europe reflects deep levels of inconformity and ultimatley proves that people are no longer willing to follow the old order. The scenes being played out in the streets are the result of the establishment’s inability to cope with the reality that people are begining to create their own sense of what their communities should and shouldn’t make themselves out to be. The government is unable to satisfy the needs of the people through conventional means causing people to become increasingly vigilant, which in turn is repressed with the utmost level of brutality.

Our system is on the verge of total collapse and when it finally does our nation and others alike will become engulfed in a wave of unspeakable chaos. What makes you think for a second that our governement (or what’s left of it)wont continue to engage in the same kind of despicable repression that is tearing across Europe? After all, every single law and restriction that we once used to defend ourselves with will suffer the same fate as the institutions that designed them. The most important law we must now learn to uphold is the law of survival. We must take every precaution necessary to defend ourselves and to ensure that our future is not compromised in the impending collapse that awaits us all…


Frank Gormlie February 5, 2009 at 3:44 pm

Oli – your sweeping and broad analysis here continues to show your capability to articulate your views well. I don’t always agree with them, or with all of them, but sure as hell appreciate your ability to stand on the figurative street corner and announce them.


Oli February 6, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Thank you for you comments. I greatly appreciate everything the OB Rag has given to the community of San Diego. There is always something new to be learned from the OB Rag and I greatly admire you devotion to the truth in this time of great deceit.
Keep up the great posts, wish you the best!
-In solidarity,


Angel February 6, 2009 at 4:12 pm

I have 2 theories as to why americans seem to be docile.

1. There are pharmaceutical drugs in the water, along with flouride.

2. Our society has been pacified by entertainments and gadgets and few know what the hell is going on. The people are uninformed and many still think the t.v will inform them of what they should know.


Angel February 6, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Also us being a melting pot of different cultures and religions, may hinder our ability to rise up as a people.


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