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The Uprising of 2012?

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  November 26, 2011 02:24 PM

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Around the world, this has been the year of uprisings - spurred in large part by financial concerns.

Athens, of course, has witnessed months of fiery protests. But the disaffected have also crowded the streets of Paris, London, Rome, and New York.

And economic woes extend far beyond the obvious.

As former New York Times war reporter - and current Truthdig columnist - Chris Hedges told me in August, the Arab Spring had a lot "to do with food prices. Commodity prices - especially wheat, which has increased in price by 100% in past eight months - has really made it difficult for families, especially poor families - and half of the population in Egypt lives on about two dollars a day - to feed themselves."

Hedges argued that skyrocketing prices helped foment dissatisfaction - and pushed people into the streets. "And that's why, if you looked closely," he said, "you saw within the crowds oftentimes, people actually carrying loaves of bread. And that's not going to go away."

Indeed, on the day before Thanksgiving, The Financial Times reported that more then 40% of food producers intend to hike consumer prices in the next few months, attempting to compensate for the rising cost of raw materials.

But the problem encompasses much more than food. Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia, wrote recently that the cost of education continues to outpace inflation - even as a four-year degree becomes a prerequisite for a comfortable, middle-class life. "Poor kids can't meet tuition," wrote Sachs, "and they drop out of college in droves. Yet with more cuts in state support for tuition and in federal Pell Grants, the situation is rapidly getting worse."

A few of the families that can't afford high tuitions protest. But most just feel angry, dispirited, and betrayed.

Still, as Sachs says, there is a strange, alternate narrative: "we have two economies, not one. The economy of rich Americans is booming. Salaries are high. Profits are soaring. Luxury brands and upscale restaurants are packed. There is no recession."

Hit up some of the more expensive restaurants in Boston, and you'll see $45 steaks and $60 bottles of wine liberally dotting packed tables.

The question, then - as prices for food, education, and health care continue to rise - is how long dissatisfaction can be contained.

"I drive by gated communities," the renowned geographer Jared Diamond wrote a few years ago, "guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools."

But financial insecurity can prove combustible. As Greece, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street have so powerfully demonstrated.

"If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people," Diamond says, with a nod to history, "gates will not keep the rioters out."

2011 may have seemed like a year of upheaval. But the real fireworks could be yet to come.


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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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