Dégage! Dégage!
Tunis, January 2011

We haven’t seen such spirit here since 1969…
The Eagles

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin…
Leonard Cohen

The usual story…one law for the rich, the other for the poor.
Robert Harris

The year 2011 could well turn out to have been one of those remembered years of landmark outrage when assumptions changed. The recent uprisings against established order may not stack up in scope compared to the revolutionary explosions of 1848, but the hauling down of three adjacent dictators from North Africa signalling a wider “Arab Spring” has had global repercussions, including in North America. Globally, the mood of “democracy rising” has been infectious. North Africa’s young people have encouraged and inspired democracy activists and human rights defenders in autocratic societies from the Arabian Gulf to Cuba to China.

The loose coalition in the world “dictators’ club” certainly registered the fates of their judged, fugitive or executed North African colleagues. Some cracked down harder, but most tried to show they were lightening up. In the region, Arab leaders “all want to appear democratic, proactive, and standing up for people because they are embattled at home,” according to the Carnegie Middle East Center.

In Europe and North America, seemingly incomprehensibly to many older commentators, a growing generational rejection of the “system” is discernible. In trying to find a year of mood comparison, some see in 2011 the tones and shades of 1968, when another generational firestorm swept over youth in Paris, Berkeley, Tokyo, Mexico City, Prague and campuses almost everywhere.

It’s by no means a given that the uprisings in North Africa’s Act 1 will be followed by orderly democratic transitions in their Act 2, but it’s at least in their hands and things there are changed forever.

Most of the aspirations then were idealistic, but in a much more ideological context than in somewhat postideological 2011. Hippies and flower  children aside, some pretty hard-edged left-wing adversaries of embedded power flirted with violence. In the US, impatient younger challengers of institutionalized racism scorned nonviolent doctrines of the black Southern Christian leadership. Anger ramped up among draft-age youth being dragged into harm’s way in an all-out war of their elders’ choice in Vietnam.

In Europe, radical cells took up urban combat in what were to become known in Italy as the “years of lead.”

In 1968, violent shock became normal. Blows rained on the US — the murder of Martin Luther King set cities aflame, a president elected in a landslide less than four years earlier had no choice but to renounce re-election, and then the counter-hope of Bobby Kennedy was snuffed in Los Angeles.

In Europe, student contestataires brought France to a standstill in the évènements de mai, which forced President De Gaulle into retirement, while Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. In Tokyo students poured into the streets, and in Mexico City they were gunned down.

What did 1968’s protestors accomplish? Some university reforms, to be sure, but probably the most significant outcome was a backlash by a “silent majority” in the US that gave Richard Nixon a very narrow win for the White House. The Vietnam War would run for at least four more years. The “culture wars” would dominate American politics for years and aren’t resolved yet.

The year 2011 presents a different and more positive picture. There have been happier concrete outcomes on some levels at least. Tahrir Square had for a while the euphoric triumphal impact of 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall.

It’s by no means a given that the uprisings in North Africa’s Act 1 will be followed by orderly democratic transitions in their Act 2, but it’s at least in their hands and things there are changed forever.

Regionally and even globally, the power of information technologies has boosted the forward momentum of the spirit of Tahrir Square as far as New York City, reversing the usual patterns of influence in a way that mimics the flattening out of power and influence in the world more generally.

Connected Arab youth radiates its uprisings outward through “netizen” held cellphone footage sent via clandestine satellite phones or proxy servers. Forty years ago President Hafez Assad could order the killing of 10,000 rebellious Shia citizens in Hama, Syria, in the knowledge the news would not really get out to the wider distant world. Today, his son Bashar’s bloody outrages against Syrian demonstrators are within hours uplinked to YouTube and al Jazeera.

On the level of techniques, the tent encampments, sort of similarly leaderless organization, and the resolute nonviolent discipline, the narratives of Zuccotti Park owe a lot to Tahrir Square. As Wendell Stephenson of the New Yorker reported in a recent podcast from Cairo, there’s quite a lot of pride on the part of Arab youth, long and humiliatingly isolated from the global conversation, that they have been virtual mentors of protest in the developed world.

But the risks are different. In the Middle East, young people are actually dying for their beliefs; 1,200 young men died to liberate Libya’s Misrata. The peaceful young marchers in Dara’a in Syria, chanting the taunt “Sniper, sniper, what do you see? Here are our necks, here are our heads,” are into a dimension of frontal challenge to ruthless dictatorship that is existentially far removed in personal risk from camping out in tents in still comfortable Western cities.

The Internet has nurtured the notion there are shared perceptions of unacceptable realities. The actual linear connection from Tahrir Square to what became Occupy Wall Street was first explicitly drawn by the Vancouver anti-corporate magazine and Web site Adbusters, which perceived a globally common ground of discontent over old orders and failing systems.

Adbusters expresses in its literature a pretty lofty ambition — to “reshape how power and meaning flow in the 21st century.” It certainly captures what the 60 percent of Middle Eastern populations who are under 30 feel about the bold authoritarian and corrupted colours of their own societies, as signified in Yemen, where the protest movement is called “Taghyir,” or “Change,” after the emblematic rallying point for protesting students. But it is also the leitmotiv of the more rhapsodic themes of Occupy Wall Street, as set out by a muse of the leaderless movement, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek: “They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely as they are.”

The Arab Spring hasn’t been just about obtaining the civil and political rights North Americans and Europeans take for granted. It’s about more than bouncing dictators who have more or less cruelly monopolized power for 40 years. It is about lost opportunity.

There was rampant economic disappointment in Tunisia and Egypt. Young graduates felt they had no future in a regime where spoils went to insiders. Tom Friedman of the New York Times took away from his visits that Tahrir Square was “less about a quest for democracy than for justice.” Polls bear that out.

In fact, the uprisings had their precursors in labour conflicts that turned violent, in the mining sector in Tunisia in 2008 and through the agenda-setting “6th of April movement” in Egypt in 2010, which sought to prolong a politically significant strike by textile workers.

Accountability, fairness and justice are the themes resounding with youth around the world. Camilla Vallejo, a fiery student unionist from Santiago, Chile, who brought tens of thousands into the streets to march for deep change to the university system and society, labelled it “a world battle that transcends all frontiers.”

The IMF’s Christine Lagarde warns of 10 lost years ahead for Europeans. North American commentators drone on about technical issues involving European sovereign debt, defaults and the impact on bond holders and global exchanges, newsworthy items for an insular and nervous readership that, however, really miss the point about the European public mood of despondency. Recent visits show Athenians, Parisians, Romans, Dubliners depressed to their core about much more than interest rates. Their spirits are deadened by the failure of their leaders and their systems to protect them, while enriching a gilded elite at the top of things.

We have long celebrated the dominance of democracy across Latin America. But the results of a Latinobarametro poll in 18 countries published recently in the Economist show a 20 percent drop in Mexicans’ confidence in their political system. Only 45 percent of Brazilians and 32 percent of Chileans report satisfaction with the democratic condition.

Americans can relate to this. A New York Times/CBS poll cites 74 percent of citizens as believing the US is “on the wrong track.” Eighty-nine percent do not “trust government to do the right thing.” Those two answers sum up why the protests of 2011 have more public throw-weight than those of 1968.

The impact of the OWS can’t be measured by silly issues over whether tent encampments should or shouldn’t be taken down or by sneers there were ten times as many people running the Toronto marathon as in the Toronto OWS site’s talk-in. I have been to OWS sites in several cities in Canada, the US and Europe. The several hundred tent encampments, each of which is different and all of which attract a variety of greenish and sometimes homeless outliers, are not the point.

The significant thing is that the OWS connects a growing public mood to an arc of growing global anger that incorporates Arab Days of Rage, the “indignados” of Madrid and American anger over Wall Street bailouts and a much sharpened inequality of opportunity.

The issues differ but the underlying themes of protest are essentially the same: the system has failed; special interests call the shots; it is inherently unfair.

Speaking personally as an international democracy activist, I have every hope that dictatorships everywhere are going to go down. But it is also a rational analysis.

The most efficient transitional scenarios will probably follow successful post-1989 experiences in reconciling old and new orders. They will include “pacted” negotiations between military rulers and citizens of the kind that permitted transfers of power from the military in post-Franco Spain or post-Pinochet Chile and that should emerge in post-Mubarak Egypt, where the army has been reticent about civilian authority at least until a constitution is negotiated and a head of state (with whom they can negotiate) is elected. We may even perceive change of that kind beginning in Myanmar today, in Cuba, and some glimpse its beginnings too in its special way in China.

Hopefully, democracies learned from the fall of three North African dictators in whom we were way overinvested that the status quo does not equal security. Consorting with and even subcontracting despotic rulers of unjust systems because they claim to support us in a wider cold war or war on “terror” is a recipe for losers, a trap of false choices between tyrants or Islamists and chaos. Other “peoples’ democracies” are theirs to work out and we must help as best we can, bearing in mind that each trajectory is different and some rides are going to be rougher than others.

