One can say many things about the wave of global protest movements that have swept a good part of the world-system in 2011.
One can say they are new—though built on the backs of the efforts of those came before—and consequently immature, mostly hype and given to utopian and impossible goals. One can also say that its unclear what they are about, what the focus is and what those who are protesting want from the powers that be.
Do they want democracy? If so, what connects Tahrir Square and Syntagma square? Those holding their first “free and fair elections” in Tunisia do so under a cloud which discredits those same electoral processes in places like Greece, Spain and the United States.
Do they want jobs and better economic conditions? If so, what kind of economic model is being proposed as an alternative to neo-liberal capitalism? The example of Greece shows us that electing parties to break this consensus does not guarantee they will follow through. And if they did so, without a decisive break from capitalism itself, how shall countries push forward in spite of the vengeance of international creditors, institutions like the International Monetary Fund or the central banks of the hyper wealthy capitalist states?
Then there are specifics with particular countries. People criticize the mass demonstrations in Israel—the largest and most consistent mobilizations in the history of that country—because it has not explicitly taken up the occupation in its calls for economic justice, as if that is not implied and as if this is not a prerequisite for really challenging that system of apartheid from within Israel itself. The “indignant ones” in Spain are criticized for having no electoral strategy and consequently risk delivering the elections to a harder right-wing party than the current one in power. In the United States, the Occupy movement is criticized for its lack of coherent demands or a coherent strategy of escalation over time.
So what cause is there for hope in these mobilizations?
For one, these mobilizations have clearly taken on an international character.
This is important because of the nature of our world-system. We do not live in the world of 1850, 1900, 1950 or even 1980. The world we live in now is one in which capitalist globalization has undertaken a qualitative leap. There are now no major blocs of populations outside of the system of the capitalist world market. The masses of peasants left in some places are declining and being transformed into migrant proletarian workers, paid farm workers or simply landless and permanently unemployed populations. There is no country today whose government is not dominated by the interests of international capital in one form or another. The sheer division of labor across regions and countries has made protectionist, self-developing national capitalism a utopian project rather than a practical alternative to neo-liberal free trade, privatization, de-regulation and the like.
Thus, if we are to challenge a global regime that is responsible for environmental degradation, economic exploitation and military escalation of conflicts globally, we must have a global movement. As of now, we have the first eruption of that possibility; the very outlines of such a possibility have now been made clear. What is even more striking is that these efforts have emerged in the advanced capitalist countries and their immediate satellites, which is a prerequisite for any successful challenge to the current world order.
Another cause for hope in these demonstrations is their mass character and the prevailing sense of disillusionment with “politics as usual” that dominate their respective societies.
In the United States, though these efforts have not turned out hundreds of thousands—of course the demonstrations only began a month ago—they have spread far, wide and deep across the entire country. Significant mobilizations are ongoing and growing in many cities besides New York itself, bringing thousands of people into contact with left wing politics, bottom-up democratic organizing and generally conveying experience where there was none. The mobilizations in Israel are simply stunning for their size, with hundreds of thousands mobilizing in a country whose population is less than that of New York City itself. The mobilizations in Spain on October 15th were simply incredible, reaching 500,000. And of course there was Greece for the last 48 hours, which has seen some years of social mobilization now, but never on the scale of the last 48 hours.
In all of these efforts, the usual suspects of co-optation have failed to capitalize on the protests. There has been no revitalization of the Israeli Labor Party, in Greece and Spain it is the “left wing” PASOK and Socialist Party that are imposing the austerity programs themselves and in the case of the US there has been a general climate of distrust with the Democrats—though nothing on the scale of the wholesale rejection of the Republicans. What seemed like an easy Democratic Party co-optation has now run aground of the realities of mass mobilization and militant protest: people have simply been fooled too many times. We shall see if this trend keeps up in the 2012 elections—I have my doubts—but I also have my doubts about the day after the 2012 elections.One can be assured that the intractable crisis will not relent in November 2012, or even November 2013, and people have learned—in mass numbers—how to mobilize in a way they did not know back in 2008 or 2009.
Yet, the biggest cause for hope lies in the lessons of history itself.
We know from simple observations of human history that social movements are dynamic, somewhat unpredictable processes whose trends can be broadly outlined but whose ultimate destination is the product of contingent, historical factors (i.e. it almost always “could have been otherwise” if this or that actor acted different, if this or that objective factor was altered, etc.). Thus, the promising beginning of these movements can give us some idea of their future trajectory but the simple fact is that the future of the movements is up to us.
We—the masses of ordinary people—are the ones who make the movements that make history. We don’t make the movements that make history with all of the tools we’d like, but rather within the constraints of what has come before us. We cannot simply come into the street, agree on some blueprint and then implement it by spontaneous mass demonstrations. Rather we come into the street—day after day—and we bring the struggle back home, back to school, back to work and together we formulate our efforts. Together we make decisions on where we want to go and how to transform what is in front of us into something better, something more under our control.
These movements are a cause for hope in all sorts of ways. The dynamics unleashed by the Arab Spring were at play before the events in Tunisia, but since Tunisia’s people took to the streets and fought the police things have changed. The global capitalist elite—like the proverbial cartoon creature who continues to tread air after running off a cliff until it looks down (an image I borrow from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek)—have discovered that they have created their own enemy, and that enemy is a vast multitude that grows by the day, threatening to link up with even larger mobilizations of the poor and dispossessed in places like China, India, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
Now multitudes of people have some experience, some reason to hope and some idea of how to move forward. Now, things are beginning. The half-crazed apocalyptic folks who walk the streets holding up signs saying, “The end is near” now will have to rethink their strategy. It is time for them to hold up signs that say, “The beginning is here.”
We have finally arrived at a point where we can rebuild mass struggles. The international and political character of those struggle has already emerged. This is the most promising thing one could have hoped for in these dark times. The road will be long, we will sweat and bleed and cry—that’s why its called a struggle.
Now is the time to make history. Join us.