The meaning and necessity of revolution in the 21st century

by Jerome Roos on May 11, 2012

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The global day of action on May 12 will mark the resurgence of our resistance. But what is the way forward for our movement in these times of crisis?

This is the transcript of a presentation given at the OVNI 2012 festival in the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona on May 11, 2012.

It’s amazing to be here in Barcelona – home to one of the most inspiring revolutionary episodes in European history and today once again a hotbed of popular resistance against market fundamentalism and a false democracy. Before I start, I would like to thank the OVNI organization and Carlos Delclós — a lecturer at Pompeu Fabra, an active member of the movement here in Barcelona, and a contributor to ROARMAG.org — for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today, on the eve of the global day of action of May 12.

On the Edge of History

We are living through historic times. While the future may look bleak and uncertain, we are – in our own particular way – blessed to live through an era in which the very word ‘revolution’ is no longer just the abstract obsession of some fringe romantics inside the Old Left. We are living through a time in which the word capitalism no longer invokes hard work and ample reward, but the lack of work and opportunity for a growing number of people around the world. This is a time in which the very existence of revolutionary theory and practice is no longer considered just an academic or activist privilege, but a pressing global necessity and – increasingly – a factual reality on the ground.

We are living through a time in which the illusory sense of growth and progress that underpinned the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism – and its belief that representative democracy and the self-regulating market will bring freedom and prosperity to all – is dying a slow and painful death. The deceptive ideological mirror of the End of History has been shattered, and in come tumbling a whole new range of alternative futures. With the uprisings that started in the Arab world last year, history appears to have started anew. After a brief interlude that began with the end of the Cold War, the ongoing global financial crisis has radically shaken the foundations of the neoliberal world order. The endless struggle has recommenced, and in the process, the horizon of the possible is rapidly shifting. And the most incredible thing is that we’re watching all of it happen right in front of our very eyes.

The other day I was speaking to a journalist who in his time covered the 1968 student uprising in Paris, and ran from revolution to coup d’état in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. He told me something that rang very true and that still seems very applicable to our predicament today: he said that in times of crisis, as coalitions of convenience fall apart and the illusion of systemic stability is disturbed from the inside out, the interests of different social groups and political actors suddenly appear just as they are. The naked essence of the system is revealed for what it always already was. If the current crisis has been good for anything, it is that it has brutally uprooted the post-political consensus of the centrist parties and re-drawn the battle lines along the class divide.

The crisis, in short, has brought class struggle back to the fore. Suddenly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe and secure middle class. The politics of austerity have revealed the real cleavages in our globalized world economy. The battle-lines are drawn: this is a struggle between the 1% — politicians, financial capitalists, CEOs and military elites – and the rest of the world population. For the past 30 years, the 1% have been waging a silent war upon the 99%, but it took a financial crisis of historic proportions to bring this reality to light. So yes, even though we have chosen to struggle strictly with non-violent means, we find ourselves in a state of war nonetheless. And as Tolstoy so beautifully depicted in his War & Peace, those participating in the battle often find themselves in a ‘fog of war’ – a period of protracted uncertainty about the strength of the opposing force, about one’s own strength, and about the future of our world in general.

 Reflections on a Revolution

The main thing we have tried to do at ROAR over the past year – and the main thing I will try to do in this intervention as well – is to alleviate some of this uncertainty through what one of our contributors has called ‘The Art of Information Activism’. One of our key objectives at ROAR has been to provide some perspective. To take a step back and understand the events of the past year in their spatial and temporal context – that is to say, to always highlight the global and historical dimension to what is happening today. In the process, we hope to not only amplify the voice of our generation, but also to distill some sense and order from the clamorous cacophony of our rapidly changing world.

Rosa Luxemburg once wrote that “the most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening.” But as we face an overload of informational stimuli, it seems at least equally important to try and connect the dots between all the seemingly disconnected events that present themselves to our consciousness on a daily basis. What connects the global financial crisis of 2008-’09 with the dramatic decision of Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Tunisia in late 2010, thereby sparking the Arab Spring? What connects the spectacularly televised Egyptian revolution of 2011 to the real democracy movements in Spain and Greece? How is the fate of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa related to the predatory speculation of a small group of investment bankers on Wall Street? And what can the Occupy movement do to change any of this?

