If no news is good news what do we make of 2011?
So what are we to make of 2011, a year in which one has hardly been able to catch one’s breath in between momentous events (and it’s only just September!).
We have had major environmental disasters (the Queensland floods, the Christchurch earthquake, the Japan earthquake/tsunami), and the spectacular fall from grace of seemingly unassailable powerful men (such as Tunisia’s Zine el Abadine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Osama Bin Laden, IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (even though rape charges were recently dropped), and Rupert Murdoch).
For the second time in a few years, the global economy teeters (including the first downgrade of the US’s sovereign debt status since 1917 and the very real possibility of the demise of the Eurozone). Anders Breivik wreaked havoc in a murderous rampage in Norway. We also have a new state in the form of South Sudan. There have also been flashbacks to unfortunate episodes of the 1980s, with a major (and ongoing and unresolved) nuclear emergency in Japan’s Fukushima recalling the Chernobyl disaster, famine in East Africa, and England’s recent riots recalling unrest under Thatcher, oh ... and on a nicer note, a Royal Wedding.
Probably the signature characteristic of 2011 has been the extraordinary outbreak of protests, demonstrations, riots, and even overthrows of government. Most obviously, there has been the “Arab Spring”. Two long-standing dictators, Ben-Ali and Mubarak, were, remarkably, overthrown in a few weeks through the dogged perseverance of unarmed protesters.
The contagion of Arab protest spread to Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, and in February it seemed inevitable that those regimes would topple, resembling another 1980s image, the fall of the Iron Curtain from 1989.
While there was a pause in that domino effect, the Arab Spring may have picked up momentum again. Libya, where the situation swiftly deteriorated into armed insurrection and then an international war involving NATO, has now reached an endgame, while the regime of President Saleh in Yemen (he’s still in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment after an assassination attempt) is decidedly unsteady.
Demonstrations, coupled with regular lethal responses from the government, have also gripped Syria, undoubtedly weakening and isolating the Assad regime.
Alongside the Arab Spring there have been major protests and more serious conflagrations in many States across the world: lower key but still unprecedented protests in other Arab countries including Morocco, Algeria and Jordan; a civil war resulting in the overthrow of Laurent Gbagbo in Cote d’Ivoire; opposition protests in Uganda; massive protests over the cost of living in Israel; demonstrations by thousands in Mexico against the futility and bloodiness of the country’s war on drugs; pro-union demonstrations in Wisconsin; anti-corruption demonstrations in India; anti-austerity protests in Spain and Greece; and, as noted above, the riots in London and other English cities. There have even been major protests, albeit with little global (or local) media coverage, in China.
So, to borrow a phrase from a prescient blog by the BBC’s Paul Mason from February, why is it kicking off everywhere? The causes are undoubtedly complex, but the following are relevant considerations.
1. Economic downturns, including very high levels of youth unemployment (see, for example, this New York Times opinion by Roger Cohen and this Bloomberg piece) and escalating food prices (see also here), are driving mass dissatisfaction across the world.
Victims include vast numbers of educated youth, who see dismal prospects for themselves, a phenomenon Mason has referred to as “the graduate with no future”. These underemployed people are not happy, even outraged, and are very good at organising others to join in that outrage, especially through the use of social media (see point 5 below).
2. The consequences of economic globalisation, incorporating extreme inequalities resulting from neoliberal policies, which were seriously discredited by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Massive bailouts saved the banks then, but have now helped to generate unsustainable government debts in the Northern hemisphere.
And the solutions (across-the-board austerity measures) seem to uniformly target the poor and middle class, who had little to do with creating the mess, rather than the rich and powerful (again, see Roger Cohen). Indeed, in light of the US’s refusal to raise taxes to address its spiralling debt, consider former World Bank Economist Joe Stiglitz’s essay on how the top 1 per cent in the US control 40 per cent of wealth and 25 per cent of income.
