I am currently reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King. It is the first time I have ever read a Stephen King novel. That’s nothing you are supposed to admit in Maine, he’s a state treasure. But not being a fan of horror or even fiction for that matter, I’ve just never read one of his books. The premise is a time traveler could alter history by intervening at “watershed” moments – events that alter the course of history — such as the assassination of JFK.
More on the book when I’ve finished it, but 2011 may prove to be such a watershed, even if it doesn’t seem that way yet (though it feels that way!) The reason can be found in time magazine’s choice as “Person of the Year” – the protester.
What started out as protests in Tunisia at the end of 2010 seemed relatively unimportant. On January 14, 2011 Tunisia’s President Ben Ali gave in to the surprise unrest by resigning. By late January Egypt was in turmoil and on February 11, 2011 Hosni Mubark’s 30 year reign in Egypt ended. This was completely unexpected, Mubarak was seen as a rock of stability. Unrest spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Libya’s Gaddafi, in power for 42 years and seen as virtually invulnerable, fell after a short civil war. Yemen’s President appears on the way out and Syria remains awash with revolt and government violence. The Arab world will never be the same after 2011.
Protests were not limited to the Arab world, however. As the EU worked to try to save Greece from default, austerity programs caused massive protests there. That could be expected; after all, austerity programs and budget cuts have brought out protesters in Europe before. But in August another movement rose, which was unexpected: Occupy Wall Street (OWS).
Nobody thought the OWS protests would amount to much — after all, even at the height of the Iraq war when the public had turned against the conflict actual anti-war protests were barely noticed. I still remember a student asking me about what was happening on Wall Street in late September. “Yeah, I heard about that. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening,” I replied. I thought that it was just another activist protest that would quickly fade. Within a week OWS was taking off and altering American political discourse.
Its impact could go far beyond what people now expect. No longer does the tea party’s talk about ‘taking back’ America resonate, but public discourse has shifted to whether or not wealth and the burden of dealing with our large debt and deficit is fairly distributed. Fair does not mean equal. Only the most radical OWS protester would oppose there being rich and poor folk, so long as those results reflect actions taken by individuals and not a rigging of the game. Rather, there is real concern that in the last three decades de-regulation, tax cuts and the anti-government mood may have shifted things too far to the side of the wealthy in a way that harms the middle class.
Part of this is a rethinking of what freedom means. The “right” has defined freedom simply in terms of negative freedom, not having the government ‘get in the way.’ But a government role in helping foster positive freedom – real opportunity and social justice — is increasingly a mainstream topic.
While the Republicans are beating each other up over who is a ‘true conservative,’ playing to a tea party discourse that appears to be fading, it may be that President Obama by the end of next year will be heading for a landslide victory. That seems an odd prediction to make, given that at best Obama’s approvals have been inching up only slowly. Yet when a discourse shifts, an early almost imperceptible trend can become a tsunami.
Moreover, while the Tea Party seemed to be a short term media event defying America’s demographic and culture change, OWS feeds into demographic changes that create a more diverse and socially liberal America. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for the Democrats, even if they are able to harness its power in 2012. People could be breaking out of the conformity demanded by 20th Century political ideologies, discovering ways to both empower themselves and force accountability from those with wealth and power, both business and governmental. Such political discontent cuts to the core of the system, and while a democracy can handle such pressures better than a dictatorship, we could be on the verge of fundamental change in the US.
Most recently the protests have spread to Moscow. Inside the Kremlin they debate whether to crush the protest movement now in its infancy, or let people vent and let the protests peter out. The notion of actually responding to them or that the people may force change doesn’t even register. That could prove to be a fatal error.
Just as the printing press allowed the reformation to spread rapidly in Europe, the power of the internet and social media gives the people information, voice and the tools to organize and communicate. We don’t know what that means for the future, but it could portend a complete change in the very core of political action and organization. This could be the start of the collapse of the sovereign bureaucratic state and the rise of, well…we don’t know!
People are hesitant to predict radical change. Usually such predictions are wrong; systemic inertia is strong and people find a way to muddle through. Yet I’m amazed each day how much I learn about through facebook — stories my friends posts, links to information I’d otherwise not notice. Multiply that by all the millions linked and connected, and it can’t help to have an impact. We as citizens are becoming better informed, empowered and able to act. The elite are less able to control the discourse or dominate the culture.
2011 was the year of the protester. From Cairo to Athens to Wall Street to Moscow people are rising up in ways unexpected and strong. Perhaps we’re on the verge of what “Inner Simplicity” labeled a “black swan event” last August. We could be in the process of change that impacts politics, culture and leads into a new era.