Uncertain future after 'senseless beauty' of revolt
The first freely elected Egyptian parliament has convened; the first exposé of brutality in the jails of liberated Libya has been aired; the “occupy” meme that gripped United States cities in the autumn is in hibernation; the black bloc, which was declared defiantly to be “just a tactic” a year ago, turns out to have been—for some of the European radicals involved—just a phase.
If 2011 felt at times like a rerun of 1848 with stereo headphones on, 2012 is already exhibiting some of the features that made 1849 a byword for reaction.
In Egypt, secular democratic forces can still lead hundreds of thousands of youth and workers on to the streets, but Salafist Islam can gather seven million votes in the slums and villages.
In Greece, the euphoria one could sense among the indignados camped in Syntagma Square last June has given way to an angry silence, to fragmented, anomic acts and the struggle to survive.
Yet, in the past 12 months, the technological drivers of the revolts led by young people have powered forward. There are now nearly one billion Facebook users. Two-fifths of them have joined since the start of the Arab spring. By February 23 2012, on current trend, the 500-millionth Twitter account will be created—the 400-millionth was created just four months ago on the day Egyptians clashed with the army in an attempt to retake Tahrir Square.
And the fundamental economic problems remain unsolved: Egypt’s growth halved during 2011, it is haemorrhaging foreign-exchange reserves, and the regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has now gone, military hat in hand, to the International Monetary Fund for $3.2-billion.
Southern Europe, already the scene of massive protests in 2011, will experience a much more tangible economic crisis this year. The IMF predicts that the economies of Italy and Spain will shrink by 2%, while analysts at Oxford Economics predict the Greek economy will shrink 6%, just as it did last year. Portugal, meanwhile, is spiralling towards the status of a second Greece.
As a revolutionary wave breaks, historically, it also breaks up. During the Arab spring and the winter of occupying public spaces, it was impossible to ignore the similarities between youth across borders: the way they spoke and dressed, the social media they used, the music they listened to.
Now, during the scratchy phase we have entered, it is the specific, national aspects of the social unrest that will become more obvious.
We will notice the fact that the three parties of the Greek left—on a combined 29%, neck and neck with the main opposition conservative party—are traditionally prone to waging physical violence against each other.
We will notice the ability of some of the protesters to, as they themselves put it, “self-kettle”, by adopting exclusivist language and activities. We will see the occupy movement in the US, however reluctantly, plaster their MacBooks with fresh Barack Obama stickers.
So what remains of the revolution? As events recede, it becomes clear that 2011 was, above all, a cultural revolution: a loss of fear in the dictatorships of north Africa; a loss of apathy among educated youth in Europe, Latin America and the US. And the revolution consisted of this: mass rejection of the values dominant during 20 years of free-market capitalism.
It was free-market ideology that painted Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Zine al- Abidine Ben Ali as icons of economic progress. Free-market norms of regulation created the banking crisis and then demanded we should bankrupt states instead of banks. And free-market patterns of wealth distribution created the most potent political meme of 2011, which was not the Egyptian slogan: “Bread, freedom, social justice” but “We are the 99%”.
Though the occupy movement has been accused of “lacking demands”, and at times has luxuriated in its own incoherence, in Europe and the US it is beginning to leave a residue of policy among liberal and social-democratic parties.
In the Arab world, a lack of demands was never a problem, though many remain to be achieved.
The occupy movement found itself quoted in President Obama’s state of the union speech. And even conservative politicians such as David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy are now verbally criticising of “irresponsible capitalism”.
So 2012 opens with a pause: a political pause, as technocratic governments buy time for the banking system in Europe; as half-democratic regimes from Libya to Egypt find their feet. There is an economic pause, as everybody awaits the outcome of the euro crisis. And, we should not forget, a military/diplomatic pause as the world waits to see what Iran, under severe internal pressure from its own people, whose protests were suppressed in 2009, does next. The biggest pause of all—and it almost sits there like the cadenza mark above a stave of music, begging to be filled by improvisation, if nothing else—is ideological.
Though the economics point in the direction of competitive exit routes, national economic strategies, protectionism and currency war, only at the edges do you find politicians prepared to combine populism, anti-corporate rhetoric and plebeian nationalism: Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marie Le Pen in France and, in a different context, Alex Salmond in Scotland.
Given the IMF’s dire warnings about a 1930s-style outcome to the euro crisis, it is not scaremongering to foresee a situation in which a second financial catastrophe triggered by Europe unleashes economic nationalism into the mainstream.
In the Arab world, too, it is not hard to see where the new autocrats will come from to replace the old: the arrival of a socially conservative majority in the Egyptian parliament mirrors almost exactly what happened when the radicalised masses of Paris in 1848 found themselves the subjects of a new, democratic assembly dominated by representatives of the Catholic peasantry.
At this point, the questions for young activists become remarkably similar. What are the social and political alliances necessary to keep the dream alive; what are the compromises “horizontalism” has to make with mainstream politics, hierarchy and power? Anarchism has traditionally answered, “none”. Marxism, social democracy and liberalism have a whole history of failed alliances with each other in the mid-20th century for reference points.
Today, among the activists who made January 25 happen in Egypt and among those who turned Occupy Wall Street or UK Uncut into global brand names, you find a common reluctance to engage in the dirty business of power; the actual, the specific, the non-exhilarating work of community organising, of elections.
There are exceptions: the French Socialist party has been reinvigorated at the bottom by anti-globalist activists, even if at the top it remains its old self, used to champagne and chauffeurs. And a grand total of 42 secular liberals and leftists now find themselves, for good or ill, sitting alongside 400-odd Islamists in the Cairo Parliament.
But the scratchy phase of all revolutions poses—historically—the same question: who gets what? After 1848, the autocrats got power; the rising industrial class of Europe got wealth and spectacular growth; the left, liberal and secular young men got to paint naked women in experimental ways and write increasingly outrageous poetry.
But a retreat to culture, ideas and alternative lifestyles may not be possible for the radical youth of the 2010s. The regimes installed after the counter-revolutions of 1849 delivered sustained growth, stability and upward mobility for the skilled worker.
It is very hard, in Europe and America, to see what delivers that.
In short, 2012 may be the year the counter-culture accumulated by young people in the good years and deployed in what one has called “the senseless beauty of rebellion” in 2011, finally has to concretise into a programme, a coherent vision.
If it doesn’t—as is obvious from Budapest to Cairo—there are plenty of other forces with coherence. And in times of economic crisis, people turn to them.—