Progressive activists have for decades lamented the disengagement of young people, the working and middle classes, philanthropists and the mainstream media from processes that pursue systemic change. Apathy, inertia, cynicism, myopia or simple, pragmatic self-interest appeared to outweigh the disenchantment, doubts, even anger, at rapidly growing inequity and unfettered market fundamentalism.
Through the financial crisis and its metamorphosis into its economic and fiscal avatars, many in civil society bemoaned the fact that popular angst remained confined to ghettos populated only by those – groups, communities, nations – who faced immediate threats to their very survival. A riot here, a demonstration there and far too many talking shops occurred while governments paid little heed to the needs and interests of the majority of their citizens, claiming instead to focus on ministering to the health of those “too big to fail”.
Then, as 2011 progressed, disasters piled upon scams, leaks and scandals and the promised “green shoots” of recovery withered, even as politicians wrangled and bickered, bankers’ bonuses returned to stratospheric levels and citizens on every populated continent found themselves faced with the consequences – cuts in basic services, colossal public debt burdens, rampant corruption and unabashed cronyism.
There has been much theorising about the exact roles played by demographics, technology, economic disparity and political freedom in fuelling the revolutions, uprisings and unrest that spread virally from Tunis and Cairo through the Middle East and North Africa to Europe, North America and beyond.
A few factors are evident in every case: a sharp decrease in economic prospects, a palpable contempt from governments for the plight of “ordinary” citizens and erosion of faith in institutions of democracy, justice and governance, including traditional media and established civil society where such existed. Most significantly, the choices made and priorities demonstrated by governments and institutions – national and international – in dealing, or failing to deal, with the root causes of the crises made these root causes visible as never before. The resultant disillusionment with elites and experts of all stripes, hitherto counted on to “manage” our affairs with a modicum of restraint, if not fairness, forced citizens around the world to re-evaluate their options. Combined with the scale of the crises’ impact and the increased access to both information and the tools that facilitate mobilisation, we now have a critical mass of citizens with the motive, means and opportunity to act.
Beyond all these, however, the revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa revived belief that citizen action can effect radical change even in the most hostile environments. From Delhi to Durban and Dublin to DC I have heard growing numbers ask: “Where is our Tahrir Square?” The sheer courage of those – especially youth and women – who stormed the ramparts of privilege and power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen inspired, shamed and goaded people elsewhere to shake off their inertia, resignation, apathy and cynicism and mobilise to reverse the creeping but increasingly obvious hostile takeover of their democratic rights.
All the citizen movements that have burgeoned or grown in stature in 2011 are currently under threat of suppression, co-optation, diversion and dilution. Protecting the spaces – physical, political and virtual – that permit democratic dialogue and dissent, especially in places that do not grab international headlines, must be a vital priority for all those who subscribe to values of justice and freedom. Facilitating the connections between the movements to ensure sustained momentum must be another. Strengthening the linkages between the immediately apparent causes of distress and the deficits in democratic governance that underpin them must be a third.
Can progressive politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, technocrats, academics, activists, philanthropists and businesspeople rise to that agenda?