The Arab Spring has challenged American hegemony and fostered a new international consciousness where a democracy of the streets and the city squares challenges the low-intensity democracy of financialised capitalism.
America played a key role in raising global expectations after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But most people have not benefitted from two decades of the Washington Consensus. Everywhere in the world, including America, people are more insecure: jobs are constantly under threat, pensions are being withdrawn, and poor countries are threatened by civil war, invasion, and food price inflation. Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan proved that America could not remake the Middle East in its own image; two decades of shallow economic booms and deep slumps has proved that its free market model of privatization and deregulation only generates misery, poverty, and fear.
The Arab Revolutions, which began six months ago in Tunisia, represent a series of major victories against the illusions of our epoch. Every revolution so far has occurred in a country where the realities of American domination has been tried and failed for generations.
Ben Ali’s Tunisia was a regional pioneer in Washington-led capitalism, privatising industries, slashing subsidies to the poor, and coaxing pampered Western tourists to foster economic development. This model has failed, and the people rose up against it to demand something different.
Mubarak’s 30-year reign in Egypt was the lynchpin of regional stability. Mubarak broke bread with Israel as its ethnic cleansing of Palestine intensified and was slavish in his support for American foreign policy. At home, he funded the pimps, playboys, and cowboys of capitalist globalization, fostering construction and consumer booms that largely benefited the elite and sections of the secure middle class. He vied with Ben Ali to become Washington’s model student. But the people rose up against him, to demand something different.
Then there is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen in various guises for three decades. Saleh was America’s regional strongman against the Soviet-backed South Yemen until unification in 1990. Bahrain’s embattled King Hamad is likewise a pillar of the American way: the Bahraini royals were saved from their own people by the gunboat diplomacy of Washington’s client princedom Saudi Arabia.
Not every dictator in the region is a Western ally. Libya’s Gaddafi has had a troubled relationship with the colonial powers: he was vilified as a sponsor of terrorism, then reclaimed as an economic and political ally of the West in the “War on Terror”, until his people rose against him and the West saw a golden opportunity to reassert control in the region in the one nation where they might secure a scrap of legitimacy.
But we must be quite clear: whatever the outcome of Libya, there is no possible return to the old pattern of compliance. Certainly, America still has the means to bribe, corrupt, and invade to secure docile puppet regimes. But the illusions are today manifest: nobody believes that Arab governments can be democratic on the one hand and subservient to American on the other hand. Washington’s claim to represent the world’s aspiration for sound government and rising prosperity has been thoroughly discredited.
Future governments in Egypt, Tunisia, et al will have to resolve major credibility problems. Proving fidelity to America while simultaneously remaining loyal to the popular demands of the Revolution is an enormous task. Polls repeatedly show that the majority of Egyptians want an end to the Camp David Treaty and Mubarak’s policy of peace at any cost with Israel. But America will not budge from its pro-Israeli position and will use all of its power to bring the Arab governments into line.
Even the seemingly radical Muslim Brotherhood, which for decades represented the only organised opposition to Mubarak, is now turning against the people. Anxious to prove to the Americans that it represents a safe pair of hands, the Brotherhood has abandoned decades of opposition to Western imperialism and stated that it favours rapprochement with Israel. Any party that is not explicitly behind popular demands for social and economic democracy will face pressure to betray the protests. But the protestors, having tasted their power, will not give up easily, and free trade unions and parties are being formed to oppose a retrenchment of American-style rule.
Leading the free world?
It is commonly agreed that the Arab Revolutions are democratic in their aspirations. But there is a major caveat: democracy means something different today because America’s monopoly on the term is frankly contested. Washington’s intellectual and moral leadership in global affairs has been dealt significant damage - this has left us a world away from the “end of history” described by Francis Fukuyama, in which meaningful struggles have ended and nobody can imagine a system better than capitalist liberal democracy and globalization. The Arab Revolutions are meaningful in a very literal sense - their global impact has been to demonstrate that the meaning of “democracy” is disputed.
Thus, the appearance of Egyptian and Tunisian flags in Madison, Madrid, and Athens has been accompanied by slogans calling for new forms of democracy: a democracy of the streets and the city squares as against the low-intensity democracy of financialized capitalism. The advanced economies have witnessed a long-term slump in political expectations, reflected in low voter turnouts in elections that no longer seem “meaningful” to at least half the population. This has particularly affected the young, who have suffered the most from unemployment and education cuts and who have taken to the streets in their thousands against the austerity measures since 2008.
The youth of the liberal democracies - America’s Cold War sphere of influence, from Western Europe to Wisconsin - are thus turning to the nations most ruthlessly excluded from representative government to learn new lessons about people power. The idea that “the democratic people” represent a radically alternative sphere of influence, standing against the neoliberal diktat of the American ruling class, is common currency.
All of this represents the culmination of the three defining events of the past decades: the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, and the economic crisis generated by the Lehmann Brothers crash. All of these events have served, in one way or another, to increase the inter-connectedness of the world. America’s monopoly on the term “globalization” was shaken by the anti-capitalist and anti-War movements a decade ago. Today, the movement against austerity has reawakened the most widely abused and discredited political notion: democracy.
This movement is ideologically incomplete. City-square forums might be the form: but what is the content? What sort of alternative will the protests shape? Where does the muscle come from to force the governments of the rich to listen to our demands? There is much uncertainty. But uncertainty has its own intoxicating effect - the political consciousness and identity of a generation is unresolved, and socialist ideas must meet the challenge presented by this opening.
Originally posted on International Socialist Group website
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