If there is going to be a revolutionary outburst, you do not get much warning. Writing of the European revolutions of 1848, for instance, one historian recently noted: “At the beginning of 1848 no one believed that revolution was imminent.” Now the reason I have gone back to accounts of 1848 is because this date has kept popping into my head as protests against contemporary capitalism have spread round the world. Not Paris 1968. Nor 1917 to 1921 when, in the chaos following the First World War, workers’ rule was temporarily established in some German cities. Instead I have turned to 1848, when much of continental Europe took to the streets in what came to be called the Spring of Nations, or the Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution.
In quoting above the remarks of a historian on 1848, I omitted the second half of the sentence. What Professor Pouthas went on to say was this: “… yet the situation in many parts of Europe was such as precedes revolutions.” Should we say the same thing today about the industrialised world? That is an important question for all of us who would be appalled at the prospect of anything approaching revolution coming our way. Yet there seems to me to be one good reason why we should be fearful. For during the past 25 years, the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor has been steadily widening. The disparity which began to develop in the US and UK in the late 1970s, has been spreading. An OECD study published in May showed that countries such as Denmark, Germany and Sweden, which have traditionally had low inequality, are no longer spared.
The result is that in the industrialised West the average income of the richest 10 per cent of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10 per cent. That is an enormous difference. And if the comparison is made between, say, the pay of the directors of large companies compared with that of their staff, the gap is astonishing. In many cases, directors earn 200 times more than their lower-paid workers. At some point, this excessive difference is going to cause trouble. Has that moment come?
If so, it would need specific events to trigger an explosion. Perhaps the never-ending recession, increasing unemployment, the extreme difficulty young people face in obtaining jobs, the squeeze on incomes as inflation rises, and higher rents that punish people who have not been able to buy a house are sufficient for this purpose. Yet the protesters camping outside St Paul’s Cathedral emphasise inequality above all. Their website points to: “the social and economic inequality in the UK…the unfair and unequal economic system that favours the rich and powerful”. The parallel Occupy Wall Street in New York puts it another way: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 per cent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent.”
Thus the protesters have well and truly seized the main point: the intolerable gap that has developed between rich and poor.
But go back again to 1848. In another account, Professor Stearns wrote that most of the revolutions of 1848 broke out rather haphazardly. “There was usually a brief, confused period of demands and demonstrations, during which governmental uncertainty helped prolong the tension.” No change in that regard, then.
And Professor Pouthas added that when the 1848 revolutions broke out, “its leaders and instigators were intellectuals devoid of political experience, not men of action”. This amateur aspect of the protesters of 1848 is repeated today. A description wouldn’t be very different from Professor Pouthas’. In 2011 one would say the “leaders and instigators” of the protests are women’s rights organisers, self-employed IT consultants, middle-class, jobless squatters, unemployed music teachers, freelance artists, charity volunteers, social workers and media studies students, all of whom, like their predecessors in 1848, are “devoid of political experience, not men and women of action”. Surely, one might reflect, there is nothing to fear from such a group.
On Sunday, some 500 of them held an assembly and agreed on nine points. The process is likely to have been laborious. For participants were reminded that deliberation takes time, that eloquent and confident speakers are not necessarily right and that conditions will not favour the merely quick-witted. But despite the care taken, the declaration was unimpressive. The protesters “refuse to pay for the bank crisis”. But how exactly does one not pay? “We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them,” they said. Indeed so, but the hard graft wasn’t even begun on Sunday. As Anthony Painter wrote on Labour List: “The way you change things is by getting people behind you, not by huddling together in a righteous and self-congratulatory embrace”.
Nonetheless, what the men devoid of political experience did in 1848, and the inexperienced protesters in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt did, is simply to endure, to keep the spark burning. There are two characteristics of a pre-revolutionary situation – a valuable insight widely shared and the endurance of those who hold it. We have the first, but it is not yet clear whether we have the second.