But what about our democracies, the ones our own citizens perceive as no longer working?

It is astonishing that political cultures in the US and in Europe haven’t seemed to get their heads around what Occupy Wall Street gets so easily, that the system broke down. Incomprehension is in part because bubbled-up political leaders are themselves the system.

Washington has had a decisive role over time but not the one that conservatives seem to want to believe. George Packer Foreign Affairs laid it on the line: “The decisive factor has been politics and public policy: tax rates, spending choices, labour laws, regulations, campaign finance rules. Book after book by economists and other scholars over the past few years has presented an airtight case: over the past three decades, the government has consistently favoured the rich. This is the source of the problem; our leaders and our institutions.”

In the US, the pathetic Republican selection process is bogged down in partisanship and the simplistic Tea Party dogma that the only thing standing in the way of happy days being here again is the size of government and budgets.

There are signs, though, that the public is beginning to leapfrog the slogans and political leaders’ mental dead zones.

Voters in Ohio have bounced in a landslide referendum the anti-union law of the Tea Party Governor. In strange Arizona where I saw last month billboards sponsored by “Conservatives for the American Dream” screaming “DEPORT THEM ALL!,” the state Senate leader who sponsored draconian anti-illegal immigrant laws has himself been bounced in a recall vote.

While support for local Occupy Wall Street tent encampments has since decline, the Gallup Poll in October showed initial support for the goals of Occupy Wall Street outstripping that for the Tea Party 39 percent to 32 percent. Probably there’s some overlap in those numbers because though the Tea Party has specifically different antigovernment goals, it mines some of the same seams of anger.

A signal distinction is that the OWS movement doesn’t really have concrete goals. It is general, not specific. In Tahrir Square, the unifying goal was to get rid of Mubarak.

There’s no straightforward “platform” in OWS, which is possibly what annoys the put-down journalistic herds lost without campaign “takeaways” and talking points.

The movement is certainly tuned to American anger. I keep reading in editorials, including in Canada, patronizing advice to the OWS folk that their anger “shouldn’t be about the banks.”

Why not? An article “Should Some Bankers Be Prosecuted?” in the November 10 New York Review of Books by Jeff Madrick and Frank Partnoy sets out the case that those bankers responsible for the mortgage and toxic asset sale frauds should be doing time as well as paying fines. Citi, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have each been fined hundreds of million of dollars, but so what? They are still paying delusional bonuses while millions of Americans have lost their homes.

The Wall Street bailouts and contrasting timidity in tackling the homeowner foreclosure crisis are black marks on President Obama’s scoresheet. As the New York Times reported on November 13: “Mr. Obama’s economic team failed to help him prepare Americans for the pain ahead. It has proved to be the defining mistake of the Obama administration.”

It’s true he was new to a job that had impossible challenges and that official advice was that saving the banks was a pre-condition to stabilizing the financial crisis. But more and more Americans are tuned to the fact the US financial industry has funnelled $2.3 billion in Washington political contributions over the last 20 years. Many wish that instead of succumbing to the Treasury and other economic technicians around him, he had gone to the mat with the fat cats of Wall Street whose recklessness, greed and inherent incompetence have spawned much of the global crisis — the stock Republican line that the blame for the economic crisis that has hurt so many was rather with Washington may be part of the reason why Republican congressional leadership has a public approval rating of 9 percent.

Al Gore called OWS the “primal scream of democracy.” Americans see their democracy is being bought by wealthy interests at the expense of ordinary citizens. In his Foreign Affairs article on inequality and social decline, George Packer laid the blame on “organized money and the conservative movement” for “a massive, generation-long transfer of wealth to the richest Americans…Democrats, too, went begging to Wall Street and corporate America, because that’s where the money was.”

For the first time in over 70 years, growing income disparity is a public issue. Here too, OWS, in self-identifying as the “99 percent,” may be catching a politically defining wave.

Income inequality is not a new story. Paul Krugman was writing about it in American Prospect as early as 1982. The Nobel laureate’s basic take has hardened since, as the facts further darkened: the American working male has not seen his purchasing power increase at all in 30 years, while those in the top 1 percent have been boosted several times over.

The Congressional Budget Office released in October a study based on after-tax household income (not as dire as for the pay of male employees because increased numbers of women in the labour force in recent decades push household income up). The study put the increase for the top 1 percent of households since 1979 in real terms at 275 percent, that of the middle 60 percent at a 40 percent increase and that of the bottom 20 percent at 18 percent.

