by Sarah Joseph*
Time Magazine has just announced its Person of the Year. Appropriately, it is “The Protester”. The signature characteristic of 2011 has been the extraordinary outbreak of protests, demonstrations, riots, and even overthrows of government.
Most obviously, there has been the “Arab Spring”. Two long-standing dictators, Ben-Ali and Mubarak, were, remarkably, overthrown in a few weeks through the dogged perseverance of unarmed protesters. The contagion of Arab protest spread across the Arab world, and in February it seemed inevitable that many other regimes would topple, such as that in Bahrain. While there was a pause in that domino effect, the Arab Spring remains ongoing. President Saleh in Yemen stepped down in November in exchange for immunity after many months of protests. Demonstrations, coupled with regular lethal responses from the government, have gripped Syria for months, severely weakening and isolating the Assad regime. Finally, the long-standing regime of Colonel Gadaffi fell in Libya in August, and Gaddafi himself was murdered after being captured in October. Libya was exceptional, as the original demonstrations morphed quickly into a civil war and then an international war involving NATO.
Alongside the Arab Spring there have been major protests in many other States across the world: lower key but still unprecedented protests in other Arab countries including Morocco, Algeria and Jordan; opposition protests in Uganda; massive protests over the cost of living in Israel; demonstrations by thousands in Mexico against the futility and bloodiness of the country’s war on drugs; pro-union demonstrations in Wisconsin; anti-corruption demonstrations in India; anti-austerity protests in Spain and Greece; as well as, less laudably, the summer riots in London and other English cities. Most recently, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest apparent electoral fraud in Russia, challenging the hitherto rock-solid political power of Vladimir Putin. There have even been major protests, albeit with little global (or local) media coverage, in China.
Commencing in September in New York City, the Occupy protests have spread across the globe, particularly in developed countries. The movement challenges the excesses of capitalism, particularly grossly disproportionate corporate power. Rather than claiming to have all of the answers, Occupy instead seeks to spark debate over how to forge a new and better way of governing and organising ourselves. Recently, the movement has found itself under siege from police evictions. Its anti-capitalist message has been, at least temporarily, overshadowed by its role as a symbol of the right to protest, and the ugly displays of police force which can be unleashed to curtail that right.
So, to borrow a phrase from a prescient blog by the BBC’s Paul Mason from February, why is it kicking off everywhere? The causes are undoubtedly complex, but the following are relevant considerations.
1. Economic downturns, including very high levels of youth unemployment (see, eg, this New York Times Opinion by Roger Cohen and this Bloomberg piece) and escalating food prices (see also here), are driving mass dissatisfaction across the world. Victims include vast numbers of educated youth, who see dismal prospects for themselves, a phenomenon Mason has referred to as “the graduate with no future”. These underemployed people are not happy, even outraged, and are very good at organising others to join in that outrage, especially through the use of social media (see point 5 below).
2. The consequences of economic globalization, incorporating extreme inequalities resulting from neoliberal policies, which were seriously discredited by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Massive bailouts saved the banks then, but have now helped to generate unsustainable government debts in the Northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe. And the solutions (across-the-board austerity measures) seem to uniformly target the poor and middle class, who had little to do with creating the mess, rather than the rich and powerful (again, see Roger Cohen). Indeed, in light of the US’s refusal to raise taxes to address its spiralling debt, consider former World Bank Economist Joe Stiglitz’s essay on how the top 1% in the US control 40% of wealth and 25% of income. Of course, Stiglitz’s essays helped to spawn the iconic Occupy anthem of “We are the 99%”.
3. Uncertainty while we transition from a sustained phase of Western, particularly US, dominance to a phase where new powers, such as India, Brazil, and particularly China, have greater global influence (again, see Roger Cohen and also Australia’s Hugh White).
4. Global disillusionment with the political class, including:
(a) weariness and even disgust over increasingly bitter political polarization, most obviously exhibited in the unedifying fiasco over raising the US debt ceiling, and the blame game over the causes of the London riots. The relentless scoring of points off political opponents is likely distracting many governments from governing and oppositions from acting in the national interest.
(b) corrupt or incompetent behaviour: witness Japan’s clumsy response to Fukushima, the inability of Europe’s political and economic elites to credibly cope with the Eurozone meltdown, and the embarrassing revelations of British police and government toadying to Rupert Murdoch, a man since humbled by revelations of appalling criminal activity within his British media empire.
(c) limited political choices. While economic concerns were the main driver behind Spanish protests and also Occupy, a key aspect is also general disdain for the mainstream political system. In Australia too we are presented with the uninspiring duo of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, who are competing for the least disapproval from the public. In a glowing review of Australia as a country in March, the Economist noted that “our current political leaders [were] the least impressive feature of today’s Australia”. Meanwhile, despite low approval ratings, US President Obama surely has little to fear from probably the worst line-up of Republican candidates for decades.
(d) the cynicism of international politics as usual, namely Realpolitik, has been exposed by Wikileaks and the unexpected peoples’ insurrections. For example, the US was strongly aligned with Mubarak‘s venal and brutal regime. He was perceived as a stable and reliable safeguard for US interests, so who cared about his impact on the interests of ordinary Egyptians? Consequently, the US was a deer in the headlights of the Arab Spring protests, with President Obama only belatedly and reluctantly opting for the side of history and abandoning his ally Mubarak. Realpolitik does not take into account the possibility that the people might pop up to fight for their own interests in disregard of the strategic interests of foreign governments.
5. Social media and the Internet have not caused the uprisings but have been crucial in facilitating widespread political conversation, the organization of protests and the galvanization of protesters, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. Furthermore, the Internet enables the masses (including the increasing numbers of connected people of the developing world) to interact without traditional intermediaries, spreading news, ideas, and information (and, indeed, misinformation). It provides a global public space with the potential to act as a people’s counterweight to the elite, remote and often unaccountable power of global titans such as superpowers, multinational corporations and international financial institutions (on this point, see this Atlantic article by Zeynep Tufekci). For example, the Internet has provided the means for a key insurgent force, Wikileaks, to threaten the control traditionally exercised by government and corporate elites over information.
2011 has been a watershed year, underlining the importance of the freedoms of expression and assembly. For whatever reason, thousands and thousands have felt compelled to, in the words of the great Peter Finch from 1976’s Network, stick their necks out and make it clear that they’re as mad as hell and they aren’t gonna take it anymore.
* This blog is an updated and edited version of a post for The Punch on 3 September 2011.