ON a global scale, the year 2011 was notable for two contrasting but interrelated features: a deepening economic crisis, especially in the core capitalist countries, and, on the political plain, a vast pattern of protests, strikes and mass uprisings in the Arab world as much as in the Euro-American zones but also enveloping countries as far-flung as China and Chile.
The centre of the economic crisis has now shifted from the United States to Europe, the much brandished U.S. recovery is grinding to a halt, the currency war between the dollar and the euro is in full bloom and an eventual collapse of the euro cannot be ruled out. As has been the case since the onset of the crisis in 2007/8, Asian economies have remained robust on the whole even though the rates of growth are slowing down. However, if the growing economic distress in Brazil is any indicator, China, India and the countries that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also likely to experience considerable contraction if the European Union crisis deteriorates very much further, which it most probably will. Prognosis for 2012 is dire.
This essay is not about the economic crisis but about some of its fallout. This writer has written on the political coordinates of the economic crisis previously (The Political War, Frontline, September 9, 2011) and may return to it in the future. Here, the focus is on the strikes and the uprisings the intertwining of revolutionary desire and counterrevolutionary strategies but this too with a focus on the principal nodes, primarily in the Arab world and Europe.The Arab revolt: BeginningsWhen does a year begin, politically speaking?
One might plausibly say that 2011 began on December 17, 2010, when police confiscated the vending cart of Mohammad Bouazizi, an unemployed college graduate in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. Forced to vend fruits and vegetable, the young man registered his rage by immolating himself. Three issues were condensed in that one death: police brutality that was the hallmark of a ferocious dictatorship; widespread unemployment among Tunisian and, more generally, Arab youth; and the hideous contrast between fabulous wealth of the ruling class and rampant poverty among masses of people in every country that has been a victim of the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism, globalisation and so forth.
Parenthetically, it might be noted that in Tunisia itself there have been 107 documented attempts at self-immolation during the first six months after the overthrow of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dictatorship (first six months of the Revolution) but those have gone largely unreported because such reports impinge upon the myth that there has been a revolution and, above all, the myth that democracy will somehow exorcise the ghosts of popular suffering. In other words: Bouazizi became a symbol, the dictatorship fell, but issues of neoliberal devastation and rampant unemployment remain.
And when does a year end, politically speaking?
No one could have foreseen that the local demonstrations that erupted in a remote Tunisian town in December 2010 would help ignite the biggest mass uprising in the modern history of the Arab world, from the south-western corner of the Mediterranean to the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Nor could one have foreseen, even in the middle of 2011, well after two dictatorships had fallen in Tunisia and Egypt, that what had begun as wholly secular uprisings of techno-savvy youth and impoverished masses, with impressive mobilisations of trade unions and the working classes, would lead to a chain of Islamist electoral triumphs in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Other fallouts have been worse. We have witnessed North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) humanitarian intervention in Libya that killed and rendered homeless scores of thousands of people, only to bring to the centres of power an odd assortment of marauding militias, some former members of the Muammar Qaddafi regime, as well as Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood groups. In response to the Arab Spring, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and more generally the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have now emerged as arbiters of the Arab state system. And, a full-scale internationalised civil war over the fate of Syria is picking up steam, as genuinely popular protests against the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime have been taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and its patrons in the Gulf kingdoms and Turkey, not to speak of a Syrian National Council composed of well-heeled Syrian expatriates promoted by the various chanceries in Ankara, Paris and Washington.
As one calendar year ends and a new one begins, the two key processes the Islamist takeovers and the war over Syria are still unfolding. The dynamics of 2011 are still with us. In sum, one finds hardly any correlation between the original causes and aspirations underlying these mass insurrections on the one hand, and, on the other, the deeply reactionary outcomes in country after country across the region. The one hopeful sign is that much of the paraphernalia of the entrenched dictatorships is gone and a new order can now at least begin its struggle to be born, albeit in highly inauspicious circumstances.Protest goes global
There is a strong tendency to view these Arab uprisings in isolation from developments elsewhere in the world, notably Europe and the U.S., not to speak of earlier demise of dictatorships in countries as diverse as the Philippines and Chile, or the revolutionary upsurge in Venezuela and Bolivia. Just as the European strikes and protests of the previous year can be seen as a prelude to the Arab uprisings of 2011, the historic Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that arose later in the year was inspired partially by the Tahrir Square uprisings in Egypt; the massive Spanish movement of the indignados (the angry ones) that erupted on May 15 was also an equal inspiration for many in the U.S. movement. The Chilean student uprising that also began in May was then followed, on August 24-25, by a general strike and the largest mass protest since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship. A later student demonstration witnessed the astonishing sight of 2,500 professors arriving from all over the country in a 55-bus caravan. The Chilean strikes were followed by sizeable student protests in a number of Latin American countries and are themselves analogous to the Greek student movement which held a hugely popular commemoration, on November 17, 2011, in memory of the famous Polytechnic Uprising on November 17, 1973, that paved the way for the fall of the military dictatorship the next year.