3. Uncertainty while we transition from a sustained phase of Western, particularly US, dominance to a phase where new powers, such as India, Brazil, and particularly China, have greater global influence (again, see Roger Cohen and also Australia’s Hugh White).
4. Global disillusionment with the political class, including:
(a) weariness and even disgust over increasingly bitter political polarisation, most obviously exhibited in the unedifying fiasco over raising the US debt ceiling, and the blame game over the causes of the London riots. The relentless scoring of points off political opponents is likely distracting many governments from governing and oppositions from acting in the national interest.
(b) corrupt or incompetent behaviour: witness Japan’s clumsy response to Fukushima and the embarrassing revelations of British police and government toadying to Rupert Murdoch, a man since humbled by revelations of appalling criminal activity within his British media empire (see also last Monday’s 4 Corners report on that matter).
(c) limited political choices. While economic concerns were the main driver behind Spanish protests, one aspect was general disdain for its political system. In Australia too we are presented with the uninspiring duo of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, who are competing for the least disapproval from the public. Certain issues are currently off the political table, despite majority support for reform or at least meaningful debate, as on the issues of continued Australian participation in the Afghan war and same sex marriage. Though I’m not opposed to it, I must concede public anger over the proposed introduction of a carbon tax from 2012 without an electoral mandate.
This criticism in (c) may not be fair. Many leaders seem to take on a glow after they’ve left power, causing us to forget how hopeless we thought they were when in power. In the US, Ronald Reagan is viewed so benevolently that there is talk of his Memorial being erected in Washington DC, an honour reserved only for the “greatest” of US Presidents.
Bill Clinton’s reputation as President is also enjoying a renaissance. Furthermore, perhaps Lindsay Tanner is right to blame the relentless 24/7 media cycle for the trivialisation of politics into soundbites. Certainly, the misleading and biased commentaries of people like Alan Jones or, in the US, the Fox News Channel, add little to a healthy political culture.
However, the Australian people are far smarter than our leaders give us credit for. As scathingly (and correctly) noted by George Megalogenis, “Gillard and Abbott don’t do nuance. Their hollowed-out public language presupposes that voters can think only in slogan”. The Australian public deserve better politicians, as do many across the world.
(d) the cynicism of international politics as usual, namely Realpolitik, has been exposed by Wikileaks and the unexpected peoples’ insurrections. For example, the US was strongly aligned with Mubarak’s venal and brutal regime. He was perceived as a stable and reliable safeguard for US interests, so who cared about his impact on the interests of ordinary Egyptians?
Consequently, the US was a deer in the headlights of the Arab Spring protests, with President Obama only belatedly and reluctantly opting for the side of history and abandoning his ally Mubarak. Realpolitik does not take into account the possibility that the people might pop up to fight for their own interests in disregard of the strategic interests of foreign governments.
5. Social media and the Internet have not caused the uprisings but have been crucial in facilitating widespread political conversation, the organisation of protests and the galvanisation of protesters, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. Furthermore, the Internet enables the masses (including the increasing numbers of connected people of the developing world) to interact without traditional intermediaries, spreading news, ideas, and information (and, indeed, misinformation).
It provides a global public space with the potential to act as a people’s counterweight to the elite, remote and often unaccountable power of global titans such as superpowers, multinational corporations and international financial institutions (on this point, see this Atlantic article by Zeynep Tufekci). For example, the Internet has provided the means for a key insurgent force, Wikileaks, to threaten the control traditionally exercised by government and corporate elites over information.
2011 has been a watershed year. For whatever reason, thousands and thousands have felt compelled to, in the words of the great Peter Finch from 1976’s Network, stick their necks out and make it clear that they’re as mad as hell and they aren’t gonna take it anymore. And, it has truly been a year in which there has simply been ... too much news.
Sarah Joseph will be speaking at the 2011 Adelaide Festival of Ideas (7-9 October). For more information go to www.adelaidefestivalofideas.com.au
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