These are some of the questions I will try to touch upon in this intervention. Throughout my presentation, as I connect the dots between the crisis of global capitalism, the Arab Spring, and the movements in Europe, North America and elsewhere, I will try to address one overarching theme: the meaning of the word ‘revolution’ in the 21st century. What does it mean to be a revolutionary today? Did the events that took place in Egypt last year really constitute a ‘revolution’? When Puerta del Sol was occupied almost a year ago, and people carried around banners reading ‘nobody expects the Spanish revolution’, were they naively expressing a millennial sense of romanticism for times past, or is there an important moment of truth to be found in the revolutionary longing of our generation today?

Revolution as a Co-Creative Process

Whatever the answers may be, one thing that has become abundantly clear over the course of the past year, is that the idea of revolution cannot be condensed into a singular event – like the overthrow of a tyrant or the seizure of state power. Revolutions are processes by their very nature. They take place over a time-span of years – if not decades – and arise out of a complex web of historical currents and global interconnections. They have external manifestations – in the streets and squares – and internal motivations, in the hearts and minds of all those individual people constituting the masses. In other words, a real revolution does not occur – it unfolds. It unfolds both mentally and materially; both individually and collectively.

While images of the multitude amassing in the square to overthrow the tyrant may carry crucial elements of political and emotional symbolism, our struggle cannot just presume to lead towards a single cathartic explosion of popular dissent, or the capture of existing institutions. It must first of all take place inside of each and every single one of us, radicalizing our worldview and propelling us to take action. From there, it must spread into the collective consciousness and the very social fabric that we are trying to revolutionize.

Our challenge, in other words, is much greater than overthrowing a dictator or an austerity memorandum. For the root causes of our current predicament are not to be found in the symptoms of the system – but at its very core. It is precisely the internal contradiction of a world system consisting of a globally integrated marketplace on the one hand, and a scattered array of competing nation states on the other, that conspires to keep reproducing the patterns of oppression and exclusion that we are trying to fight. As the glaring failure of almost any form of Really Existing Socialism has displayed, the capture of state power will not suffice to keep the global market in check. A revolution in one country is doomed to fail. To bring about a genuine revolution, we will have to work together across borders and unite for global change. But most importantly, to bring about a genuine revolution, we will have to replace the institutions of the old world – including the nation state, parliamentary democracy and a privately-controlled money supply – with our own.

This requires building a new world from the grassroots up to the global level. In order to achieve such a seemingly impossible feat, we must be daring. We must be patient. We must be creative. We must cooperate. But most of all, we must persevere. Persevere in the face of external repression. Persevere in the face of internal conflict. And above all, persevere in the face of the enormity of the challenge that lies ahead of us. In the short term, there will be no easy gains to reap. Sadly, we may not even see any tangible results until many years from now. But that does not mean that our ultimate goals are not worth the struggle. In fact, we have a responsibility to keep up the good fight – and fight it till the bitter end. This movement is only the beginning of our revolutionary process.

To be a revolutionary today is to take a plunge; a plunge into the deep, for we do not know what’s on the other side. But to be a revolutionary also means to make a vow; a vow to persevere until we finally reach the other side and prove once and for all that another world is possible.

The Crisis of Global Capitalism

But before we talk about the global revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia last year, let’s first take a step back and understand the origins of this so-called crisis and the deep sources of today’s indignation. As I said before, to be able to gauge our strength vis-à-vis our adversary, we first need to understand the global and historical context from which our struggle arose to begin with.

The simple truth is that the crises and uprisings of today, even though they may appear to some as disconnected events, are in reality symptoms of a much bigger and much more serious problem: a structural failure – or rather, the surfacing of a long-running and deep-seated disease – at the very core of the global capitalist system. This is not just a crisis of public finances or financial markets; neither is it just a crisis of neoliberal globalization. No, we are facing an existential crisis of global capitalism, only the third such crisis in the history of the modern world. In 2008, the global financial system veered on the brink of collapse. Few people realize it, but surrounding the collapse of Lehman Brothers, we were literally just days or hours away from a situation in which money would cease to come out of ATMs. We have to realize that we have already lived through the most serious financial crash and economic downturn since the Great Depression — and we are nowhere near its end.

By now, the financial crisis has given rise to a sovereign debt crisis. The weak link in today’s global economy is no longer just the United States, but Europe. With the eurozone on the verge of disintegration, the debt crisis has in turn given rise to a massive social crisis. Across the continent, neoliberal elites – working in the name of their masters in the financial sector – are rabidly cutting away at social provisions and the welfare state. This, in turn, has given rise to a political crisis of representation and a full-blown legitimation crisis of representative democracy. We saw it in the Greek elections last Sunday. For the first time since the fall of the dictatorship, a neo-Nazi party has made its way into Parliament. In slightly better news, a coalition of radical Left parties, Syriza, came second in the polls, and earlier this week trying to form a leftist government to overthrow the austerity memorandum.

