Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Fire This Time

"The bonds between 2011's islands of youth dissent remain limited. Although the root causes of anger may be similar, the levels of politicisation among those expressing that anger vary wildly. But this year could still be remembered as one in which, after many decades of moribund political and economic realities, a new narrative began to form."

Islands of youth dissent

The above quote is from an article in The Guardian on 13 August, one week after Tottenham erupted in riots. It was called 'A hunger for change - how youth-led revolts shook elites around the world.'

These 'islands of youth dissent' include the riot-torn communities in this country, but more importantly the occupied public squares of Madrid, Athens and elsewhere. Above all, the phrase refers to the sites of revolution and popular uprisings in the Arab world - the subject of this article - where the levels of politicisation and struggle have been highest.

Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight's economics editor, has referred to 2011 as the year it all kicked off. In not only the Arab world but Greece, Spain, Chile, Wisconsin and elsewhere - even here with the student revolts, the massive TUC demonstration on 26 March, public sector strikes on 30 June (and with more to come on 30 November) - there has been a shift in the level of resistance.

The Guardian article I opened with went on:

"The philosopher who coined the term "Black Swan event" - denoting a hugely consequential event that is utterly unpredictable and can only be explained afterwards - was recently asked by Jeremy Paxman whether the violence on the streets of Athens fell into that category. He demurred - and said that the real Black Swan event was that more people weren't rioting elsewhere."

Many of the root causes of anger have indeed been similar, if to varying degrees. There are both economic and political factors at work. Economic motors of revolt include rising food prices, privatisation, growing inequality and - a key element in explaining the generational dynamics - the phenomenon of rising graduate and youth unemployment.

The sense of a 'lost generation', disproportionately victims of the economic crisis and austerity, is unmistakable. It is no coincidence that anti-austerity revolt in this country first found expression in student protests and a wave of college occupations (in November-December 2010).

Political motors of revolt vary in degree. It is true that Western democracies are different to the old authoritarian regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, Al-Assad and Gaddafi. In the Arab world repression, censorship and overt authoritarian rule were crucial drivers of revolt. But in countries like Greece and Spain the revolts articulate a deep sense of alienation from political structures, of democracy having been hollowed out.

The Arab revolutions are marked by the intertwining of political struggles - focused on democracy - and economic struggles. There is a fusion of economic and political, of young protesters and workers, of the streets and the workplaces. Such fusion is hardly the exclusive preserve of Arab countries.

Tunisia and Egypt

In their new book 'The People Demand: a short history of the Arab revolutions', John Rees and Joseph Daher identify three overlapping phases in the development of the Arab revolutions.

Firstly, the victorious revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. These saw rapid victories as a result of massive demonstrations. In both these revolutionary movements, strikes also played a critical role in the final days before the old regime fell. They were victories for the democratic revolution but also - from the start - raised economic demands.

US and western imperialism were helpless, incapable of a coherent response. Cracks in the ruling elite, including in the top brass of the armed forces, weakened the old order - and emboldened the revolutionaries.

The revolutions inspired uprisings in the wider Arab world. When I visited the occupied West Bank in late February, I asked one of our Palestinian hosts "Are you hopeful about the future of Palestine?" He said yes, so I asked why. He gave a one-word answer: "Egypt". Millions of people elsewhere in the region felt the same hope about not just Palestine, but the destiny of their own country.

The Tunisian and Egypt revolutions have in fact continued, beyond the toppling of Ben Ali on 14 January and Mubarak on 11 February, but with a sharp process of class-based and political differentiation. Moderate elements of the democratic revolution are now emphasising continuity rather than change.

There is a recurring conflict between the elites and the streets. In Cairo, it is between the army council (and its political allies) and the 'Republic of Tahrir', i.e. the alternative model of popular power and participatory democracy embodied by the protesters who keep returning to Tahrir Square.

The continuing struggles concern economics and politics. Workers have raised independent class demands, but there is also the ongoing movement for genuine democratic reform. Different visions of democracy are constantly in competition. The question is posed: their democracy or ours?

Imperialism and counter-revolution

Secondly, there was the imperialist, or counter-revolutionary, backlash. This took two main forms - and at almost exactly the same time.

In mid-March the western powers, led by France, Britain and the US, exploited weaknesses in Libya's revolution and - desiring influence in the revolutionary process, to curtail it rather than to advance it - moved in. The NATO intervention was undoubtedly a turning point, altering the character of the Libyan revolt profoundly, but also shifting the balance of forces in the broader Arab world.

You only have to observe the aftermath of the fall of Tripoli to recognise this is politically very different from the victories of January-February. The dominant elements in Libya's TNC are former members of the Gaddafi regime - these are the people with existing links to the Western powers, after all.

The bombing of Libya has resuscitated the case for 'humanitarian intervention' which was so discredited by Iraq and Afghanistan. Tony Blair feels confident about calling for 'regime change' in Iran and Syria. This is unlikely to happen, but it's a marker of the shifting ideological terrain.

Almost exactly simultaneous to the Libya intervention, Saudi troops entered Bahrain to help the Bahraini authorities crush that country's uprising. Saudi Arabia is an ally of the US and Britain, with close military, diplomatic and trade links.

While in Libya Western intervention played the key role, in Bahrain it was the neighbouring Gulf states which repressed the uprising - but with the tacit approval of the West. US defense secretary Robert Gates gave the 'green light' to US allies in the Gulf for the crushing of the Bahraini movement, at the same time as gearing up for the bombardment of Libya (supposedly to 'protect the revolution').

John Rees and Joseph Daher put it like this:

"The aim in both cases was the same: to crush and control the emerging revolutionary processes. In Bahrain this was achieved by straightforward repression. In Libya the military intervention was used to corral and control the revolutionary process. The result has been to impede the march of revolution everywhere - in Syria and Yemen, as well as in Bahrain and Libya. The dictators have dug in."

Freedom for Palestine

Thirdly, a new phase in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine has opened up. The turning point here was also mid-March. While NATO bombing of Libya and the crushing of Bahrain's uprising were setbacks for the whole movement, the "15th of March Movement" in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was a vastly more hopeful development.

The new, youth-led, movement for Palestinian unity dovetailed with developments in neighbouring Egypt. The interim regime in Egypt is under popular pressure to break from the old cosy relationship with Israel and deliver solidarity to the Palestinians. It is an issue about which millions of Egyptians are passionate.

The Egyptian regime played the pivotal role in engineering a unity deal between Fatah (dominant in the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority), Hamas (ruling party in Gaza) and other political groups. Only Egypt has such authority in the region to do this. Recent claims about Turkey's role as a regional superpower, while reflecting real forces, need to be kept in perspective.

The youth movement inside the occupied territories and the popular pro-Palestinian protests in Egypt have called for unity between Fatah and Hamas, but often also for a renewal of resistance to Israel (sometimes dubbed a ‘Third Intifada’) and for broader unity across the whole Palestinian people and the Arab world. There is pressure on the established Palestinian leadership from within the Palestinian community (notably the 15th of March movement) and from outside, in the form of a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Egypt’s revolution has opened up space in which a post-Mubarak foreign policy can be debated. The demonstrations outside Cairo’s Israeli Embassy – with the Israeli flag twice being removed by protesters as a powerful symbol of popular support for Palestine – exert pressure on the army council, which historically has close ties with the US and a conciliatory attitude to Israel.

The debate inside Egyptian society helped form the conditions in which a unity deal was possible. There are problems with it - just as there are problems with the current bid for Palestinian 'statehood' - but it nevertheless poses a serious challenge to Israel and US interests in the region. The imperial architecture of the Arab world is changing.

What next?

