The historic protests sweeping America were long overdue, not just as a response to racism and police violence, but also as a revolt against entrenched plutocracy. With a growing number of Americans falling into unemployment and economic insecurity, while major corporations take bailouts and slash labor costs, something had to give.

NEW YORK – The mass protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer are about systemic racism and police brutality in the United States, but also so much more. Those who have taken to the streets in more than 100 American cities are channeling a broader critique of President Donald Trump and what he represents. A vast underclass of increasingly indebted, socially immobile Americans – African-Americans, Latinos, and, increasingly, whites – is revolting against a system that has failed it.

This phenomenon is not limited to the US, of course. In 2019 alone, massive demonstrations rocked Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Pakistan, among other countries. Though these episodes each had different triggers, they all reflected resentment over economic malaise, corruption, and a lack of economic opportunities.

The same factors help to explain populist and authoritarian leaders’ growing electoral support in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis, many firms sought to boost profits by cutting costs, starting with labor. Instead of hiring workers in formal employment contracts with good wages and benefits, companies adopted a model based on part-time, hourly, gig, freelance, and contract work, creating what the economist Guy Standing calls a “precariat.” Within this group, he explains, “internal divisions have led to the villainization of migrants and other vulnerable groups, and some are susceptible to the dangers of political extremism.”

The precariat is the contemporary version of Karl Marx’s proletariat: a new class of alienated, insecure workers who are ripe for radicalization and mobilization against the plutocracy (or what Marx called the bourgeoisie). This class is growing once again, now that highly leveraged corporations are responding to the COVID-19 crisis as they did after 2008: taking bailouts and hitting their earnings targets by slashing labor costs.

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© Project Syndicate

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