Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - a few thoughts

I know that as this year ends, there is a veritable flood of missives about the year that is now passing - some by writers far more gifted than I. Although I have no intention of duplicating their efforts, I do wish to take a few moments to jot down some impressions that I have formed.

A little over a year ago, as 2010 was ending, a young man in Tunisia set himself on fire - an act of protest, both desperate and ultimately fatal, brought about by years of gross mistreatment from those enforcing an unjust economic and political system. That particular suicide sparked a wave of protests that would topple Tunisia's government. The flames fanned out to neighboring countries in what would become the Arab Spring: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc., with mixed results. In part inspired by the Arab Spring, protesters in the upper Midwest of the US began engaging in resistance (such as occupying statehouses, as in Madison, WI) in reaction to draconian anti-labor laws passed by reactionary legislators and governors who identified with the Tea Party (a movement associated with the resurgence of a largely nationalistic and sectarian right-wing that had characterized the previous year). These efforts also led to mixed success (some successful recalls of Republican legislators, and a near-victory by a candidate for a state Supreme Court seat identified as liberal who had previously been written off in Wisconsin; the repeal of anti-union laws in Ohio, for example). The wave of protests and resistance efforts reached the UK and the European continent over the summer. And then there was the Occupy movement which began during the waning days of the summer in late September and which is currently on-going. Finally, we have seen protests erupt in Russia as its citizenry become increasingly disillusioned with Putin and the ruling party.

In some cases it is still too early to assess the short-term success of these resistance movements, nor is it even possible to predict their long-term impact except perhaps in terms of very broad generalities. That there is an undercurrent of anger and despair throughout much of the world that is easily observable is hardly in itself remarkable. Our particular world is one still reeling from (and nowhere near recovering from) the economic crash that ended the previous decade, as well as several decades worth of the neoliberal phase of capitalism which has led to a redistribution of wealth to the wealthiest 1% at the expense of everyone else. Although conditions vary from nation to nation and region to region, there is a sense that the impact of neoliberalism (from austerity budgets to wage stagnation and unemployment) is generally universal.

The suddenness and rapidity with which the resistance movements of 2011 sprung up and spread caught many by surprise, including me. Clearly, the emergence of new social media played a significant role in the organization of resistance actions, as well as the communication of ideas across national and cultural boundaries. To say that the revolution as it were has been tweeted, Tumbl'd, and uploaded to YouTube via hand-held cameras and cell phones is hardly hyperbolic. If you haven't been following these new media, you've been missing out.

This is largely, although not exclusively, a youth-based set of movements. In the US, the Occupy movement seems to include a fair number who were starting to come of political age around 2008 - many of whom were disillusioned by the slightly kinder and gentler neoliberal policies of a President who had run on a platform of hope and change. The Millennial cohort is already quite distinct from those cohorts that preceded it, and distinct in ways that may well be harbingers of a leftist revival over the coming decade or two.

The movements themselves seem to have a number of family resemblances. Although there are variations among the movements with regard to the use of counter-violence, these movements are largely committed to using direct forms of action, and to remaining focused on a few key issues. Parallel to the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, many of these movements have adopted a "leaderless" model. That is not too surprising given the level of distrust of those in power or who covet power (such distrust is not just limited to the protesters, but is often quite endemic among the public at large, and such distrust is not new as even a cursory glance at the writings of members of the 1960s & 1970s New Left in the US and Europe will make abundantly clear).

These movements have a rather international scope, and have been noteworthy for being rather secular and liberal or leftist in rhetoric, as opposed to advocating some nationalistic or religious sectarian stance. We have not been witness to any sort of sustained secular and at least loosely leftist set of movements since at least the late 1960s. In fact, over the last several decades the big story arc has been - other than the supposed inevitability and permanence of neoliberal capitalism and the "end of history" - the rise of nationalist and fundamentalist religious movements. Ours has been an age of often violent counter-revolutions and tribalism. Although efforts to re-establish a secular leftist and internationalist dialog have been made before since the 1990s, these have often either been limited in scope (the WTO protests of the late 1990s & early 2000s come to mind) or to location (the Zapatistas, although there has been some success in creating Zapatista-inspired organizations across the globe, and the name and image of Marcos - and to a lesser extent the late Ramona - has become an established part of at least leftist consciousness. This year, now passing, feels somehow different. These movements seem to readily reference one another, and seem to be establishing something more sustained.

For the first time in a long time, I have at least some hope that nationalistic and sectarian turn of the previous few decades has at least reached its peak, and a serious push-back is now a real possibility. I don't pretend to know what the future will bring for 2012 and beyond, but I don't doubt that resistance movements of this past year will lead to at least some successes (along with the inevitable defeats) and - at bare minimum - needed reforms over the longer term. In the US, we have actually made Americans conscious of the term capitalism (which had become so insidious as to need no mention) for the first time in a long time, and have reintroduced class consciousness as an important concept (the 99% versus the 1%). We are also witnessing the reintroduction of active forms of dissent as viable - this isn't the sort of passive "netroots activism" of the 2000s, although it does share a reliance on the prevailing new technological means in order to get the word out and to get real human bodies to tangible physical locations. We are also witnessing a reminder that governments are dependent upon the consent of their people for legitimacy, and that in the absence of reforms by parliamentary means, extra-parliamentary means become the desired mode of political discourse.

I'll have more to say as time permits. In the meantime, there is much work to be done.

In solidarity.

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