June was a remarkable month in global politics. We witnessed several potentially epoch-changing events. There was the unexpected election victory of Hassan Rouhani in Iran which could change relations between his country and the West. In Turkey, Brazil and Egypt what began as single-issue protests (against corruption, sectarianism or the privatization of the commons) quickly mushroomed into larger confrontations with political elites.
Dissatisfied with the status quo and distrustful of political parties, these leaderless social movements for change (mainly but not exclusively among the young) are blossoming in many places. If we needed reminding that the “public sphere” is not simply a realm of rational argument and deliberation but also one of imagination, passion, outrage and protest, then we received it in plenty.
Liberal, representative political institutions do not spring up overnight. And, as recent events in the US and UK have shown, they are easily dismantled. Their maintenance requires constant vigilance by a well-informed public that is not overcome by the lethargy induced by mass consumerism. The messy, topsy-turvy, contradictory and occasionally violent nature of the democratization process in Egypt is no different, historically, to what took place in Europe and the US. It is not a reflection of some “essential” aspect of Muslims or the “Arab psyche”.
Business corporations also had their wings singed last month. The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that human genes could not be patented as they were ‘a product of nature’. It struck down patents held by Myriad Genetics, Inc, on two genes linked to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Powerful private companies spying with American taxpayers’ money on foreigners and their governments were exposed by Edward Snowden (see my previous post “The Revolt of the Geeks”). The vicious backlash against him in large sections of the American media only revealed how ignorant many Americans are about what happens in their own country, let alone abroad.
Then at the G-8 summit in northern Ireland- the least unlikely gathering at which to expect corporate power to be reigned in- the rich nations vowed to change the global tax regime that enables multinationals to hide their profits in offshore accounts through bogus companies. Prior to the summit, Britain struck a deal with its Caribbean protectorates (representing around a quarter of the world’s tax havens) towards greater banking transparency. As David Cameron put it, “More was achieved in 24 hours than in the past 24 years”.
Whether we who live in the so-called developing world will benefit remains to be seen. More than multinational tax evasion, it is corruption and plunder by local politicians that needs to be addressed in a banking system that hitherto encourages criminality. Once again, we have seen how the rich nations need to suffer more (whether through money-laundering and tax avoidance/evasion, or acts of terrorism) before these global injustices even begin to be tackled.
Pressure to clean up the global tax regime has come from non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Christian Aid and Tearfund (UK). The eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz has also been campaigning against a tax system that is pivotal in increasing inequalities within “developed” societies, especially in the US and UK.
Stiglitz has argued what should have been obvious to all defenders of “market freedoms”. Major corporate tax avoiders like Apple, Google and Amazon have benefitted enormously from what the US and other Western governments provide: “Highly educated workers trained in universities that are supported by government. The basic research on which their products rest was paid for by taxpayer-supported developments- the Internet, without which they couldn’t exist. Their prosperity depends in part on the US legal system- including strong enforcement of intellectual property rights; they asked (and got) government to force countries around the world to adopt US standards, in some cases, at great cost to the lives of those in emerging markets and developing countries.”
Stiglitz goes on: “Yes, they brought genius and organizational skills, for which they justly receive kudos. But while Newton was at least modest enough to note that he stood on the shoulders of giants, these titans of industry have no compunction about being free riders, taking generously from the benefits afforded by our system, but not willing to contribute commensurately. Without public support, the wellspring from which future innovation and growth will come will dry up- not to say what will happen to our increasingly divided society.”
But perhaps the most amazing story last month was that of a 28-year old Indian woman, Arunima Sinha. Two years ago, she had half a leg amputated after robbers pushed her out of a train near Lucknow, north India. She had refused to hand over a gold chain she was wearing. The national-level volleyball player began a mountaineering course to recover from what she called her “darkest hour”. Last month she became the first woman amputee to climb Mount Everest, a climb that took her 52 days. Now she is setting up a sports academy for poor disabled children.
India is probably one of the least disabled-friendly countries. Here is a woman who has turned her weakness into a source of strength and service to others. It is such stories, often tucked away in the back pages of newspapers, that are harbingers of deep-seated social change.