Update (2 January 2012): This article has been published in full on Irish Left Review and an edited (shorter) version has been published on Social Europe Journal. In a related piece in December's New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg asks what future for the Occupy movement.
In a year of revolution, causes have been easier to identify than consequences.
In 1989, following the end of the Cold War, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in The End of History? of the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”, marking “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.1 In the decades since Fukuyama's landmark essay, the very concept of revolution – at least in the context of the rich, Western world – had itself come to be seen as an almost anachronistic idea. While still idealized in some quarters – most notably in student houses where posters of El Che [Guevara] are proudly hoisted to the walls, in defiance of the no-blue-tack clauses of student lease agreements – revolution had attained a quaint, nostalgia-tinged hue. That is, until this year. In 2011, revolution has returned to the center of global geo-political discourse. People have taken to the streets en masse across the Arab world, as part of the Arab Spring popular revolutions. The revolutionary fervour has since spread to the capital cities of the rich world. From Spain's indignados, to the riots in London, Athens and Rome, to the Occupy Wall St protests that have spread from New York to other major cities around the world, the Arab Spring is turning into a global Autumn of Discontent.
Viewed through Fukuyama's lens, the Arab Spring could be interpreted as the natural progression of these once repressive regimes into modern, Western-style democracies. How then do we reconcile with such a theory, the emergence of the Occupy movement, which originated at the heart of the financial-corporate-political nexus on Wall St? Certainly those involved in these protests, while apparently reluctant to articulate a list of “demands”, do not appear content to be living at the apogee of the modern participative democratic society.
There are many parallels in the genesis of these two movements (if the various riots, protests, occupations and revolutions are indeed reducible to two distinct groups according to their Western and Arab origins), and they appear to have fed off the oxygen of each other's success. The Occupy movement explicitly models itself on the Arab Spring's largely peaceful occupations of central squares and plazas. But the Arab world has also been paying close attention to the Western Autumn of Discontent. The London riots in August, for example, provoked jibes from the less “Western-friendly” Arab leaders about popular revolt and the London regime's hardline crackdown in response. The Arab media, more generally, appear to have been paying close attention to the Occupy movement long before Western media began taking the protesters seriously. The Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni has said she is proud of the role the Arab Spring has played in inspiring young people in other parts of the world to come out and “say 'no' to their systems”.2
The apparent solidarity between these groups of protesters should come as no surprise. In both cases the protests have been led mostly (although by no means exclusively) by young people. In a direct parallel of the Arab Spring, the Occupiers represent a generation increasingly disillusioned with a system in which many have been marginalized, without work or the prospect of a job, a system they claim has left them without a voice – thus the emphasis among protestors on the use of an elaborate and disciplined form of participative decision making. While national unemployment rates are running at between eight and ten percent in the US, Britain and the Eurozone (with double digit rates in Spain, Ireland and Greece), youth unemployment is significantly higher. In the US, 17% of under-25s are without work. In Europe, that figure is over 20%, while in Spain almost half (46.2%) of all young people are jobless.3
The Arab Spring was clearly a “liberal” movement, in the sense that popular protests rose up to challenge repressive, authoritarian regimes. But do its participants aspire to the particular version of liberalism that has been predominant in the Western world – and most particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world – over the past three decades?
Even during the boom times, when unemployment rates were relatively low, income inequality was rising in many rich countries – most notably those that pursued most vigorously the Anglo-Saxon model of deregulation (i.e. the US, Britain and Ireland). One of the most appealing slogans of the Occupy movement – “we are the 99%” – is a pointed reference to the top 1% of income earners, who in 2007 received 23.5% of total US national income, with an average wage income of around $713,000.4 Not since the late 1920s – in the years immediately preceding the Wall St crash and the Great Depression – the era of the “robber-barons”, have the few at the apex of the income pyramid, captured such a disproportionate share of national income.
The period since the beginning of the 1980s, which has seen the financial and economic elite steadily increase their share of national income, has been characterized by the political economist and former US secretary of labour Robert Reich, as the Great Regression. The systematic deconstruction of social and labour protections during this period has created a sense of financial and economic instability in young people's lives, the social costs of which have yet to be fully counted – but symptoms of which are evident in the recent violence on the streets of London and Rome.
Writing in 2007, in response to a UNICEF report at the time, which found British children had the most miserable upbringing in the developed world (with Americans second from bottom), Maria Hampton provided a remarkably prescient discussion of the causes and potential consequences of declining living standards for young people in the UK. Her article quotes LSE economist Nick Bosanquet and Blair Gibbs of the independent think tank Reform, who in their Class of 2005 survey characterised Britain’s under-35s – the “iPod Generation” – as insecure, pressured, over-taxed and debt-ridden.5 From among this generation have come the majority of the protestors.