What this indicates is that the crisis has made the people realize what is really at stake here. The irresistible politics of austerity have not only run up against the unmovable object of popular resistance – but they have also laid bare the allegiances of our political elites. Whether they are socialists or conservatives, all of them seem to unquestioningly carry out the diktat of financial markets and the technocrats in Brussels. In the process, democratic principles have been put on halt or done away with altogether. A permanent state of emergency has made itself master of the continent, with unelected banker governments installed in Greece and Italy, and politicians of the core countries mingling directly into the domestic affairs of the debt-stricken periphery. Not since the days of WWII has European democracy been faced with such an existential threat.

But of course, to those familiar with the history of neoliberalism and capitalism more generally, this is nothing new. The current crisis is merely the latest and most blatant manifestation of a protracted assault on hard-working people around the world. Real wages have remained stagnant for the past 30 years. In response, households have had to pile up unsustainable levels of debt in order to retain their purchasing power in a rapidly changing and globalizing economy. Sitting on top of a massive capital surplus extracted from the 99%, the banks smelled their opportunity. While politicians willingly looked the other way, the banks built up a global Ponzi scheme of unprecedented proportions. To complete their relentless assault on society, neoliberal elites unleashed a historic crackdown on labor unions and collective bargaining. The world was remade along the dystopian neoliberal vision of a globally-integrated financial kleptocracy.

It is not surprising, then, that the past thirty years have been the most tumultuous to date in terms of financial crises. When Mexico experienced the first sovereign debt crisis of the neoliberal era in 1982, wages across the country fell by an average of 25 to 30 percent. In South-East Asia, some 60 million jobs were lost between 1997 and 1999, and it took Thailand and Indonesia seven and eight years, respectively, to regain their average income levels of 1996. At the peak of the Argentine crisis in 2002, more than half the country’s population was thrown into poverty. Similarly, in Spain today, you know very well that more than half the population under 25 is now unemployed, while two years of harsh austerity in Greece have led to a situation where every week more than 1,200 Greeks lose their jobs. In Greece and Italy, suicide rates have spiked. It is no wonder, then, that all of these countries have experienced widespread popular protest and social unrest as a result.

But the historic roots of capitalist crisis and the assault on democracy go back much further than the past 30 years alone. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx already wrote that “the national debt gives rise to stock exchange gambling and the modern bankocracy.” Bankocracy is exactly the political system in which we find ourselves today. A small oligopoly of bankers, who control most of the wealth of the nations and are responsible for the creation of around 97% of the entire global money supply, have maneuvered themselves into a position of vast structural power.

The world economy and national governments alike now dance to the tune of finance capital. Such a situation was possible to sustain for 30 years only because cheap credit maintained the illusion of progress; the illusion that the ‘middle class’ still shared in the benefits of economic globalization. It is only now that the global Ponzi scheme has come undone, people are losing their jobs and getting kicked out of their homes, that the implicit consensus that undergirded the debt-based economy has begun to unravel. Finally, people have started to ask questions. And clearly those in power do not like that.

In the wake of the so-called Mexican Tequila Crisis of 1995, Subcomandante Marcos, spokesman for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, observed that “in the cabaret of globalization, the state appears as a stripper – it strips off all its characteristics, until only the bare essential remains: repressive force.” Not surprisingly, it was the repressive force of a single municipal official in a small town in Tunisia that would prove to be the trigger unleashing a tidal wave of popular insurrections from North Africa to North America.

The Global Revolutionary Wave

As you know, it all began when Mohamed Bouazizi was robbed off his vending cart in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. The 26-year old Mohamed had never been a very politicized man. But his economic deprivation and social exclusion slowly drove him to the brink of despair. When a municipal officer finally confiscated his wares and – allegedly – humiliated and dishonored him by slapping him in the face and spitting at him, he snapped. He walked up to the local governor’s office, demanded to speak to the governor himself, and after he was turned down, drenched himself in petrol and lit the flame that would spark the Arab Spring and thereby unleash the Global Revolutionary Wave of 2011.

