Thursday, July 11, 2013

HSBC Chief Economist Warns of Youth Uprising Across Europe

Stephen King (no, not that Stephen King), HSBC Chief Economist sees the same conditions emerging in today's Europe that triggered the 1381 peasants' uprising against the British aristocracy.  In King's scenario it won't be the peasants but youth and the aristocracy will be today's Baby Boomers.

Then, the country had just been savaged by the plague, which robbed farmers of their workforces as well as their loved ones by killing an estimated 1.5m people. However, the wealthy ruling classes refused to modify their behaviour, leaving the poorer farm workers to bear the brunt of the economic downturn.

“In those days, public spending was about warfare … resources had been severely curtailed as a consequence of the Black Death,” said Mr King. “The nobility wanted to continue as they had done previously. They did not change their ways even though there had been this terrible disease come through … there was an attempt to try and clamp down on tax evasion which led to the Plantagenet equivalent of men with baseball bats coming along to raise funds.

“Those entitlements the Boomer generation are stuck to are imposing a significant cost to the younger generation … which over the long term is very disruptive to the performance of economies.”

He said the Occupy movement and the London riots two years ago were the beginnings of what could develop into more widespread protests by youths, who feel they have been short-changed. 

Economist King is certainly right in concluding that the greater Occupy movement didn't fail as some have claimed.  It wasn't defeated.  It simply ran its course because it was never an instrument structured  to effect change but rather a conduit for the expression of broad discontent.   That discontent, in case you haven't noticed, hasn't changed except to grow because nothing has been done to address those widely-held grievances.   And so, the grievance we first saw manifested as Occupy will resurface in various forms some of which could be violent and destructive if left to fester too long.

Meanwhile, The Guardian's David Priestland takes issue with King's depiction of the looming unrest as anchored in generational tensions, something he sees as a ploy by the Right.

A better historical parallel, drawn by (among others) Paul Mason in his book Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, is the "springtime of peoples" of 1848, when students made common cause with professionals, labourers and artisans of all ages to protest against economic crisis and political stasis, in a linked chain of revolutions that encompassed west, central and eastern Europe. This historical example is highly evocative of what is happening in southern Europe, and of what could happen further to the north if economic conditions deteriorate dramatically.

Behind all this generation talk is an effort by the right to impose their interpretation on popular understandings of the economic crisis. Desperate to avoid serious changes to our finance-dominated, short-termist, unequal economy, they seek to blame state spending on the supposedly pampered baby boomers. The centre-right find this group a particularly appealing target, as they can present them as selfish and self-indulgent liberal "60s" people. In this they differ from the far right, who prefer to blame supposed "welfare-tourist" immigrants for the country's woes.

There may be an economic case for adjusting pensions and entitlements, but to focus on the generational issue inevitably distracts us from vital structural changes to the ultra laissez-faire economic system that brought us to this crisis. And without those reforms, persistent unemployment may well bring youthful rebels on the streets. Our rulers should bear in mind that Downing Street is rather less well-fortified than the Tower of London.

Indeed, King's analysis plays to the Right's favourite tactic of divisiveness.  Scenarios that pit one segment of society against another are the stock in trade of the Right.  1% does not a generation make any more than prosperity is a uniform condition of the Baby Boomers a good many of whom have seen their wealth, their jobs and their future destroyed by the "ultra laissez-faire economic system" Priestland references.

Yes, we need an uprising.  It's remarkable how many voices are echoing that same theme of late, the need to throw over existing orders that have long ceased to serve us or protect us and to replace them with new structures capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.


Anyong said...

Could this cause WWIII?

thwap said...


The Mound of Sound said...

Anyong, there are a few things that could lead to another world war, most probably the interaction of nuclear proliferation and climate change. The sort of revolt triggered by inequality and social unrest is much more likely to be internal.

Thwap, your vote is duly noted.

Anonymous said...


printing press

thwap said...


printing press?

It's in mos's own link and also here:

1381, not 1831.

Wat Tyler n' all.

The Mound of Sound said...

Corrected, Thwap, thanks.