If the Chilean students were demanding an end to the neoliberal structures of education put in place by the Pinochet dictatorship, so as to get free, high quality education for all sections of society, the Greek students were protesting against what they called the rise of an economic and political junta.
These sentiments were well summed up in a slogan coined by Occupied London: Then with tanks, now with banks. November was a particularly high point as OWS celebrated two months of its existence across dozens of cities in the U.S. and Canada; students started a week-long strike in all the major cities of Spain; while, in Italy, there were marches and even violent clashes with the police in Rome, Milan, Turin and Palermo. Even in Germany, the great heart of Bankers' Europe, students struck in over a dozen cities.
One of the striking features of these rebellions is the curious interplay between the broader rebellions on the one hand and the workers movements and trade unions on the other. In Tunisia, something like 75 per cent of the population is estimated to have participated in protests at one time or another, but it was the demonstration of 150,000 on January 12, in response to the call given by the UGTT, the Trade Union Confederation, which convinced the U.S. embassy and the Tunisian Armed Forces to let go of Ben Ali, the dictator. (According to information leaked by the French government, General Rachid Ammar, the chief of the Tunisian Army, was acting on the advice given to him by General William Ward, the then acting head of the U.S. Africom.) In Egypt, some 15 million people, about a sixth of the population, are said to have participated in the rebellions, and the role of the trade unions was by no means quite as central. However, for a great many who played leading roles in the rebellion of 2011, the militant strike wave of 2008 was a reference point. Egypt had, in fact, remained turbulent since those strikes, and unions and syndicates played a substantial role in 2011 too, through strikes and organised participation in the demonstrations, going on then to form dozens of new independent unions. These workers' strikes were particularly intense during the last two weeks of Hosni Mubarak's rule and getting workers back to work, in an economy that had stalled badly during the rebellion, was a major impetus for the military first to let go of Mubarak, then to outlaw strikes and unleash brute force against the striking workers after it captured power.
In other words, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings began as protests against the extreme forms of poverty, unemployment and acute price rise; they witnessed substantial working class and trade union participation; but they eventually got focussed on issues of dictatorship and civilian rule, so that the creation of the institutional framework of liberal democracy itself came to be seen as the absolute good. The militants' almost exclusive focus on obtaining liberal democratic freedoms and their relative lack of engagement with substantive issues of economic freedoms and redistribution of wealth made it easier for the much better organised Islamists to walk into corridors of power precisely through those electoral processes, while numerically very weak socialist groups were in no way prepared for electoral contests and the rest of the secular forces were largely trapped in the democracy promotion rhetoric that they had learned from Freedom House, etc.The Euro-American zone
The dynamic of working class resistance to the neoliberal offensive feeding into mass rebellions has been clearer in the Europe of stable liberal democracies than in the anti-dictatorship uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, though with equally unforeseeable consequences.
Spain, for instance, had its first general strike of this century in 2002, and a year before the eruption of the indignados in 2011 there had been another general strike so massive that half of Spain's labour force is said to have participated in it; as these movements erupted in the form that they did, one recalled that Spain was the country that had Europe's strongest anarchist movement in the 20th century. Within this century, Austria, France and Italy experienced mass strikes in 2003, and various such strikes have occurred in one country or another since then. Greece has lived in a virtually permanent state of strikes, uprisings and state repression since 2008, and while French strikes have been comparatively far more amiable they too have been persistent over the past three years. Even in London, the huge student demonstrations of November 2010 were followed by a march of 400,000 in March 2011, in the largest union-organised event in 20 years. The larger movements in Europe are youth driven, though, much as in northern Africa or in Chile. Which should cause no surprise. Unemployment of the educated in parts of even western Europe is beginning to remind one of the same phenomenon in Latin America and the Arab world. At the beginning of 2011, unemployment for youth below the age of 25 was over 20 per cent across the European Union (E.U.), but 26 per cent in Italy, 30 per cent in Greece, and 43 per cent in Spain, while the common European idea of education as a public good that was to be paid for collectively, not through individual user fees, is being given up in a wave of privatisations and so-called austerity measures.
Europe has been in the grip of creeping neoliberalism and an increasingly powerful financial oligarchy since the very inception of the E.U., and there has been a veritable financial coup d'etat over the last three years, whose poisonous grip keeps moving from country to country, from Latvia to Ireland, Greece to Spain, Portugal to Italy. Britain and France keep implementing more and more austerity cuts in wages, employment, pensions, social services, and so on pleading to their populations that without such austerity they too might face the fate of Ireland and Greece. Tiny little Iceland has so far been the only country that has refused this oligarchic diktat and saved its future on its own terms. The financial oligarchy seems to have decided that a neoliberal Europe can arise only if social Europe is consigned to the graveyard, and it has therefore launched the most sweeping attack on the European working class that this class has faced since the 1930s. What is being administered to parts of south-western Europe now is in fact a variant of the shock therapy that was administered to eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Younger members of the working and middling classes bear the full brunt of this attack and they are the ones most in rebellion.
