September 8, 2014
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SummaryPublic uprisings and mass occupations have become a significant force for change on the world stage since 2011, as evidenced in the Middle East revolutions and Occupy protests across North America and Europe. This essay explores the nature of this new social actor, which can be seen as the latest expression of the ‘people’s voice’ – a phenomenon also witnessed in the peace, justice and environmental movements of recent decades. Recognising that this collected voice of engaged citizens is acutely aware of the need for world reconstruction and renewal, the question is whether the growing power of the people’s voice is sufficient to challenge the immense forces of profit, greed and control that stand in the way of transformative change. The Middle East protests and Occupy movements have many connections and similar causes, chiefly the vast social and economic inequalities that span rich and poor countries alike, but it would be over-optimistic at this stage to assume that they mark the emergence of a truly global movement of ordinary people.
Only a joint demand for a fairer sharing of the world’s wealth, resources and political power is likely to unify citizens of the richest and poorest nations on a common platform, one that recognises the need for global as well as national forms of redistribution as a pathway to ending poverty and extreme inequality. The urgent need for world rehabilitation may only begin with a united voice of the people that speaks on behalf of the poorest and most disenfranchised, and gives the highest priority to the elimination of extreme deprivation and needless poverty-related deaths. Based on such an appeal to our common humanity and compassion, the greatest hope for the future is a worldwide popular movement that demands a fairer sharing of global resources as its all-embracing cause.
When Will Ordinary People Rise Up? How a united voice of the public could transform the worldIn 2011, an astonishing new phenomenon took centre stage in world affairs: the rising voice of the mass public. From Tahrir Square to the Puerta del Sol, Wall Street and St Paul’s Cathedral, the sudden ‘democratic awakening’ of global civil society was arguably the biggest political event since the late 2000′s financial crisis. An overwhelming number of articles, websites, interviews, videos, social posts and even books have picked apart the importance of this unanticipated phenomenon, although no-one really knows how it will evolve as we move deeper into 2012 and beyond. We have entered an uncharted era, a ‘laboratory of possibilities’ in which the political imagination of everyday people is given license to propose radical alternatives to existing social arrangements and economic structures. For perhaps the first time in history, it is the world’s people – not their leaders or governments – who are declaring their needs and pointing the way to a more just, sustainable and hopeful future.
The deep significance of what happened throughout the Middle East from late 2010 may only be grasped with future hindsight, not least the events in Cairo from January 25th to February 11th 2011. Throughout those momentous eighteen days, the world’s attention was captivated by the fearless protesters who amassed in Tahrir Square in their tens of thousands, defying the tear gas, tanks and water cannons that defended the old corrupt regime. Journalists described the atmosphere inside the square as electrifying, with ‘reservoirs of creativity’ being expressed by the people taking part, and a communal solidarity that posed a stark contrast to Mubarak’s police and thug militias; people caring for each other with food, blankets and medical supplies, different political factions discussing and singing together, the Muslims praying at their appointed times while others stood guard. By the time that Mubarak was thrown out of office and charged with killing protesters, there was no longer any doubting where power ultimately rests. Even an autocratic regime with monopoly military command, long supported by the world’s reigning imperial superpower, could not withstand the non-violent, massed power of the people united. A blueprint for change had fired the imagination of millions of others across the world, a sense of ‘this should happen everywhere’.
People power uprisings and mass occupations have since spread across a large tract of the world; throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, around the Mediterranean and into Southern Europe, across Western Europe and North America. Following the so-called Arab Spring and European Summer, the American Dawn took the movement to another level of inventiveness, using new media and social networking tools to proliferate occupations to almost every corner of the USA. Mobilisations were soon coordinated internationally by leaderless grassroots assemblies, and reflected their global solidarity in protest slogans like ‘We are all Egyptians’, ‘We are all Greeks now’, and the ubiquitous ‘99%’. It is already a cliché to repeat how the Occupy movement’s ‘Hot Fall’ of 2011 was a game-changer, a wake-up call for deep-rooted change, and the spark for a shift in political discourse towards issues of social and economic inequality, greed, financial corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government.
