Last week, protests broke out again in Europe, from Rome to London. The monthlong Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York have spread. The current unrest follows this summer's riots in London and flash mob incidents in U.S. cities. In 2009 and 2010, Tea Parties turned out hundreds of thousands in protests against the Obama administration's policies and eventually gave him the largest midterm rebuke since 1938.
All of these protests, of course, are vastly different -- or are they really?
Ostensibly, the Wall Street protests rail against a small elite who makes a lot of money lending, investing and speculating -- although the protestors don't seem to worry much about the mega-salaries of actors, professional athletes or sympathetic multimillionaires like Al Gore, George Soros or John Kerry. American flash mobbers and London hoods thought it was OK to take things that were not theirs, since they have less than others. The Tea Partiers were simply tired of paying more taxes for big-government programs that they thought only made things worse.
In the current left and right anger -- somewhat analogous to the upheavals of 1848 or the 1930s -- the common denominator is frustration that Western upward mobility of some 60 years seems to be coming to an end. In response, millions want someone or something to be held accountable -- whether Wall Street insiders, or wasteful and corrupt governments, or the affluent who have more than others.
Unfortunately, political leaders -- unwilling to risk their careers by irking the people -- have offered few explanations for the root causes of all the various unrest. Instead, they assure us that Social Security is solvent, or that pensions and wages can remain sacrosanct, or that billionaires and millionaires are alone culpable. Sometimes they exploit race and class divisions in lieu of explaining 21st-century realities.
So here goes an explanation for the multifaceted unrest. For the last six decades, constant technological breakthroughs and growing government subsidies have given a billion and a half Westerners lifestyles undreamed of over the last 2,500 years. In 1930, no one imagined that a few pills could cure life-threatening strep throat. In 1960, no one planned on retiring at 55. In 1980, no one dreamed that millions could have instant access to civilization's collective knowledge in a few seconds through a free Google search.
Yet, the better life got in the West for ever more people, the more apprehensive they became, as their appetites for even more grew even faster. Remember, none of these worldwide protests are over the denial of food, shelter, clean water or basic medicine.