So to consequences. In the Arab Spring, a mass popular movement coalesced around the clear and unambiguous goal of overthrowing brutal dictators. Now that aim has been achieved – in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – the way forward is less clear. Similarly, the aims – and ultimate political consequences – of the Occupy movement remain unclear. From the outset, the Occupiers have been reluctant to specify their “demands”. While some in the media have seen this lack of focus as a reason to dismiss the protestors, for some within the movement, the process – with its egalitarian, democratic ideals and methods – is the cause. Avoiding setting out specific “demands” may also represent a clever strategy for the protestors, at least for the time being. As The Onion recently quipped, the public are waiting for the Occupiers to state their demands so that we can all rationalize our reasons for choosing to ignore them, and “go back to waiting for the sluggish economy to recover while blindly accepting things the way they are”.6
As the repeated failed attempts to solve the European debt crisis attest, simply muddling through and hoping for a return to the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, may no longer be a serious option. Lest we forget, there were mass protests in poor countries around the world, in response to high food and energy prices in 2008. Similar protests were seen recently on the streets of Israel. While the poorest may have felt the effects of the squeeze on resources before most, ultimately, these protests are symptoms of the same underlying problems. Indeed it was the rise in commodity prices – food and energy in particular – that pricked the bubble economy of the last decade. The unbalanced and unsustainable growth of recent years has left too many people, in both rich and poor countries, feeling disillusioned, marginalized and concerned about their economic futures.
There is now an urgent need to articulate an alternative to the failed neo-liberal agenda of recent decades. The financial crisis generally, and more specifically the recent protest movements around the globe, challenge us to consider what kind of society we wish to live in. If in every crisis lies opportunity, then we must embrace this opportunity to start a discussion about the ideals of liberty, equality and justice – upon which most modern democratic states were founded – and what these values mean in a modern, globalized society.
This crisis also presents a threat – one which will only grow in its potential to be destructive, if the underlying causes of the crisis are not addressed. The last time a financial crisis of this magnitude occurred, the world was plunged into a period of darkness. In the wake of the economic collapse, self-interested, nationalistic policies were enacted through the exploitation of people's fears and insecurities, culminating in the rise of fascism. The result was a global conflict that claimed millions of lives. We have already witnessed the rise of an “extremist” right-wing party in the US, with sufficient power to force the US government to the brink of default.7 Even the remotest sense of modern history should suffice to give us all pause for concern at such developments.
Writing in his last major publication before his death, the historian and social commentator Tony Judt warned that if the history of the 20th Century has taught us anything, it should be a healthy suspicion of totalitarianism in all its forms.8 One such form has been the disturbing – and ultimately misplaced – certainty of the free market ideologues. Judt also argued that the great failure of the Left, in all its various shades, has been the apparent inability to articulate any coherent alternative to the predominant neo-liberal agenda of the past 30 years. Indeed, the ideological hubris implicit in Fukuyama's End of History could only have arisen in the context of an ideological vacuum to the Left of the predominant neo-liberal political-economic paradigm.
Back in 2007, Hampton concluded her article on the plight of British youth as follows: “If the crisscrossing fault-lines of greed, geopolitics and social inequality do reach a tipping point, we may well see a conflict between youthful brutality and the power of old age”. If we are to avoid such conflicts, we must start a conversation about the kind of society we want to live in and the state of the world we will pass on to our children. These are challenges for which there are no simple answers or quick-fix solutions. There will be dilemmas about how to balance competing aims that we wish to embrace. That does not mean we should not try.
1Fukuyama, Francis (1989). The End of History? The National Interest, Summer 1989.
2As quoted in the Irish Times Weekend Review, 22 October 2011.
3Rates quoted are from the Economist, 22 October 2011 (http://www.economist.com/node/21533447)
4Figures taken from Robert Reich's article “The Limping Middle Class”, NY Times, 4 September 2011.
5The article “Generation F*cked: How Britain is Eating its Young” first appeared in the magazine Adbusters (#71, May/June 2007) and was republished recently on the magazine's website, Adbusters.com (11 August 2011).
6“Nation waiting for protestors to clearly articulate demands before ignoring them”, The Onion, 12 October 2011.
7As characterized by Moses Naim in La Repubblica (11 September 2011).
8Judt, Tony (2010), Ill Fares the Land. Penguin.