TIME magazine’s naming of “the Protester” as person of the year in 2011 captured what clearly is the defining aspect of the year gone by. Whether it was the Arab Spring, the Russian winter or the Occupy Wall Street movement (which spawned imitations across the globe), 2011 was a year in which people started to more strongly question both authority and conventional wisdom.
This is made all the more poignant by how unexpected it was. I challenge you to find me any pundit or psychic who predicted the events in Egypt (which began in January 2011) or the force of Occupy Wall Street. Much like how no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming when we went into 1989, experts and pundits are again shown to be narrow minded fools by the people on the street. The Tunisian protests were growing when 2010 ended, but the idea that this would start a process ending with the overthrow of multi-decade stalwarts like Mubarak and Gaddafi? Pshaw!
Moreover, in the US the talk still was of the “tea party” and the surge of the GOP. The idea that the left would strike back with its own grass roots movement that would rise as suddenly and with force didn’t seem possible. Not only didn’t the left have FOX News and especially Glenn Beck, primary proponents and builders of the Tea Party, but they were a spent force after 2010 — dissatisfied with Obama but nowhere else to turn.
No one knows where all this will go. The Arab Spring is a good thing, the dictators had to go. As bad as things may get, postponing change would have been worse. The only alternative would have been to defend dictators doomed to fall in any event. The path towards a better future will be rocky and often violent. Such is how history unfolds.
New protests against Putin in Russia show promise; will the Russian state assert dominance as it always has, or do the protesters have a chance? OWS is certain to gain strength again when the weather is warm. Will they focus their protests on making a political difference in an election year, or will they be angry and aggressive against the status quo? The right wing predicts the latter, inside the movement they’re confident of the former. We’ll see.
All of this reflects a fact I’ve blogged about many times: the information and technology revolution is changing politics in a fundamental way. By fundamental I don’t just mean that now candidates solicit via e-mail or tweet their responses to world events. I mean the nature of sovereignty, power, economic relations and world order are being altered. The process is only beginning, but the result will be a world very different than the one we’re used to at the start of the 21st Century.
2011 gave us a taste of what this may entail. No matter how powerful, brutal or apparently invulnerable the leader, politics in the new era make it harder to hang on to power when the people rise up. It’s a good thing as it is a start of a shift of power away from elites towards the people. But it was a good thing when the reformation challenged Church dominance in 1517. After that Europe was at war until 1648. Change may be necessary, but it can be violent and difficult.
It’s hard to find other ways 2011 stood out. The world and especially Japan suffered an immense tragedy in March with an earthquake and tsunami that brought home the possible dangers of nuclear power, limits of human engineering and resilience of human heroes, as many in Japan gave their lives fighting to prevent absolute catastrophe. I don’t think this means nuclear power should be taken off the table; rather, as with anything, we can’t say there is zero risk of disaster.
President Obama had a good foreign policy year, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and an end to the Iraq war. Obama’s diplomacy abroad has been effective, though a continually lagging economy at home makes him still vulnerable to defeat in his re-election bid. That said, he leads any Republican challenger in head to head p0lls, though is pretty even against Mitt Romney, the strongest and most likely GOP candidate.
2011 has seen a late year bit of economic hope, but the economy slogged through year four of a crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and then went into near melt down with the financial blow out in the fall of 2008. The global economy is still resettling, deleveraging, and working out the structural imbalances the grew from 1981 to 2007.
For me personally it’s been a very good year. I again participated as one of four faculty for a travel course to Italy in May with 42 students. The weather was great and the students superb! We installed our geothermal heating system, the boys excelled with skiing early in the year, Dana at age 5 skied from the top of Saddleback in April (he turned 6 this week). The new Mallett School opened, a wonderful building with great teachers and staff. I’ve been involved in the PTA and that’s been rewarding. Work has been excellent, I’m even doing an online winter term course right now that is off to a good start.
My intuition says that 2011 has set us up for major events in 2012 (and no, I don’t mean the Mayan end of the world!) In the US it will be an election year, and the world economy will come into clearer focus. Right now there is optimism that the US economy is finally starting to improve, that the EU is on a path to overcome its crisis, and that we’re past the worst. Yet debt remains a huge issue, and China is facing internal and external economic challenges that could be the first real threat to thirty years of constant 10% a year growth. Events in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere could all create real upheavals.
These changes aren’t new to 2011. I think this has been building since the mid-eighties when the personal computer took off, globalization shifted the meaning of international relations, and the Cold War drew to a close. So maybe it’s appropriate that a song written in 1990 captures my mood. Glen Burtnik’s title song (co-written with Bob Burger) of the Styx album Edge of the Century reflects what I feel heading out of a very interesting 2011 and into what might be a consequential 2012:
See the world in revolution
Spinning faster all the time
We’re heading for the end of something
Just about to step across that line
Oh, can’t you see?
We’re staring in the face of reality
Can’t turn off the information
Can’t sit back in your easy chair
Can’t ignore a generation
Better get ready cause we’re almost there
We’re moving at the speed of life
Into a brave new world where the strong will survive
The dawn’s gonna break and I’ll meet you
On the other side