For all the commentary and media debate, it remains peculiarly difficult to define or apprehend this distinctly Western expression of the emerging people’s voice. You cannot summarise the importance of Occupy solely in terms of its unique version of direct democracy and horizontal networking, but must also observe its living alternative to the business-driven, consumerist and atomised societies that we live in today.Every Occupy encampment has been a kind of social experiment in different ways of relating and being with each other, like small islands of solidarity and mutual support that organise co-op kitchens, communal living and free events, and provide a meeting place for all people – including the unemployed, the socially excluded, the evicted and the homeless – without attaching any stigma or sense of exclusivity. Only ill-informed media pundits and non-participants appeared agitated about the movement’s lack of concrete policy demands. The people involved were too busy being a part of the movement, standing off evictions from police battalions and realising their newfound sense of freedom and non-violent, non-materialistic, solidaristic power – and even breaking the law on behalf of the public good when it stands in the way of true justice.
The new face of civil resistanceThis is the new face of civil resistance, so spontaneous and inspired that social movement theorists will struggle to categorise its constantly altering manifestations. Just as the Middle East uprisings demonstrated the ability of ordinary people to overcome the power of repressive governments, the European protests and Occupy movement revealed that real power lies with the majority of people – the 99%. But this is by no means the sum total of the ‘people’s voice’, which must also include the many other strands of global civil society that, consciously or unconsciously, has informed the mass demonstrations for peace and justice in recent years. This includes the workers and peasant movements that have united internationally in the struggle for land, labour, water and other human rights; the non-governmental organisations and grassroots groups that organise ceaseless campaigns on single or multiple environmental and social issues, as well as ‘counter-summits’ at gatherings of world leaders; and the diverse elements of the global justice movement that have entered the world’s lexicon since the 1990s – the Zapatistas, the World Social Forums, the WTO protesters and so on.
The growing power of the people’s voice is also strikingly evident in the anti-war and peace movements, most notably during the historic Iraq war demonstrations of 2003 which popularised the idea of public opinion as ‘the new superpower’ in world affairs. Even celebrity activism events, from Live Aid in 1985 to Live 8 and Live Earth in 2005/7, can be considered part of a growing global awareness of our shared humanitarian responsibilities. Almost every day now is named after a particular issue or cause, from World Health Day to Human Rights Day to the World Day of Social Justice, and it is a challenge to keep up with every Global Day of Action: for climate justice, for a global financial tax, for moving beyond fossil fuels, to move the planet toward cleaner energy, to Occupy the World. Add to this the millions of people of goodwill in every country who vocalise the need for a more just, sustainable and compassionate world order, and we have a broad sense of the articulate people’s voice in its many and varied expressions.
Together, this collected voice of engaged citizens is acutely aware of the need for world reconstruction and renewal. No-one could read all the vast number of campaign materials and reports that begin with a description of ‘multiple and multifaceted crises’, namely the food crisis, the environmental crisis and the financial and economic crises that have erupted into a global systemic crisis. For the hundreds of organisations who prepared papers for the Rio+20 Earth Summit, it was common to describe the world’s major challenges as a ‘planetary emergency’, backed up with comprehensive evidence from leading scientists about the ongoing decline of biodiversity, the degradation of natural resources and the ecological boundaries that humanity is pushing up against. Meanwhile, the promises of corporate-led globalisation to benefit all, both in advanced industrial countries and the developing world, are no longer defensible to the wider public who are suffering the worst effects of economic recession and government cutbacks. Even in the richest and most powerful country in the world – the United States, there is the highest poverty rate among developed nations, the greatest inequality of incomes, and the lowest level of social mobility. In terms of social and environmental indicators on a global scale, people everywhere are loudly pointing out that almost every trend line is going in the wrong direction.
Among this cacophony of voices calling for dramatic change to established institutions and structures, there is a huge awareness now that world leaders and policymakers are paying only lip service to the unfolding human and environmental catastrophe. As Western countries slide further into financial turmoil and unemployment hits ever greater heights, politicians call only for increased austerity and a return to former days of consumer-led growth and competitive free markets. Public consciousness of the issues at stake is rising at an unprecedented pace, but the forces arrayed against creating a fairer and sustainable world appear practically insuperable. This is the main subject of countless critiques and debates today: the vested interests that push for a further concentration and centralisation of power and wealth into the hands of a minority, and the corporate-dominated political and legislative process that enables the furthering of these aims.
