Thursday, December 29, 2011

Will 2011 Be a "Turning Point that Failed to Turn"?

2011 has a been year of world revolution akin to those 1848, 1968, or 1989. In the space of one year Mubarak, Qaddafi and Berlusconi have all been tossed from power. Now even Vladimir Putin has had to face popular wrath. Arab Spring is remaking the Middle East, the Occupy protests have swept America and changed the political discourse, and the European Union has been pushed to the brink. In the words of Yeats' famous poem, "the center does not hold."

As a historian, I am well aware that revolutions are unpredictable and are just as likely to move backwards rather than forward. The old saw about the revolutionary year of 1848 in Europe was that it was "the turning point that failed to turn" because revolutionary regimes failed to maintain power and were toppled by authoritarian and reactionary forces. More recent historical work has shown that the revolutions still changed much in the long term, but the fact that they failed to reach their immediate goals still holds true. I often wonder whether the current situation will be a repeat.

As in 1848 and other moments of revolution, the current situation has arisen from the breakdown of basic political and economic structures. In the Middle East the old secular dictatorships are being toppled, in the United States there is increasing anger with the supply-side economic model that has reigned for the past three decades, and in Europe the whole post-Cold War order seems to be entering into a crisis stage.  At the same time, the forces of reaction have been readying their counterattacks.  For instance, the Egyptian military is clamping down on protest and in Europe the technocrats, hardly known for their democratic spirit, have more power now than ever.  2012 may very well be a repeat of 1849, a year of restorations.

However, I think it's well nigh impossible to get the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.  In this country wealth inequality has finally become a pressing political issue, and can no longer be warded off with shrieks of "class warfare."  Restorations of the old guard will happen, but they will also bring with them concessions.  Even if the next year sees a roll-back, 2011 will go down as a pivotal year.  

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