The beauty of democracy is that it keeps reinventing itself surprising cynics and experts. It is this sense of the unexpected that marked the three great movements that characterised 2011. The Arab Spring, the Occupation of Wall Street and Anna Hazare’s battle against corruption are three disparate dramas. However, there are similarities running through the skein of all three narratives.
Let us begin with the obvious. All three were read as the rise of people’s power. The word ‘people’ had become suspect in twentieth century politics. The Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben observed that the concept of people is a marker for elimination and displacement. One calls a group a people when it is marked for genocide, when it refuses the rituals of citizenship. The French regime of Sarkozy called the Romany a people before it externed them. However, the idea of the people has acquired a new resonance after recent struggles. The word people is back in fashion and represents a vehicle of hope and creativity.
What marks the recent people’s struggle is the blend of efflorescence and organisation. It seems protean, appearing like a rhizome in public spaces, creating the most unlikely leaders. It has no predictable plot and is usually presented as a one point slogan such as “Down with dictators” or “No Corruption”. It is this sense of flow of a people rather than organised struggle that brings down regimes. Democracy seems to assert itself at the most elemental level.
The poetry of these movements is marked by the emergence of the body as a symbolic force. What one witnesses, is the crowd as the en-massed body. The people gathered in a public square become the new body politic. The body is literally and symbolically the symbol of protest. The helpless body acquires new power as it stands courageously against guns. The body seen as representing consumerism and desire becomes the new satyagrahic body ready to die in the act of protest. The body is the icon of the new politics. Read as defenseless, it becomes the site for the new innovations of politics.
Thirdly, there is a sense of youth, of the emergence of a new generation, about such protest. Youth do not carry the baggage of memories or the burden of old politics. Youth do not carry history like a sack. They rush to smell democracy and do not want to wait. There is idealism about them, a readiness to try any vehicle to launch democracy. They are not in awe of establishment, of shibboleths like the army, the party or Wall Street. They are ready to confront all to live life as they dream it. The burden of history suddenly crumbles before this imagination. There is an urgency and speed in the desire for democracy and freedom. One must also emphasise that in their rawness these protests look simple, almost elemental with bodies battling the state. Yet at another level they embody the use of the latest information technology. SMS, Facebook, Twitter accompany this protest as a new medium creating story telling as hot history. Media globally created a new economy of news around each of these events. The gossip of their courage spreads instantly across the globe.
There is new sense of liberation about all three struggles. When political critics are emphasising the power of globalisation or the stereotypes about the Arab affinity for tyranny, these movements explode both tyranny and old shibboleths. Skeptics in India saw the middle class as somnolent or indifferent citizens. Yet these same groups arose spontaneously to battle corruption. When the might of multinationals seemed globally obvious, these movements occupied Wall Street to show capitalism had not yet won the day. Corporate dons suddenly whimpered as if they had lost the magic wands that Hayek and Friedman gave them.
Apart from corporations, the state, or ossified parties, the sector that looked on impotently, wrapped in puzzlement were skeptics. Critics felt nothing would happen. For years, they enforced the stereotype of Arabs as a people cultivating indifference to democracy. Over-rated cultural scholars like Samuel Huntington were praised for false histories called The Clash of Civilizations. Suddenly in a few months, protests in Arab cities reveal that Arabs may be reinventing democracy in ways that the west cannot smell or taste. Suddenly it is Israel that appears a fundamentalist state, while Arabs seem to be smelling freedom. Deeply and fundamentally, it reveals how shallow and superficial our experts have been on Arabs, on the middle class, or the power of capitalism.
In a deep and fundamental way what we are witnessing is the globalisation of democracy. It is democracy and the democratic hope that is stepping across boundaries, trespassing frontiers. Democracy has become a global dialect. Whether in Egypt’s Tahrir Square or on the streets of Bangalore or in the alleys of Wall Street New York, democracy has become the new esparanto of hope. As the economist Joseph Stiglitz put it in a recent essay, the scenario “of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%” is being challenged by the “citizenship of the 99%”. As Stiglitz said, we are confronting the contradiction between over regulated democracy and under regulated markets.
I do not want to sound like a Polyanna, naïve regarding my narratives. I know that the impact of genocide, inequality, militarisation, obsolescence and tyranny cannot be wished away. Movements regardless of their effervescence tend to stagnate. But one sees what I call the global dream, not for consumerism or security or for a networked society but simply for a decent society. Decency like evil is becoming global and learning to speak in different dialects. This demand for decency can lead to the transformation of democracy.
These movements are not speaking the old standardised language of democracy, focussing on electoralism, participation and representation. These are cognitive movements, challenging the ideas of market, liberalism and modernity demanding that we re-democratize democracy. Maybe in this lies the beauty, the hope and the power of these protests. They might fade, they might be diverted but right now I want to celebrate these three movements as the global event of the year. They are a toast to a new hope, a new dream of life and living.
The author is a social scientist
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