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The ancient Mayan civilisation’s Long Count calendar ends in December 2012. This fact has sparked debate in recent years about whether our generation was the one that would experience humanity’s final days. Whatever your reading of that debate, you certainly don’t need to look far today for evidence that the human race is in serious trouble. But amidst all the grim realities, there are also significant signs of hope: signs pointing to new opportunities for positive, lasting change.
In recent years, we saw dictatorships toppled across North Africa and the Middle East. There was hope that nations could chart a common course to tackle climate change. We seemed on the verge of reining in the unchecked greed of the banking system. Back in 2008, America surprised the world by electing a black president to the White House. Yet cynicism can so quickly fill the space where hope had bloomed. In nations where dictators were toppled, old elites reassert their power. Today, while the warming oceans rise, even the prospect of a global climate plan is beyond the horizon. While there are fewer banks now, they are richer and more powerful than ever before. A black president has been re-elected, but financial elites have never had more of a stranglehold on American priorities.
The greatest hope for progress on such vast challenges is in the democratic impulse now taking shape in many nations. Coordinated movements of ordinary citizens have emerged as a major force from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. Across the world we are seeing millions of ordinary people joining citizen-powered movements, determined to overwhelm the power of entrenched elites. They are harnessing new technologies and social networks and seeing themselves as the agents of change. These movements are still half-formed and often flawed, but they are getting stronger.
Changing the rules
The challenge now is for these new movements to grow, to work together and to focus their energies. Lasting change requires more than overthrowing a dictator or firing a few CEOs. It requires changing the rules themselves – the national and international laws, policies and practices that allow injustices to endure while regimes rise and fall.
The rules as they stand today have created a world in which inequality is vast and growing. The world’s 1,226 billionaires have more combined wealth than 3.5 billion people – half the entire planet’s population. The richest 10 per cent of the world’s population takes 90 per cent of the world’s income.
The scale of inequality and poverty can appear overwhelming and unchangeable. Yet it is not inevitable. It is the outcome of active choices by people who make and enforce the rules we all live by: rules about global trade, banking, loans, investment, taxes, working conditions, land, food, health and education. These rules are made by people and people can change them.
Frederick Douglass, a leader of the 19th century abolitionist movement which brought an end to slavery, once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand”. If we want to change rules that have been written by the few and for the few, we must look outside existing power structures to the power of the many. We know from history that when people demand their rights, they can move mountains and change whole systems. Right now, there is a special moment of opportunity. Throughout the world, citizens have access to information in ways once unimaginable. Affordable technologies are revolutionising our ability to communicate with one another and act collectively. The opportunities for new citizen-powered movements to become catalysts for change have never been greater than today. Powerful elites are losing the structural advantages they once enjoyed of being able to maintain secrecy, restrict information and suppress popular movements.
Offshore tax havens
This month, we are launching a new platform called /The Rules, to help mobilise action by ordinary citizens around the world to challenge and change the rules – the most basic drivers of inequality and poverty. We have a special focus on organising with people and grassroots movements in countries such as Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa. We are creating new ways for people to speak up using simple, cheap technologies like basic mobile phones.
The first campaign for /The Rules will target the system of offshore tax havens, starting with one of the biggest and most connected of all, the City of London. Tax havens are the product of rules that have been rigged by powerful corporations, lobbyists, lawyers, bankers, accountants and government officials. They are allowing a tiny global elite to extract trillions of dollars from rich and poor countries alike, starving our nations’ treasuries and choking off funds essential for schools, medicines, social programmes and infrastructure.
New research has blown the lid on this secretive shadow economy, with at least $21 trillion estimated to have been stowed away in these tax havens – 10 per cent of all the world’s privately held wealth. This is also more than 10 times the total value of development aid given to the world’s poorer nations in the past 20 years. The few who benefit from these rigged rules will fight long and hard to preserve them, but they can be defeated.
Rules express and entrench much of the injustice in our world today. But rules can be changed and the opportunity to make those changes has never been greater. Instruments of power once only in the hands of elites are now available to ordinary citizens – and we are beginning to use them. That gives us reason for hope.