These relative increases mean that the 1 percent’s has almost tripled its ownership of the nation’s wealth, to 23 percent, making the US just about the most unequal society in the world. Obama is completely correct to insist on higher taxes for the top 1 percent. According to a 2010 speech by Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, the top 400 income earners in 2007, who that year averaged over $340 million each, paid only 17 percent in taxes, much less than the hardpressed middle class.

That would not have been such a politically volatile story when the economy was good.

I used to shock more egalitarian European audiences with Krugman data that 1 percent of Americans had over 20 percent of the wealth. They gasped.

But I shocked them further with the compensating upside news that when polled, 17 percent of Americans optimistically thought they were part of the 1 percent!

Such self-belief and confidence in upward mobility have until now been the American story. Professor Jerome Karabel of the University of California, Berkeley, underlines that in the American hierarchy of values, equality of opportunity always trumped “equality of condition,” which is actually suspected of being inherently un-American to begin with (along the lines of candidate-tycoon Romney’s aspersions at Obama’s affection for Europe’s “socialist democrats”).

But Karabel caveats that absent greater inclusiveness, growing “stratification” by income becomes much less acceptable.

The fact is that upward mobility in America has become a myth, especially from the bottom quartile.

The fundamental reason is probably inadequate public education. Conservative William Kristol has written that “good early education is the most reliable escalator out of poverty.” Here, the US simply fails. Public schools, funded mostly out of very differing local property tax bases, which in some cases are capped, are indelibly handicapping the poorest children at the start. In Denmark upward mobility is the world’s highest because the state ensures equality of early public education everywhere.

OWS will help because many of their supporters are facing ominous student debt. At the University of California, where in-state tuition has tripled in a few years to over $13,000, I meet students facing crippling debt burdens at a time of high unemployment.

That fact becomes much harsher in an economy with 9 percent unemployment that hits the least educated the most but is a challenge for recent graduates as well.

Obama seems stuck with that economy, but he is in touch with the educational realities, if only the political discussion can get there. OWS will help because many of their supporters are facing ominous student debt. At the University of California, where in-state tuition has tripled in a few years to over $13,000, I meet students facing crippling debt burdens at a time of high unemployment. Curriculum and grad school options are weighed against debt. Some students have to weigh whether they can afford to continue college at all, which deepens that educational zone of inequality as pointed out above. It’s all different in degree from the angry unemployed university graduates in Tunisia and Egypt, but the feeling of being let down is the same.

So, for the sake of ending a yearend piece, let’s say that 2011 will be remembered as a year when youth spoke out against dictators in North Africa, successfully, and in the same spirit against the “system” in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

Looking back, we may see it was a year when significant things began to change.

Many Americans are finally questioning what San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed calls “a series of mass delusions.” As he told Vanity Fair: “We’re all going to be rich. We’re all going to live forever. All the forces in the state are lined up to preserve the delusion.”

Europeans also began to acknowledge that their aspirations and assumptions had become delusional, given low growth and birth rates, aging populations and too-cushy publicly financed pensions. Now the knife has to go in, drastically, and there will be unrest. Studies show that episodes of violent demonstration and protest double when government expenditure on services is cut. Get ready for some European versions of Tahrir Square’s “Days of Rage.”

There are times when leaders define historic choices. The year 2011 may be when movements of young people who are resolutely and proudly without leaders are doing the defining.

At a minimum, it does seem clear that a new definition of the public interest is in the emerging mix.

More and more people indicate they are listening and, in consequence, leaders may do so as well. Democrats — including President Obama — are speaking respectfully of the sort of defining going on by various OWS people, though wariness about getting into the political/partisan game is strong in the movement.

And Canada? Sound financial regulations and strong resource demand have kept Canadians mostly exempt from the downsides of the financial crisis, so far, and hence on the margin of global agitation. Our own OWS sites are thought of as eyesores by local retailers. But skip that: somewhere in their sleepwalking, Canadians too get that there are very important issues at stake. Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney praised the OWS instincts, remarkably astute on the part of a representative of the congenitally conservative mindset of central bankers.

How hopeful it would be to ponder that maybe Carney is the authentic Canadian voice. Whatever, Canadians too are stakeholders in the global thought process about democracy. Let’s hope we start to pay attention.

Photo: Joe Tabacca / Shutterstock

Contributing Writer Jeremy Kinsman served as Canada’s ambassador or high commissioner to 15 countries and organizations, including Russia, Britain and the European Union. He currently heads a Community of Democracies program for democracy development and is Regents’ Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. He is distinguished visiting diplomat at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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