Something structurally similar lies behind the OWS movement. There has been very little upward movement in the real wages of the American working population since the onset of neoliberalism in the late 1970s. The vast majority of the U.S. population has been able to keep up its standard of living over the past 30 years or so only by incurring more and more debt, mainly of three kinds: mortgage debt for purchase of new housing or against housing already owned; credit card debt; and student debt. It is estimated that $7 trillion in home equity more than half of the aggregate home equity that existed in early 2006 has now been lost and about 30 per cent of all homes with mortgages are still facing possible foreclosures.
Between 2007 and end of 2012, as many as 12 million homes representing one in every four mortgages will have been foreclosed. With such massive losses of property and savings, other kinds of debt still remain. Student debt now stands at roughly $1 trillion, more or less equal to credit card debt, and is set to rise sharply with escalating educational costs. For instance, students at Berkeley may pay a proposed $23,000 in tuition by the 2015-2016 academic year, up from $11,160 at present, which is itself four times more than the $2,716 in tuition fee 10 years ago. As a large number of families lose their homes, a substantial proportion of the U.S.' young population puts itself through college by incurring huge debts but without secure prospects of a job good enough to repay that debt and also live a decent life. The great slogan of the OWS We are the 99 per cent may sound rhetorical to the wealthiest stratum but it speaks directly to those who are swamped by these debts: housing mortgage, credit card, and student loans.
This is a generation that has had to mortgage its own future for the sake, indirectly, of imperialist wars and Wall Street wealth, while the universities become mere corporate entities and the overall education system erodes, like much of the U.S. infrastructure. They want to defend their own future against corporate greed, and in doing so they speak to the fears and aspirations of countless other people. That is why thousands of occupations have mushroomed all across North America. They are hibernating for the winter, but they will have their spring, hopefully a better spring than the Arab Spring that is sought to be contained by Islamism, sectarianism, neoliberalism, militarism and NATO aggressions a matter to which we shall return.Revolution in search of a form
Cumulatively, all these movements of 2011, from Tunis to Santiago to Wall Street, bring two facts into sharp relief. First, and regardless of how other forces intervene to give the movements a different orientation, what is common among these transcontinental developments is a protest against neoliberalism and against the failures, on part of dictatorships and liberal democracies alike, to protect the people from the ensuing miseries; this is combined, then, in a loss of faith in the whole spectrum of actually existing political parties as such.
Second, even though every uprising tends to have unique characteristics and is usually unpredictable before it actually occurs, none can be treated in isolation, and the events of 2011 cannot be seen as unique eruptions, coming out of nowhere.
What, then, of the very form that most of these protests have taken, aside from the familiar form of the workers' strike? A couple of general points can be made to frame this question. First, the accelerated rate of the globalisation of capital has itself given an impetus to the widespread sense among the oppositional forces that protest too has to have an international dimension; hence the well-known slogan Think globally, act locally and variations thereof. Second, the very technologies that were invented to facilitate global movement of capital and the creation of a globally integrated battlefield (such as the empire of drones) also have had the spin-off effect of facilitating contacts of various kinds among far-flung protest movements, from building alternative media to information-sharing among individuals and groups in diverse countries, from fast upload of video and cellular phone images to the making of Facebook communities, and so on. Third, as I have been writing for some time, the collapse of the Soviet system on the one hand and the assimilation of social democracy into the neoliberal project on the other have meant that new generations, arising especially since the 1990s, have had to experiment with a variety of novel and not-so-novel forms until a revolutionary form can be found for an emancipatory project let us still call it socialism that is adequate to the conditions of the 21st century.
In these uncertain times, vast numbers of people feel more comfortable working in movements, networks, mobilisations on particular issues, etc., than with the historic forms of the political party, the trade union, etc. Not the least consequence of this situation is that with the decline of both communism and social democracy, the third great current descended from the 19th century forms of political radicalism namely Anarchism is now ascendant in many of the new movements, even in places where actual individuals may or may not be fully cognisant of the theoretical roots of their own thinking. This is particularly true of the Euro-American zones where many more are consciously anarchist by conviction. In Arab and Asian zones, these kinds of thinking or organising are imbibed more indirectly.1968 & 2011 the difference
If we start tracing the real genealogies of 2011 we might have to go all the way back to worldwide rebellions of some 40 years ago that have come to be associated with another year, 1968': wars of national liberation in a dozen Asian and African countries; the Cultural Revolution against the headquarters in China; Euro-American movements in opposition to imperialist wars (against the Vietnam War in the U.S.; against the Labour government's support for that war in Britain); growing scepticism and even opposition to the Soviet Union (against intervention in Czechoslovakia; sympathy for the Prague Spring); opposition to dictatorship (Pakistan; overthrow of the Ayub dictatorship); opposition to racism (American civil rights movement; race riots in Britain); opposition to right-wing educational authorities (campus rebellions in many parts of the world); opposition to assigned familial and sexual roles (still an ongoing process across the world); and, in many quarters across Asia and Europe, a certain affiliation with Maoism and the Latin American guerilla. Many of these aspects of 1968' came to be condensed in the French uprising, including the notable discordance between the militants and the French Communist Party (PCF), and 1968' is therefore associated in popular memory specifically with Paris. The uprisings of 2011 are very much in the spirit of 1968' but with two historic differences.
First, the movements of 1968' arose within what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Capitalism, an unprecedented quarter century of increasing prosperity in countries of advanced capitalism, and in the heyday of national liberation and non-alignment in the Tricontinent; the political orientations of those movements were conditioned by those contexts of their emergence. By contrast, the movements of 2011 have arisen in a time of near-total defeat and disorientation of the socialist Left (except in Latin America), the worst economic downturn in the capitalist core in some 80 years, the most brutal offensive of finance capital in its neoliberal guise, and, specifically in much of the Arab world, long-standing and utterly corrupt dictatorships and monarchies at the state level, and at the demotic level that often gets mistaken for civil society' a cultural crisis that often manifests itself in identitarian fantasies of deliverance through a combination of Islamism, free enterprise and Democracy Promotion. Hence the odd contrast between the Euro-American movements that have remained focussed on livelihood issues raised for the people by neoliberal triumph, and in the Arab world, a peculiar intersection between demands for institutions of liberal democracy on the one hand and the sweeping march of Islamism precisely through those institutions on the other hand. If anything, the issue of imperialism is even weaker in the Arab protests than in the American ones.
Second, the idea of socialism even the idea of a better socialism than what the Soviet model had offered was very much alive and well in the movements of 1968', in both the Marxist and the libertarian forms. That idea has a rather microscopic presence in the movements of 2011 (though, again, not so in Latin America). What these new movements aspire for is a less savage, reformed capitalism, with more jobs, more secure and somewhat higher wages, and improved and cheaper education systems. In Arab movements, rising from under ferocious dictatorships, much libido is invested in democracy' as an absolute horizon; in the West, there is nostalgia mostly for Keynes and, in a more diffuse form, for some pale shadow of Proudhon.
Even so, the uprisings of 2011 do stand, at least in their origins, in a substantive relation to the movements of the preceding decades, notably in Latin America. The most aggressive forms of neoliberalism came to Latin America before they came to many other parts of the world, and it was therefore logical that the first great protests against it would also materialise there. This is how Eric Toussant, eminent member of a number of European anti-globalisation movements, summarises some of the salient Latin American developments of the past decade:
After 20 years of neoliberal domination in South America, massive uprisings in several countries proved to be successful: the water war in Bolivia in 2000; the Indian uprising in Ecuador that overturned the neoliberal president (2000); the rebellion that overruled Argentine's neoliberal president (end of 2001) and opened onto a prerevolutionary crisis in December 2001 and on into 2002; the popular uprising in Venezuela in April 2002 to bring Hugo Chavez back to the presidency after a coup (April 11-13, 2002); the gas war in Bolivia in 2003 with the pro-Washington neoliberal president being overruled, and similarly the overruling of the pro-U.S. neoliberal president in Ecuador in 2005. In the wake of such mobilisations, governments that at least partly broke off with neoliberalism and opposed the U.S. domination, launched political reforms and partly restored public control over natural resources (Venezuela from 1999, Bolivia in 2006, Ecuador in 2007). Yielding to popular pressure, the Argentine government, which was not particularly left-wing, implemented heterodox measures that contrasted with those taken by the PT (Workers Party) government in Brazil and by the Uruguayan Broad Front.
The creation of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001 should also be seen as part of that Latin American process, even though many from the rest of the world played important roles in the materialisation of the process. Within the Euro-American zones, this new kind of radicalism can be dated back to the very impressive mobilisation against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle (1999) and against the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the G-8 (in Washington in April 2000, Prague in September 2000, in Genoa in July 2001). In a sense, that wave of protests climaxed in the historic worldwide protest against the impending Iraq War in February 2003, which mobilised 12 to 15 million people from one end of the earth to another. That kind of mobilisation declined in the U.S. after the onset of the Iraq War in early 2003 even though several countries in western Europe, notably France, witnessed waves upon waves of strikes and protests. Latin America, of course, remained the home of radical movements throughout the decade. The Occupy movement thus announces the return of oppositional politics in the U.S., in the hands of a new generation, in an altered context and altered form of protest, but very much in the spirit of 1968, the Seattle mobilisation, and the concurrent Egyptian uprising.Reaction, restoration and the global right
How have the insurrectionary movements fared in the outcomes until now?
History is Necessity, Hegel has taught us. In other words, historical outcomes do not coincide with revolutionary desire or insurrectionary will but are determined by possibilities inherent in and limited by the larger prevailing structures. In short, only the possible happens. The impossible does not. The great slogan of 1968, Be Realistic; Imagine the Impossible, captures the noblest of revolutionary desires but is also profoundly anti-Hegelian. The Leninist formula, reformulated in my own words, is more viable: imagine the impossible, remain true to your dream, act on that portion of the impossible that is possible.
At the most general level, the Arab movements of 2011 can be seen as the third wave of anti-dictatorship movements in the Tricontinent, following upon the earlier Latin American ones and then the Asian ones (the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan). In another dimension, and at least in their initial manifestations in Tunisia and Egypt, they were also uprisings against the intensification of neoliberal policies under Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak whose own families and close associates were seen to have accumulated enormous wealth through corruption and privatisation of public assets. This aspect was further accentuated by the spiralling food prices which rose even more sharply in 2010/11 than in 2008, when food riots had broken out in a host of Asian and African countries. However, in the actual unfolding of those rebellions, as they took the colouration mainly of urban middle class protest, the focus shifted away from neoliberal devastation to dictatorial forms of rule and the personal corruption of those dictators.
The secular character of the initial youth rebellions of Egypt and Tunisia also indicated revulsion against the depredations of Jehadi Islam that had caught many a youthful imagination in the recent past. However, that revulsion against extremist Islam in an age of identitarian politics itself led to a certain softening of attitudes towards the new moderate' image that the Egyptian Brotherhood and the Tunisian Ennahda had cultivated for themselves, even as the Salafis decided to play by the liberal-democratic rules of parliamentary elections. In some other countries, notably Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, the issue of extreme authoritarianism of the regimes was further complicated by the fact that their power base was rooted in sectarian (Bahrain, Syria, Yemen) or tribal minorities (Libya after Qaddafi's initial nationalist' phase was over, but also Yemen). This minoritarian character was sometimes intermeshed with regional divides (in Libya most notably but also Yemen). The pressing issue of a radical redistribution of wealth was thus submerged everywhere under the weight of electoralism, Islamism, sectarianism, regionalism and a generalised hope that the U.S.-led international community' will bring them the gift of democracy and human rights.
Levels of state formation are also highly uneven across the region. Throughout most of its known history, Egypt has had a powerful central state, and this centralisation of power was only enhanced with the Free Officers' coup of 1952. The first Arab constitution was drafted in Tunisia, in 1861, under French tutelage, and after independence Habib Bourguiba took care to nurse the institutions of a modern state and civil society as well as a highly educated middle class. By contrast, countries such as Qatar and Bahrain are small, autocratic sheikhdoms, while Libya is so internally divided among its myriad tribes and regions that it gives the impression of being more of a tribal confederation than a modern state; in the latter decades of his rule, Qaddafi himself often appeared to be as much a buffoon as the very caricature of a wealthy Bedouin monarch. To a great degree, all the authoritarian rulers, including the Nasserist and Baathist ones, suppressed political institutions they could not control directly and prevented the emergence of a modern and civil public sphere, to the extent that the mosque was often the only widespread public institution where issues of social concern could be discussed and concomitant local organisations could be devised, often in the outward form of public charities. With the relative exception of Tunisia, virtually all these regimes adopted some variety of Islamism, to one extent or another.
In Egypt, Anwar Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood methodically in his fight against the Nasserists and the leftists; Mubarak established a relationship of competitive collaboration with them, opening up great spaces for them in the educational and judicial structures, sometimes permitting them into Parliament and at other times denying them such rights in order to furbish his credentials as a defender of secular modernity against political Islam. With the relative exception of Tunisia and Syria, all regimes allowed tens of billions of dollars to be poured into the coffers of the Muslim Brotherhood from the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, which has been the patron saint of the Brotherhood ever since Nasser evicted them from Egypt in the 1950s; Sadat brought them back in the 1970s with much fanfare, in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and full U.S. backing. Every European country where the Brotherhood sought to establish its offices, from Switzerland to Britain, allowed such monies to come to them unchecked; this was also true of the Tunisian Ennahda after its leaders took up plush residence in European exile. Today, millionaires and even billionaires can be found among the core leadership of the Egyptian Brotherhood, and, in the new democratic dispensations that arose as a consequence of the Arab Spring' all variety of Islamists have put these virtually unlimited funds to good use.
The Arab world has had an intense and uniquely different experience of colonialism and imperialism. The Maghreb, or western North Africa Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia was colonised earlier by the French who devised different methods of ruling in the three countries. European pressure and then outright British colonisation of Egypt came very much as a Western project to thwart (successfully) Egypt's attempt, first undertaken under Muhammad Ali, to devise its own independent path into modernity. Much of the Arab East, the Mashreq, fell to the colonial powers only after the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman empire; the creation of Israel is also a specific result of that history. With the exception of Egypt and Morocco, all other Arab states are confections of colonial division and artefact. And, oil (later gas) has been the main solvent in all colonial, imperial designs since at least the 1940s (British obsession with oil is older). President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to commit the U.S. to eternal alliance with the Saudi monarchy and by extension all the monarchies now banded together in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which now serves, all at once, as a network of U.S. dependencies and military basing facilities as the financial powerhouse in the Arab world increasingly dictating economic policies elsewhere, and, most recently, as an outright interventionist force. It was the brutal action of the Saudi armed forces that suppressed the rebellions not only in Saudi Arabia's own eastern provinces but also in Bahrain. Troops from Qatar and the Arab Emirates worked in unison with NATO in Libya. Saudi and Qatari funding is now going to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, not to speak of the hundreds of fighters imported from Libya for infiltration into Syria, with the mediation of the GCC and the Turkish government, NATO's own Islamists.
Destruction of anti-imperialist Arab nationalism
The promotion of Saudi influence, the destruction of secular and inevitably anti-imperialist Arab nationalism, and the destruction of every Arab (or Irani, for that matter) armed force that may potentially pose a threat to Israel have been the primary objectives of the U.S. in West Asia. The Israeli victory over Nasserist Egypt was the first great turning point in these endeavours, and the subsequent regimes of Anwar Sadat and Mubarak cemented that equation. For over 30 years now, Egyptian armed forces have received well over a billion dollars annually from the U.S. so that the entire officers' corps is beholden to U.S. interests. A part of the function of this largesse is to incorporate the upper layers of the military establishment into the neoliberalising big bourgeoisie of Egypt. Virtually the whole of the Arab world has been secured in this fashion. Syrian and (non-Arab) Irani regimes have their own accommodative relationships with Israel, and yet, because of their own divergent national interests, they are still regarded as potential threats to Israel, and must therefore be harnessed. The ongoing Shia-Sunni sectarian divides in the Islamic and Islamising world fits neatly into these designs, so that regimes as different as those of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Israel can now cooperate, under U.S. aegis, in utilising the genuine democracy protests against the Assad dictatorship for their own purposes, in unleashing the Muslim Brotherhood, and more generally preparing overt and covert armed intervention there.
The U.S. has had a very old relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, dating back to the days of the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower presidency, and the relocation to Switzerland of Said Ramadan, the Brotherhood's international organiser and conduit to various governments, intelligence services and Islamist organisations. We need not dwell on that past. As the war on terrorism' (and on Islamo-fascism' as Americans call it), progressed, with ambiguous results, there was a renewed policy distinction between Bad Muslim and Good Muslim, and a view now gained strength that the only way to really contain Islamo-fascism' was to hand over the region to Good Muslims. Gulf monarchies were already among the Good Muslims, and the Brotherhood too had been in that category from time to time. Through the aegis of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. now began exploring the possibility of bringing together these two categories Gulf monarchies for their kingdoms; the Brotherhood and its variants for the rest of the Arab world into something of a hegemonic force for the region. This view was further strengthened with the emergence of an Islamist ruling bloc in Turkey, the historic home of secularism in the Muslim world, that was overturning the Kemalist legacy but with enthusiastic allegiance to NATO and neoliberalism.
This Turkish model' was now ready to be implemented elsewhere. Could Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian variant of the Brotherhood that goes under the name of Ennahda, be made into another Recep Tayyip Erdogan? In the event, the Brotherhood was favourably disposed to the idea, having witnessed the brutal but successful suppression of Jehadi Islam in Algeria, the worldwide defeat of Al Qaeda and its affiliates (except, thus far, in Pakistan), and, by contrast, the peaceful Islamist takeover in Turkey through what Gramsci might have called a passive revolution. Could this not be done in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, too, the Brotherhood was to ask itself? That was the position also of those intellectuals of the Brotherhood, such as Tariq Ramadan, who are strategically located in the West. Once the insurrectionary storm erupted, Islamists in both countries devoted themselves to the task of winning the elections, with Saudi, Qatari, American and Turkish support, and in dialogue with elements of old regimes that were now crumbling.
On their part, the Egyptian Brotherhood issued public assurances that, once in power, it would abide by the treaty with Israel, the very lynchpin of U.S.-Israeli policies in the region, and it never raised a voice against the neoliberal economic model; indeed, the Brotherhood has always opposed workers' strikes and trade union militancy in the name of the national economy'. Even the Egyptian Salafists have by and large fallen in line; in the Egyptian election results announced so far, the Brotherhood and the Salafists seem to have together made a clean sweep, winning 70 per cent or more of the seats. As for Ghannouchi, the U.S. was the first country he visited after winning a plurality in the Tunisian elections, and submitted due assurances.
Arab countries are tied together by older histories, language and, for the majority of the population, some variant of the Islamic belief. For the rest, there are vast differences among countries and, in some cases, between regions inside individual countries. Each country that came in the eye of the storm experienced a different outcome. Protests in countries like Algeria and Jordan fizzled out without much effect, though they too have very sizeable Islamic movements that live a semi-clandestine existence. Morocco experienced only minor protests, the king shrewdly introduced some constitutional amendments, and the Islamists won the elections anyway.
Tunisia had a genuinely peaceful liberal democratic transition with the emergence of a newly elected coalition government led by the Islamists but with a substantial presence of the centre-left that seems to have no distinct programme of its own for any Tunisian break with the neoliberal order. A milder, characteristically Tunisian version of Islamism is assured while Ghannouchi and his group are in the lead, but the party is full of much more conservative, Salafist-style elements, and it is far from clear what a leadership transition will bring; as late as the 1980s, Ennahda used to be a party of jehadi violence.Pre-emptive counterrevolution
In Libya, there was rather little of the modern, democratic insurrection of the type we witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt; the rebellion was soon armed and infiltrated by the Western special forces; it had a far great regionalist element, accentuated further by tribal rivalries; and the emerging dispensation is even more Islamist than Qaddafi's own Islamic pretensions. The outcome was determined not so much by internal factors as by NATO intervention, and while Qaddafi had himself made a neoliberal about-turn some years ago, the new rulers are likely to pursue neoliberalism and pro-NATO policies with far greater devotion, if and when their rule gets stabilised (Aijaz Ahmad, Libya Recolonised, Frontline, November 18, 2011).
Unlike Libya, Syria is only partially a personal dictatorship, rests much more on a powerful party structure, a modern army largely loyal to the regime, a brutal but efficient intelligence network, and even a bourgeoisie whose fortunes have been largely tied to the regime, even though many business interests are also aligned with the opposition. Syria is also comparatively more modern and secular, and, demographically, a mosaic of religious and ethnic minorities, alongside an Arab Sunni majority. Muslim Brotherhood has a substantial presence, especially in cities like Homs and Homa, but nothing comparable to Egypt, and the prospect of a devout Sunni regime emerging in Damascus presses the various minorities to seek protection from the regime. Mass disaffection with the brutality and corruption of the regime is enormous, and Syria has a genuine, modern, secular, homegrown opposition inside the country, some of which may have ties with the expatriates who have made common cause with the French and the Americans, and are now asking for no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, covert interventions, etc. Burhan Ghallioun, who has emerged as the titular head of this expatriate opposition, has publicly offered assurances that if the West brings his Syrian National Council (SNC) to power, Syria would break its alliance with Iran, revoke its assistance to Hamas and Hizbullah, and seek only a negotiated settlement with Israel over the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights which Israel has occupied and annexed. The Arab League, dominated by Saudi Arabia and other GCC cohorts, provides legitimacy to this expatriate opposition and to the Euro-American designs in Syria, as it did in Libya. What we are witnessing today is something of a social decomposition in what was once Arab world's most urbane corner.
In Egypt, the U.S. had three layers working for an outcome favourable to its interests. First, and over many years, a large number of Egyptian activists had been trained and co-opted into the democracy promotion project by such entities as Freedom House, Republican Democracy Institute, etc.; those who were thus trained included several of the individuals who emerged as highly influential figures in the youth rebellion, including some leaders of the April 6th Youth Movement and Wael Ghonim of Google. It would be foolish to infer that a rebellion of such proportions was simply the handiwork of these few dozen individuals. The training and financial sponsorship should be viewed more in the nature of contingency planning, that is, just in case an unstoppable anti-Mubarak movement materialises, a cohesive group of individuals, commanding the requisite material and technological resources, must be in place so as to guide the spontaneous outbreak in the desired directions as much as possible. This is not dissimilar to what was done earlier in several East European countries, and some of these Egyptian democracy activists were, in fact, trained in not only the U.S. but also countries like Slovenia. For a country so much under U.S. and Israeli pressure for generations, it was quite remarkable how little anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist agitation there was in the Tahrir Square uprising that brought down the U.S.-supported dictatorship.
The other two props of U.S. power in Egypt, namely, the Army and the Brotherhood, were of course more substantial. So, the issue of Mubarak's dictatorship was resolved mainly by a military coup d'etat, and the issue of democracy is being resolved currently through the formation of an elected government dominated entirely by the Brotherhood and other Islamists. In public, elements of the governing military junta sometimes express concern about the future role of the Brotherhood, but this can be safely viewed as pressure tactics to get the Brotherhood to give public guarantees over the issues of Israel, neoliberal economy, and the sanctity of military ties with the U.S.
All in all, one can say that, with the partial exception of Tunisia where some gains have been made by way of making a liberal democratic order, what we have experienced across the region is something of a pre-emptive counterrevolution which has been, in most places Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Syria violent. This outcome reflects the existing balance of force, both in the military domain and in terms of the organisational capacities of the respective Islamist forces, not to speak of the vastly superior financial resources of the Right in general. This Right includes the emerging dispensation in Egypt as much as the dying one in Syria.What, then, of Europe?The European impasse
The E.U. as a whole, and the eurozone, which comprises of the majority of the countries in the Union, has always been a bundle of contradictions. The original idea of a common home for all of Europe was based on the vision of a social Europe in which the social safety nets of the type prevailing at the time in Scandinavian countries and the Franco-German zone would be extended to the whole of Europe, policies and common funds would be created for bridging the gaps between the richer and poorer zones of Europe, and the Union would march from being a mere union of sovereign nation-states to something of a federation with central institutions that would be increasingly answerable to a trans-European electorate.