We can see, then, how the Arab revolutionary wave is the most acute expression of a global revolt. Driven by political authoritarianism and economic hardship, young people have played a central role, though in a broad movement which has witnessed strike waves and the emergence of new workers' organisations - as well as the mass occupations of public spaces, which have become the signature of modern youth-led revolts.

The politics of north Africa and the middle east is being re-shaped. This has profound consequences for the West, in particular for US imperialism. The heady days of revolutionary success in January-February have been followed by three processes: political differentiation in Tunisia and Egypt; the imperialist, counter-revolutionary backlash in Libya and Bahrain; and the opening of a new chapter in the movement for Palestinian freedom.

Imperialism has been weakened, but we have learnt - if we didn't know it already - that powerful Western states won't just sit back and let revolutionary change happen in the most geopolitically and strategically important region of the globe. More optimistically, it is also clear that many ordinary people in the region, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, aren't willing to settle for a modest democratic settlement which leaves most of their demands unmet.

In Egypt the revolution continues. On 9 September there was yet another huge demo in Tahrir Square, demanding those responsible for corruption and brutality in the old regime are brought to justice, and more generally pursuing the democratic demands of the 25 January Revolution. There have also been fresh strikes, across a number of sectors, during September.

Two central questions have emerged in Tunisia and Egypt. What kind of democracy are we fighting for? And can change be extended to the economic sphere?

The latter question isn't just about driving out the 'workplace Mubaraks' - corrupt, rich old bosses linked to the former regime. It is about demands for jobs, a living wage and improved workers' rights. More deeply, it concerns fundamental questions of power in a capitalist society.

These are the questions that students of past revolutions would expect to arise. Most revolutions have been limited to struggles for democratic and political reform. The degree of political change has varied, but even in South Africa - where the scale of political change was profound, with the end of apartheid - economic exploitation has remained unaltered.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have been among the deeper, more profound revolutions of modern times. Think about the vast scale of the demonstrations, the full participation of the working class, the role of strikes, the raising of far-reaching democratic demands and independent class demands, and the continuing momentum of protest since the dictators fell.

These are, furthermore, revolutions happening in a very different context to the upheavals of 1989-94. As revolts against regimes which were simultaneously neoliberal and allied to the West, their effect has been to shift the balance of forces against US imperialism and neoliberal capitalism. This is the opposite of the impact - politically, economically and ideologically - of the eastern European revolutions over two decades ago. The Libya intervention has shifted this balance in the opposite direction, but only up to a point.

In both countries there has been an element of a 'second revolution' opening up within the larger revolutionary process, one that aims at deeper democratic change and seeks to extend the revolution to economic relations, and in which the working class is central. But this process prompts very serious questions about the role of organisation and politics.

John Rees and Joseph Daher write about the necessity of two further elements, both to do with independent working class organisation:

"Working class organisation must assume a form that can challenge the state apparatus for power. And a political organisation  which popularises this perspective among workers is necessary."

To focus on Egypt, since February there have been three developments which are hopeful and extremely significant in this respect. There has been growth in independent trade unions, new left-wing political parties and grassroots popular assemblies (whether in Tahrir or in local communities). These three elements are all vital in strengthening working class organisation and creating an alternative political pole of attraction to the dominant moderate elements in the new order.

The unions need to be bigger, the left wing parties need to be bigger - and the experiments in democratic assemblies, which have been extremely sporadic, inconsistent and ad hoc, need to be become systematic and co-ordinated. In every revolution it is necessary for the more radical elements - those committed to sustaining the revolutionary process - to create institutional forms which express alternative political programmes and can, at their most advanced, pose a challenge to the power of the state.

The outcome of the revolutions is yet to be settled. Just as importantly, they have inspired and informed the character of revolts elsewhere, including in Europe. In our struggles, especially in opposition to austerity, we can expect resistance to develop in new and dynamic ways. We may yet, in this country, confront some of the same challenges alluded to above. 


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