Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Global Political Spring?

An article in the New York Times really caught my eye this morning. Entitled "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around the Globe," it linked the Wall Street occupation, Arab Spring, anti-austerity movements in southern Europe, calls for greater equality in Israel and massive protests against corruption in India to a general lack of faith in political parties as agents for change.

It's heartening to see that with the end of the years of fat and plenty, the masses have perhaps roused themselves to denounce our global shamocracy. At least in India, the US, and Europe, post-1989 capitalist democracy promised its citizens rising prosperity and a voice in decisions, as long as the fundamentals of the global economy went unquestioned. The economy failed, and the major political parties have done little to nothing to punish the perpetrators or shield their people from the effects of this calamity.

This being said, I am afraid that much of this will end in failure, much like the political movements of 1968, and for similar reasons. Power is the lifeblood of politics, if a movement does not wield real power, the instrument needed to push leaders in the right direction, the clique at the top will simply ride out the storm. Where some people see "dynamic movements of young people using new social networking technology" I see "easily scattered association of dilettantes lacking any leverage with the global plutocracy, unable to make a lasting impact." Don't believe me? Just read the Times' description of these new, would-be revolutionaries:

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

I'm sure the leaders of Israel are quaking in their shoes when confronted by a disorganized random mob of people who won't show up to a protest if it doesn't have free food. The major Spanish political parties must be shivering in fear at the prospect of "discussion circles" in their midst. Sorry, I don't see much substance here. Much like the briefly lived revolutionary atmosphere of Paris in May of 1968, there's plenty of heat but little light.

Then again, the Times' depiction of the new protests may also might be reflective of the the typical trend-chasing stupidity of the global media elite overestimating the efficacy of social media as a tool for protest, much as they did with the revolution in Egypt earlier this year. As hot and trendy as it is to think of an iPhone as the new Molotov cocktail, the only way to win an economic battle from the bottom up is solidarity. As long as the labor movement remains weak, global capitalism will triumph. Scott Walker's dark genius is that he realized that labor unions are the only institutions capable of mobilizing the people and resources necessary to do battle with the corporations and have a chance of winning. The real battlefield for a more truly democratic future isn't on Facebook, it's in the workplace. It will take strong labor unions and workers willing to walk the picket line to bring real change; I admire the protestors in Wall Street, but their lack of media coverage is proof positive that when it comes to the currency of power, they and many of the new movements have already turned their pockets inside out.

No comments: