A Year of Revolution

by Thomas McDermott

In a year of revolution, causes have been easier to identify than consequences.

In 1989, following the end of the Cold War, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in The End of History? of the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”, marking “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. In the decades since Fukuyama’s landmark essay, the very concept of revolution – at least in the context of the rich, Western world – had itself come to be seen as an almost anachronistic idea. That is, until this year. In 2011, revolution has returned to the center of global geo-political discourse.

Viewed through Fukuyama’s lens, the Arab Spring could be interpreted as the natural progression of these once repressive regimes into modern, Western-style democracies. How then do we reconcile with such a theory, the emergence of the Occupy movement, which originated at the heart of the financial-corporate-political nexus on Wall St? Certainly those involved in these protests, while apparently reluctant to articulate a list of “demands”, do not appear content to be living at the apogee of the modern participative democratic society.

There are many parallels in the genesis of these two movements (if the various riots, protests, occupations and revolutions are indeed reducible to two distinct groups according to their Western and Arab origins). In both cases the protests have been led mostly (although by no means exclusively) by young people. The Occupiers – like their Arab counterparts – represent a generation increasingly disillusioned with a system in which many have been marginalized. While national unemployment rates are running at between eight and ten percent in the US, Britain and the Eurozone, youth unemployment is significantly higher.

One of the most appealing slogans of the Occupy movement – “we are the 99%” – is a pointed reference to the top 1% of income earners, who in 2007 received 23.5% of total US national income. Not since the late 1920s – in the years immediately preceding the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression – the era of the “robber-barons”, have the few at the apex of the income pyramid, captured such a disproportionate share of national income. The systematic deconstruction of social and labour protections over the past three decades has created a sense of financial and economic instability in young people’s lives, the social costs of which have yet to be fully counted – but symptoms of which are evident in the recent violence on the streets of London and Rome.

So to consequences. In the Arab Spring, a mass popular movement coalesced around the unambiguous goal of overthrowing brutal dictators. Now that aim has been achieved – in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – the way forward is less clear. Similarly, the aims – and ultimate political consequences – of the Occupy movement remain unclear.

As the repeated failed attempts to solve the European debt crisis attest, simply muddling through and hoping for a return to the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, may no longer be a serious option. Lest we forget, there were mass protests in poor countries around the world, in response to high food and energy prices in 2008. Ultimately, these protests are symptoms of the same underlying problems. The unbalanced and unsustainable growth of recent years has left too many people, in both rich and poor countries, feeling disillusioned, marginalized and concerned about their economic futures.

Tony Judt has argued that the great failure of the Left, in all its various shades, has been the apparent inability to articulate any coherent alternative to the predominant neo-liberal agenda of the past 30 years.3 Indeed, the ideological hubris implicit in Fukuyama’s End of History could only have arisen in the context of an ideological vacuum to the Left of the predominant neo-liberal political- economic paradigm.

The last time a financial crisis of this magnitude occurred, the world was plunged into a period of darkness. In the wake of the economic collapse, self-interested, nationalistic policies were enacted, culminating in the rise of fascism. The result was a global conflict that claimed millions of lives. We have already witnessed the rise of an “extremist” right-wing party in the US, with sufficient power to force the US government to the brink of default.4 Even the remotest sense of modern history should suffice to give us all pause for concern at such developments.

If we are to avoid a return to conflict, we must start a conversation about the kind of society we want to live in and the state of the world we will pass on to our children.

Thomas McDermott is a PhD student at the School of Business and the Institute for International Integration Studies, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. His research is primarily situated at the intersection of environmental and development economics. However, he also enjoys writing on political economy and the climate policy debate, among other issues.

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