In reality, what has emerged is a travesty of that vision. By the time the Union really developed its main institutions, neoliberalism had become the entrenched ideology of the European ruling classes, shared equally by the social democrats and the historic parties of the Right. What emerged, first of all, was a Bankers' Europe in which the central financial institutions were answerable neither to electorates nor to the constituent national parliaments; the European Bank, for instance, is answerable only to its own members who are all representatives of Europe's major banks. Second, it became a highly lopsided union of wealthier and poorer even far poorer countries. Germany was the major financial and industrial powerhouse whose banks set the terms for the financial architecture of the union; which exported advanced industrial goods to the poorer countries of the E.U.; and which acquired vast and cheap labour reserves in the eastern zones after the collapse of communism. It is mainly the German, Scandinavian and French banks that came to dominate the weaker economies through debt. Meanwhile, the creation of a single currency deprived the weaker economies of the European periphery the ones that import goods and bank finance from the more advanced core the opportunity to create their own monies to cope with deficits and balance of payment problems.
The incorporation of social democracy into this neoliberal project of Bankers' Europe meant also that the European working classes who had looked to socialist parties for protection of their quite advanced social rights no longer possessed a political instrument to wage a winnable struggle against the bankers and their neoliberal political cohorts. The strike was now their only weapon, in countries where industrial economies were shrinking and their own unions stood midway between labour and capital. The fact that neoliberalism came to the European continent much later than it did to the U.S., Britain and elsewhere, meant also that it had far greater experience in dismantling the social state. That dismantling has been going on for some time, but the onset of the current crisis has been used to unleash processes that would destroy the social compacts thoroughly. That process is already far advanced in countries like Latvia, Ireland and Greece but is also getting extended to Spain, Portugal and even major European economies like Italy and France. Eventually, it will catch up with Scandinavia and Germany as well.
The defection of social democracy to neoliberalism is one aspect. Meanwhile, governments may now be appointed, in one country after another, not by reference to parliaments and electorates but at the behest of bankers, as has happened already in Greece and Italy where elected leaders were expected to resist the more extreme pressures from banks and the E.U.'s financial institutions. Not the least danger is the growing strength of parties of the Far Right across Europe, from Austria to Denmark, and from France to Hungary. Islamophobia and more generally campaigns against non-European immigrants feed into such mobilisations of the Far Right, which then presents itself as protecting the rights of real Europeans. Sections of the working class and the unemployed youth, having lost moorings in parties of the Left, are particularly prone to this radicalism of the Right. If Islam is an identity in the Arab world, anti-Islam is also an expanding identity in Europe.
Not all parts of Europe are hurting equally. German prosperity by and large continues. At the other end of the spectrum, collapse of basic incomes is so extreme for large sections of the population in a country like Greece that many families there are now compelled to give up their children to the care of public shelters because parents can no longer take care of them.
It is in the midst of all this that strikes and protests occurred all across Europe throughout 2011, at times on a massive scale. Manifestations of the public outrage have been various: strikes by workers, notably public sector workers; student strikes; mass rallies combining strikes and popular protests; and, as in the case of the Spanish indignados, just a mass outrage of gigantic proportions, led by the youth but inclusive of all sections of society. Political parties have either been the target of these mobilisations or have, at best, trailed far behind the masses.
In Europe, as in the Arab world, vast numbers of people are on the move but counterrevolution has the initiative. These are politics of the interim, when people have lost faith in their rulers but have found nothing to put in their place. One only hopes that such are the processes through which an iron of the future is forged. The articulation of an anti-capitalist alternative that is appropriate for our times is still far from visible.ConclusionAnd what have been the great gains of 2011?
In all the countries where these strikes, mass protests and insurrections have occurred, there is now a great global conversation, among the populace at large, on issues of human dignity and transitions from political to economic democracy. Latin America still remains the primary home of an insurgent Left for which issues of the nature and constitution of state power is itself the primary issue for transformative politics. In at least some corners of Europe, there is now a renewed debate over the very legitimacy of the fundamental structures of liberal democracy, the lamentable tie between domesticated workers' organisations and the corrupt political parties of the bourgeoisies, and the inability of all these to render any substantial degree of social and economic justice. Arab youth is in the process of learning, in a trial through fire, that liberal democracy is a mere premise, and a very precarious one at that, where the very procedures of its institutions, in a class-divided society, favour the rich, the powerful, the demagogic, the corrupt. And, if the Arab insurrections teach us yet again the central significance of the great narratives of national uprisings, the very mode of organising in the Occupy movements reminds us of the little narratives of politics in its immediate moorings: the public space of a park, this house confiscated by the banks, that dilapidated school deprived of the material means to educate its children; the vision of organising a million mutinies to light a single prairie fire. Attending to the whole, one has the feeling that one is hearing fragments of every language that the Left has spoken over the last 150 years.
This is how the grand, faltering experiment in changing the post-Soviet world goes on.