Take a good look at this picture – a throwback to an earlier time that was great for those in the photo and not so good for their subjects. There’s Gadaffi in his early years as the new ruler of Libya. To his very left sits Abdel Nasser of Egypt, then Abdul Rahman of Yemen, and to the very right King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. These were the glory days, with Gadaffi’s youth and vigour standing in clear contrast to the brutal pictures we have seen this week of his last few minutes of life. Back then it seemed as if power was a permanent thing, to be passed on to handpicked successors when the fullness of time had come.
It was not to be, as history moved faster than the detailed plans and dreams of these leaders. Though in Gadaffi’s case the Arab Spring could claim much of the credit, the true reasons for the failures of such leaders had to do with their inability to spread great wealth among their people. Where there was financial reward, it was primarily from oil and it was almost exclusively for the ruling classes. Poverty was endemic, but tribal precedence, religious tradition, royal blood lines and military power were enough to maintain the status quo. Those paradigms have been blown apart, replaced by something that is yet to be defined.
It wasn’t that long ago that the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 different entities captivated our collective imagination. We tut-tutted in a kind of morally superior way, just as we have done with the falling of repressive regimes in North Africa. They need democracy we said to ourselves about the Arab Spring, much as we claimed that free enterprise was required following the Soviet breakup.
While all this was going on, Western economies had been sowing the seeds of their own financial turbulence. Overindulgence has led to a new era of economic uncertainty. The continued promise by financial leaders that the middle class would be the foundation of a healthy democracy has proved pyrrhic. The size of the middle class in Canada has decreased by 17% in 20 years. Something isn’t right.
The tribal and class struggles of Eastern Europe and North Africa now seem eerily familiar. Some wonder if the West is on the verge of creating and tolerating a permanent underclass that will eventually rise up and give us a reality check.
This reality is making its presence felt in the United States. Just this week there have been riots, tear gas, and some police brutality in Oakland, California. Americans learned from the Congressional Budget Office that the income share of the top 1% has doubled since 1979. A CBS/New York Times polls revealed the mood of most Americans when they revealed that two-thirds of Americans believe money and wealth is unfairly distributed and half support Occupy Wall Street. More troubling yet, the polls show that 90% of Americans have no faith in the political system to make the right decisions to reverse their economic decline. In the Republic debate this week both Herman Cain and Rick Perry proposed giving even more tax cuts to the rich.
Does this constitute class war? No, but such developments could be stirring the beginnings of it. In North Africa and Eastern Europe wealth shared equitably was a historic dream of the centuries, but in the West we had largely succeeded at it and are now watching it slip away. Leaders, political parties, institutions – most are in decline, proving unable or unwilling to tackle the corporate giant and the onerous burden of accumulated debt and citizen disengagement. Religious leaders call for action for the poor but refuse to challenge their congregations to live sacrificially as the respective founders of their faiths did. Financial lending institutions consistently refuse loans to struggling small businesses but reward themselves with outlandish bonuses. Political leaders purport to care for the modern family, but refuse to tackle those key issues that would bring relief to parents and children.
Losing faith in our institutions means we have lost faith in ourselves, in our collective ability to renew ourselves for the challenge of a new day. But so much of our modern malaise is not about a loss of faith in those who lead us as it is about our inability to pursue solid and integral leadership among ourselves as citizens. Sadly, as Vaclav Havel reminds us, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the true meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”
A growing number of citizens in Western nations are saying “enough already.” You don’t have to understand the complex theories of economics to determine that something is wrong, misplaced, perhaps even broken. The citizens of North Africa have known this for centuries and have emerged into a new Spring. In the West, we watch it all slip through our hands as we face the autumn of our possibilities. I look at this picture, at Gaddafi’s self-confidence and vitality, and realize he couldn’t maintain such characteristics because he permitted economic injustices among his own people. It’s now our turn to consider our own faulty economic logic of the past years and rescue ourselves before we prove unable of our own accord to raise ourselves.