Overcoming the forces of power and controlAlmost any major development issue can illustrate the extent to which these powerful forces of economic and political self-interest control the current world direction. The threat to small farmers, pastoralists, fishers and indigenous peoples from land and resource grabbing by foreign financial interests, for example. Or the immense subsidies paid to the fossil fuel industry, despite the critical need for transferring support to cleaner alternatives. Or the lack of meaningful reforms to the financial industry, despite the spectacular failures of international banks that led to a world system failure in late 2008 and colossal government bail-outs. Or the potentially catastrophic example of a pre-emptive strike on Iran, driven by powerful economic and strategic interests regardless of the real threat of sparking a nuclear war. Such a list could go on indefinitely.
Standing behind these trends are the oligarchical and corporate forces that global civil society movements are up against – relatively small groups of wealthy elites and vested interests that consolidate power and dominate government policy, often with no sense of civic duty and with little or no regard for constitutionally-protected rights or the common good. The concentration of political, economic and media power not only upholds the present system based on unsustainable consumption and growth, but it ensures the continuation of negative social and environmental outcomes. Although private interests with economic power comprise a social minority, they are over-represented in dominant institutions and maintain the full support of most government leaders elected to office. Through the dynamics of the ‘revolving door’, the same political leaders of today become advisors to the boards of major companies tomorrow. Even the United Nations, founded as a forum for people’s representation and the protection of their universal rights and interests, is now hijacked by the growing influence of large corporations and business lobby groups. As a result, private interests are increasingly prioritised over public interests in both national and international forums, and viable solutions for the world’s multiple crises are effectively blocked or at best weakened. Instead of searching for comprehensive responses for threats related to climate change, food production, water supply, human rights violations, deforestation or poverty and health issues, false solutions are promoted that protect wealth and profits and fail to tackle the core of global problems. As each critical year passes by, we pay witness to the further concentration and control of private interests over land, resources, and all aspects of peoples’ lives.
The question is whether the emerging voice of the mass public is sufficient to challenge these immense forces of profit, power and control. After decades of failed conferences and summits on the world’s intractable problems, we are well aware that existing institutions are not up to the task of initiating wholesale systemic transformation. The actions of businesses are limited by their adherence to the profit imperative and the pressure to grow shareholder value, while governments are constrained by short-term political imperatives and their commitment to economic growth above all other concerns. The limitations of large civil society organisations (CSOs) to affect transformative structural change are also well discussed, as most mainstream CSOs work within the same business-as-usual political context and focus on single issues and short-term wins, or remain constrained by a narrow policy-oriented approach. Reformist or ‘within-the-system’ changes are not succeeding, and often do not even generate the small wins or incremental changes that they seek.
There are also serious limitations to ‘outside-the-system’ changes, especially when governments are overthrown and newly-elected leaders fall captive to the same forces of institutional power that prevent meaningful change, as happened in the ‘people power’ overthrow of the Marcos administration in the Philippines, the break-up of the former Soviet Union, the entry of the Greens into the parliaments of Europe, and following the end of apartheid in South Africa. Only months after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the military-appointed interim government was already pursuing neoliberal policies and centralising state control rather than promoting social justice. At the same time, local alternatives to the prevailing economic order – sustainable communities, transition towns and innovative business models that prioritise social and environmental values over profit and growth – are not yet of a large enough scale to mount a serious challenge to the existing political economy. These rapidly-growing local initiatives provide great hope and inspirational models for a sustainable future society, but the dominant trend is still towards the centralisation of state and market power, and the shifting of real power away from ordinary people and communities towards largely undemocratic global institutions and multinational corporations.
A global movement of ordinary peopleIf it is clear that governments, private institutions and civil society organisations acting alone are not capable of steering the world onto a just and sustainable course, can we imagine a new movement of ordinary people that can fill the vacuum in global leadership?
Thanks to: http://ascendingstarseed.wordpress.com