Home page > Writing and publishing in Africa > Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail?
| More

Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail?

Sunday 22 November 2015

NOV. 11, 2015

Ivan Krastev

Sofia, Bulgaria — SHORTLY after Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup in Paris, five of the greatest political minds in Europe hustled to their writing desks to capture the meaning of the events.

The five were very different people. Karl Marx was a Communist. Pierre Joseph Proudhon an anarchist. Victor Hugo, the most popular French poet of his time, a romantic. And Alexis de Tocqueville and Walter Bagehot were liberals. Their interpretations of the coup were as different as their philosophies. But in the manner of the man who mistook his wife for a hat, they all mistook the end of Europe’s three-year revolutionary wave for its beginning.

Has the Western media made the same mistake in recent years? Are its interpretations of the global wave of popular protests — spontaneous, leaderless, nonviolent, which Thomas Friedman memorably described as the rise of the “square people” — similarly off-base? It seems so: Just take the stunning and unexpected victory of the governing Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., in Turkey’s parliamentary elections last week.

Two and a half years ago, popular protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul and elsewhere captured the imagination of the West. Individuals with different political views and agendas succeeded in fashioning a common language with a common message. Even skeptics agreed that the protests had fundamentally changed the country’s politics. The result of the parliamentary elections in June seemed to prove the point: The success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P. — an inspiring coalition of Kurds and secular leftists — in crossing the 10 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament would have been unthinkable if not for the protests.

But the results of last week’s parliamentary elections show the fragility of the protest’s success. The confrontational strategy of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, worked. He gambled on new elections and won, wiping out the summer’s results and putting to rest, for now, the idea that the protest movement had any real impact.

It’s not just Turkey, either. The huge protests in the winter of 2012 in Moscow resulted not in the smashing of President Vladimir V. Putin’s state, but in the consolidation of his power.

Wherever you look, little movement along the lines of what the political scientist Francis Fukuyama called the “revolution of the global middle class” seems to have endured. And in the most tragic cases, the Arab Spring has resulted in the worst of all worlds: authoritarian resurgence in Egypt, and civil war and state failure in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

It is tempting to believe that these rightward and reactionary turns are merely a product of state coercion and manipulation. And for sure, manipulation and coercion explain quite a lot. Yet to insist that the current conservative backlash is simply a function of political spin is to ignore the reality.

What is now apparent is that the global protest wave may have polarized societies, but it is “the party of stability” and not “the networks of hope” that profited from the polarization. Wherever one looks, the political and social disruption brought on by protesters resulted not in more democracy and pluralism, but in a consolidation around the state and the national leader. We are witnessing a new anti-cosmopolitan moment.

This backlash has also transformed geopolitics. Mr. Erdogan’s military campaign against the Kurds, which has greatly complicated the situation in Syria, was really just a part of his fall political campaign. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was largely part of a strategy to resist the revolutionary contagion rather than merely an act of traditional Russian imperialism.

It is commonplace to ask why the “Twitter revolutions” are in retreat. But the more intriguing question is why we were so convinced that they would succeed in the first place.

Three factors may explain why most political commentators ended up, like Marx and Hugo in 1851, utterly failing to recognize an obvious reality. For one, there’s the West’s political narcissism, nourished in the post-Cold War period in which it really did seem that pluralist democracy was on the march. Such narcissism stripped us of the capacity to look critically at any actor whom we see inspired by our political model (bonus points if he or she writes political slogans in English). We assume that the imitation of Western practices and principles is a foolproof road to democratic success.

There has also been a dangerous so-called normative turn in American political science. It reduced our understanding of complex social and global problems to a series of correlations that reassure us that, among other things, democracies do not fight one another, that democracy makes countries richer and less corrupt, and that every country is on its way to becoming, well, a democracy. Liberal teleology came to replace the Marxist one.

Finally, we were seduced by the “Silicon Valley effect,” the fact that our ideas and strategies for social change were shaped less by historical experience and more by the utopian possibilities of the world of technology. Trapped in that belief, we failed to recognize the frailties of the new protest movements and misjudged their impact on society. You can tweet a revolution, but you cannot tweet a government, and many of the new protest movements are paying a high price for their anti-institutional ethos.

These protests fell victim to similar fashionable notions: that organizations are a thing of the past (and networks representative of the future), that states no longer matter, and that spontaneity is the real source for legitimacy.

Disruption, we know well, is highly valued in the technology community and plays a critical role in upending companies. But societies are not made of innovators alone, and very often the demand for constant change and the hosannas for creative destruction eventually bring demand for stability. Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and their ilk understood this point even if the protesters and pontificators didn’t, and they sat patiently until the right moment to reassert their power.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a contributing opinion writer.

See online: Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail?