Sat, Feb 04, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Global protests: Where to now?

The key to effecting change after last year’s Arab Spring and anti-capitalist protests is to turn rebellion into a coherent political vision

By Paul Mason  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

The first freely elected Egyptian parliament has convened; the first expose of brutality in the jails of liberated Libya has been aired. The Occupy meme that gripped US 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 last year felt, at times, like a rerun of 1848 with stereo headphones, this year is already exhibiting some of the features that made 1849 a byword for reaction.

In Egypt, the secular democratic forces can still lead hundreds of thousands of youth and workers on to the streets, but Salafist Islam can gather 7 million votes in the slums and villages. In Greece, the euphoria one could sense among the protesters camped in Syntagma Square in June last year has given way to an angry silence; to fragmented, anomic acts and the struggle to survive.

Yet over the past 12 months the technological drivers of the revolts led by young people have powered forward. There are now nearly 1 billion Facebook users: two-fifths of who joined since the start of the Arab Spring. By Feb. 23 this year, based on current trends, 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.

However, the fundamental economic problems remain unsolved: Egypt’s growth halved last year; it is hemorrhaging foreign exchange reserves and the regime of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has now gone, military hat in hand, to the IMF for US$3.2 billion. Southern Europe — already the scene of massive protests last year — will see a much more tangible economic crisis this year: The IMF predicts both Italy and Spain will shrink by 2 percent; analysts at Oxford Economics predict the Greek economy will shrink by 6 percent, just as it did last year. Portugal, meanwhile, is spiraling toward 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 the 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, the specific, national aspects of the social unrest will become more obvious.

We will notice the fact that the three parties of the Greek left — on a combined 29 percent, 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 stickers of US President Barack Obama.

So what remains of the revolution? As the events recede and solidify it becomes clear that last year 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: a mass rejection of the values dominant during 20 years of free market capitalism.

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