By Gideon Rachman
Is there such a thing as a global mood? It certainly feels like it. I cannot remember a time when so many different countries, all over the world, were gripped by some form of street protest or popular revolt. 2011 is turning into the year of global indignation.
The “Arab spring” at the beginning of the year set the tone – with the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, now followed by the ousting of Muammer Gaddafi in Libya and the insurrection in Syria.
But milder forms of popular revolt are breaking out across the globe. Europe has experienced political riots in Athens, sit-ins in Madrid and looting in London. In India, thousands of demonstrators turned out across the country to support Anna Hazare, a social activist and hunger striker, who has panicked the Indian government into agreeing to new anti-corruption measures. China has seen public demonstrations and online protests sparked by a factory accident and a high-speed train crash. In Chile, the past two months have seen huge marches by students and trade unions demanding higher social spending. In Israel, the main boulevards of Tel Aviv have been occupied by ordinary people protesting against the cost of living.
Of course, there are also big differences between the various upheavals around the world. Why dignify the actions of a British hoodie caving in the window of a department store, by comparing him to a Libyan risking his life for freedom? The link between a Chinese housewife demonstrating against a chemical plant in Dalian and an Israeli office worker demanding affordable housing might also seem tenuous.
Conclusions drawn in the face of such disparate events do have to be cautious. But there are common traits. Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally-connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption.
Rage at the wealth and corruption of the ruling elite fuelled the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Allegations of corruption and official misdoing have been central to the popular protests in India and China. Anger about lack of opportunity for the young and the erosion of middle-class living standards are common themes in the demonstrations in Spain, Greece, Israel and Chile.
Many of the countries hit by unrest have explicitly accepted rising inequality as a price worth paying for rapid economic growth. In China, Deng Xiaoping set the stage for the Communist party’s embrace of capitalism decades ago when he announced – “To get rich is glorious.” In Britain, Peter Mandelson, architect of Tony Blair’s New Labour, pronounced himself “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. Chile was the pioneer of free-market reforms in Latin America. In India, an economic boom has seen billionaires’ mansions constructed near abject slums.
And yet many of these same countries also have strong egalitarian political traditions that still strike a popular chord. Mr Hazare has consciously aped the methods and language of Mahatma Gandhi. Many of Israel’s demonstrators decry the free-market policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and speak nostalgically of the socialist traditions of the kibbutz movement. The indignados of Madrid, Athens and Paris demand support for a “European social model”, which promises free education and healthcare and a decent income for all.
It is tempting to see all these upheavals as linked by a globalisation that boosted the incomes of the wealthy, while creating an international labour market that holds down the wages of the unskilled, at least in the west. Globalisation has also fostered the communications networks that allow ideas and images of revolt to skip around the world.
But the creation of a global mood is a mysterious thing. In 1968, before the word “globalisation” or the internet were even invented, there were student rebellions around the world. The year 1989 saw not just of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Tiananmen Square revolt in China. Perhaps 2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt?
And yet there is one striking exception to this pattern – the US. America exhibits many of the social and economic trends that have got people out on the streets in other countries: rising inequality, a threat to middle-class living standards, anger against the political and business elite. Yet, so far, all this rage – whether on the left or the Tea Party right – has been expressed in the media or at the ballot box, but not by disorder on the streets.
Some argue that ordinary Americans are suffering from a form of false consciousness in which anger about economic issues gets misdirected into rage about guns or religion. But that is too patronising. America’s political culture has always been more individualistic and less egalitarian than that of other nations. And while there are huge rewards for the successful in the US, there is a belief that malefactors will be punished. Some may recoil at the spectacle of executives forced to do the “perp walk” or presidents impeached for their sexual peccadilloes. But it sends a message that nobody is above the law and that corruption will not be tolerated.
President Barack Obama has been accused of not believing in “American exceptionalism”. But this is one of form of American exception he has reason to be grateful for.
See online: 2011, the year of global indignation