Of course the West was extremely slow to respond. In another sign of where the allegiances of our leaders truly lie, a French government minister even sent her parents on holiday to Tunis in the middle of the uprising and offered President Ben Ali her assistance in the crackdown. But when Ben Ali was toppled and the fire spread to Egypt, Western leaders finally began to realize that they could not turn the tide of popular indignation in the region. Quickly, a new narrative was established that portrayed the uprisings as a liberal call for freedom and democracy. If you read the New York Times or watched CNN in those days – something I personally tried to avoid – you would mostly find comparisons with the Eastern European uprisings against the Soviet regime. For the neoliberal West, the Arab Spring was the perfect confirmation of Fukuyama’s thesis of the End of History. “They”, the Arabs, “simply want what we have: a functional liberal democracy and integration into a global free market.”

But of course, to anyone willing to take a look at what the Arab revolutionaries were really saying, the uprisings were as much a rebellion against Western imperialism and unchecked economic liberalization, as they were a rebellion against the violent and unaccountable dictators of the region. I now want to show you a short video that illustrates the deep sources of indignation in Tunisia very well. This incendiary rap song by the 21-year old Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor, known as El General, came out around the same time as Bouazizi’s fateful self-immolation. It immediately spread like a wildfire on Facebook, and El General became known as the ‘Voice of the Revolution’. As the uprising gathered pace, Hamada was arrested and disappeared for several days. The lyrics may give you an idea of how important economic grievances were for sparking the revolt. The song is called ‘Head of State’, and the boy you see being addressed by Ben Ali at the beginning is the young Hamada himself.

Just like in Tunisia, the uprising in Egypt was preceded by 30 years of far-reaching neoliberal reforms. Between 1982 and 1990, Egypt – just like Southern Europe today – faced a crippling sovereign debt crisis. When it was forced to go to international creditors to restructure its debt, the International Monetary Fund imposed a structural adjustment program as a condition for the disbursement of ‘emergency’ credit. As the Monthly Review reported, “the IMF conditions forced the government to cut spending on social services, relax price controls, cut subsidies, deregulate and privatize industries, target inflation, and liberalize capital flows.” All of this led to a deepening of inequality, increased labor precarity, and a massive rise in youth unemployment.

It was no surprise, then, that the early stirrings of resistance against the Mubarak regime were launched not by supporters of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, but by a group of activists primarily concerned about the rising social injustice in the country. While the Western media reported on the Egyptian revolution as if it started simply on January 25, the first day of protests, the truth is that the process of organized resistance goes back at least as far as a planned strike in the industrial town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, on April 6, 2008. This strike gave rise to the so-called April 6 Youth Movement – a loose coalition of revolutionary socialists and anarchists – who would later play a key role in the leaderless insurrection that toppled Mubarak.

The Egyptian uprising is therefore the best confirmation we have of the fact that a revolution is never just a singular telegenic event, but by its very definition a protracted process. The revolutionary process in Egypt continues in the streets and squares today. In last week’s clashes in front of the Ministry of Defense, the main chant of the protesters was once again “the people demand the fall of the regime.” By February of this year, precisely a year after the fall of Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (or SCAF), had already imprisoned and tried over 12.000 Egyptians in  military tribunals. Hundreds have died in clashes with military police over the past year. The next video I will show you is a song by an Egyptian hip hop collective. It’s called Kazeboon – liars. ‘Nothing has changed,’ they sing, and Egyptians will have to rise up again to fulfill their revolution. The revolution, in other words, is still an ongoing process.

And so the Arab Spring was not isolated from the broader crisis of capitalism. Youth unemployment in the region was staggering. Food and petrol prices had reached a historic high. The mainstream media, with its typical lack of long-term memory, simply forgot to mention that during the food crisis of 2007-’08, Egypt had already experienced widespread bread riots. The revolutionary wave that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, and that continues today, was at least in part fueled by the same global economic dynamics that saw the people of Spain and Greece take to the streets in May 2011.

And so it went. On May 15, the wave of indignation crossed the Mediterranean and finally reached the restive shores of Europe. After a massive march organized by a coalition of activists, artists and intellectuals, united under the banner Democracia Real YA, a small group of protesters decided to occupy Puerta del Sol. What followed, as they say, is history. I won’t dwell too long on the specifics of the 15-M movement here in Spain, for I assume that most of you are more familiar with the details than I am. But for the moment, suffice it to say that the struggle that emerged here in Spain – and that rapidly spread to Greece and later to New York and the rest of the world – is not an isolated event. It is part of a global wave of indignation that connects oppressed Arabs with unemployed Europeans; Chilean students with Nigerian fishermen; American occupiers with Chinese villagers. While each group has its own particular local grievances, these grievances ultimately emanate from the same universal source: the structural crisis of global capitalism.

One of the places where the anxiety and despair of economic collapse is most closely felt is undoubtedly in Greece. After 3 years of draconian austerity measures, the country has already lost 20 percent of its total GDP and has seen unemployment rise to a record 22 percent. Nowhere in Europe is the assault on human dignity, social solidarity and democratic legitimacy more painfully felt than in Greece. In order to be able to continue extracting full repayment from the Greek people, the EU and IMF even went as far as suspending the country’s democracy by imposing a technocratic government under the leadership of a former Vice-President of the European Central Bank. A remarkable detail is that Prime Minister Papademos was in charge of the Greek Central Bank when the country conspired with the Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs to mask its massive public debt through a quasi-legal financial transaction.

On May 25 last year, the Greeks followed in the footsteps of the Spanish indignados and occupied Syntagma Square in central Athens, demanding an end to the austerity memorandum, the ouster of the so-called Troika of foreign lenders, and the institution of direct democracy. Ever since, the images of police repression that have emerged out of Greece are of a truly different order. Last month, I was in Greece with my friend and fellow ROAR contributor Leonidas to make a short documentary on the crisis and the movement. One thing almost everyone told us is that they consider it a miracle that no one has died in the police crackdown so far. The next video was made by our friends in the multimedia team at Syntagma Square. It is a powerful illustration of how democratic values are being undermined in order to keep in place a fundamentally-flawed economic arrangement.

A few months later, the revolutionary fire spread from the global periphery to the very core of the global capitalist system. In the summer of 2011, our friends at Adbusters called for the occupation of Wall Street on September 17. On that day, as part of a global day of action against the power of the banks, thousands swarmed into Lower Manhattan and set up an occupation in Zuccotti Park, in what has become the biggest social movement in the United States since the end of the Vietnam War. In the space of just a few weeks, the Occupy movement transformed the political discourse in the United States. Where previously the media had been talking about the budget deficit and US credit rating, the Occupy movement suddenly propelled rising inequality and the power of Wall Street into the public debate.

But the revolutionary wave of 2011 did not culminate until October 15, when a global day of action called for by the Spanish indignados led to one of the largest transnational protests in world history. Sure, we had the demonstrations against the Iraq war in the early 2000s, but that was a single-issue protest that ended as soon as the invasion began. October 15 saw, for the first time in history, millions of people taking to the streets in 1,000+ cities in 82 countries demanding not just a change in policy, but a change in the very structure of the world system. Under the banner ‘United for Global Change’, there were no demands upon those in power, only a powerful message: we have become a force to reckon with. What #15O showed us, is that our struggle truly is a global one.

But while the mainstream media has tended to explain these protests as a direct response to the global financial crisis, we can’t afford to lose perspective here. One very simple slogan of the indignados that I like very much is “no es una crisi – es el sistema”. In other words, we are not protesting the financial crisis; we are protesting the very system that gave rise to it in the first place. And as I highlighted before, the financial crisis is but the latest manifestation of a much deeper crisis that sees the destruction of our environment, the depletion of natural resources, the catastrophic destabilization of our climate, the unprecedented manmade extinction of millions of species, the sustained growth of inequality, the emergence of gated communities and shanty-towns, the precarity of labor, the commodification of education, culture and the arts, the growing sense of alienation, depression and despair, and so on – the list is endless. These tragedies are taking place not just in the crisis-stricken periphery of the eurozone; they are everywhere. There’s no greater illustration of this fact than the protests that rocked emerging economies like Chile, Israel, China and Nigeria over the course of the past year.

Chile, for instance, has long been the fastest growing economy in Latin America. Nominally, its GDP per capita is the highest in the region. As you may know, Chile was the very laboratory of neoliberal ideology in the late 1970s. After the democratically-elected communist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the bloody CIA-assisted coup of Augusto Pinochet, a group of US-trained neoliberal economists, known the Chicago Boys, swooped in to advise the junta on radical free-market reforms that would later be replicated across the globe. The measures were eventually condensed into the so-called Washington Consensus, which was enforced by the IMF and World Bank with devastating consequences across the Global South. Today, these structural reforms are being imposed once again – in more or less the same form – on the debt-stricken European periphery.

Starting in May last year, Chile witnessed the outbreak of the biggest protests since the fall of the military dictatorship of Pinochet. Hundreds of thousands of students and sympathizers took to the streets and clashed with police to demand free and high-quality public education. Earlier this year, I was in Rome and had the opportunity to meet Camila Vallejo, one of the leaders of the Chilean student movement. And while I do not entirely share the 20th century symbolism and hierarchical organization of her Communist Party, hearing Camila speak was a very clear confirmation of the fact that the struggle of Chilean students – even though their country is not formally in ‘crisis’ – is ultimately about the same type of issues that are driving our struggles here in Europe and the US.

With the inhumane logic of the market pervading every single sphere of Chilean society, the privatization of university education has pushed tuition fees to such high levels that most families are either being forced to take on massive debt to send their children to university – or they are prized out of higher education altogether. But the issues go far beyond education alone. Chile is now the most unequal member of the OECD, something that is affecting lower and middle class households across the board. The next video I will show is a song by the Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, whose Leftist parents escaped Chile to flee the Pinochet regime. The song – about the neoliberal shock doctrine that has been imposed upon the country – has become one of the anthems of the student movement.

In the meantime, a number of other so-called ‘emerging markets’ have been rocked by protests as well. Israel, for instance, has been recording steady growth levels even throughout the global economic downturn. Nevertheless, two decades of neoliberal reforms have pushed the country’s wealth into the hands of a tiny oligarchy of corrupt political, corporate and military elites, while the country was left with one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world. Israel now ranks just behind Chile and the United States as one of the most unequal countries in the OECD. As a result, in June last year, the country witnessed the outbreak of massive protests against the unaffordable cost of living – housing in particular – culminating into the single biggest demonstration in Israeli history: nearly half a million people took to the streets, and a leading commentator for Haaretz wrote of “a revolt by the middle class against the last three decades of extreme economic neoliberalism.”

Similar events have taken place in countries as far apart – both geographically and culturally – as China in Nigeria. In China, a peasant uprising in the village of Wukan saw local Party officials ousted from their offices by an angry mob after local officials conspired with real estate agencies to divvy up communal farm land for a handsome profit – a typical phenomenon in early capitalist development that Karl Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’. The Wukan uprising was remarkable only in the degree of success of the villagers, who managed to drive out party officials and temporarily establish a self-governing commune. But it is far from an isolated event. According to a study by two scholars from Nankai University, China experienced almost 90,000 such incidents in 2009 alone.

Earlier this year, Nigeria also experienced the emergence of a massive protest movement – quickly dubbed Occupy Nigeria – against corruption and the abolition of fuel subsidies. As a key oil and gas exporter, Nigeria is at the very crux of global capitalist development. Companies like Shell have a dark history of bribing local officials, hiring paramilitary death squads and causing massive oil leakages in the Niger Delta. In the meantime, Nigeria’s own oil is exported abroad for refinement and then imported back into the country for a much higher price. With Wall Street speculators driving up the price of commodities even further, fuel has become unaffordable for the average Nigerian – who has not benefited from the country’s spectacular growth levels at all. With the majority of the population living on less than $2 per day, it was a matter of time before people would take to the streets. This video, by the German-Nigerian singer Nneka, illustrates some of the deeper concerns over corruption and neo-colonialism that lie at the root of the Nigerian protests.

Utopia Dawning on the Horizon

On the eve of WWII, with the dark forces of fascism on the rise across the continent, the Italian philosopher and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, locked up in one of Mussolini’s prisons, penned down a powerful observation. “The old world is dying,” he wrote, “and the new struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” From Cairo to Oakland, from Athens to Santiago de Chile, and even here in Barcelona, where the police crackdown has been particularly hard-handed, these words once again ring true today. All of us hold our breath for tomorrow – and the future beyond it. No one knows what the attempted re-occupation of Plaza Catalunya and Puerta del Sol will bring. No one knows what this global spring of resistance will bring; let alone the years and decades that lie ahead. But one thing we know for sure: what happened in the squares and parks of the world last year has given us a glimpse into the world that awaits us. That is, if we are willing to fight for it.

The occupations at Sol, Syntagma and Zuccotti Park were like a globally interconnected web of tiny little Utopias. They were a whisper from the future; a reflection of the society we wish to create. A society without parties or leaders – where decisions affecting the community are taken collectively and on the basis of consensus. A society with neither wage slavery nor unemployment – where people choose their own type of work and are rewarded on the basis of need, not greed. A self-organized society based on horizontally-networked federation, without hierarchical structures of power or political representation. A society that does not atomize individuals, but that cherishes the idea of community, providing a sense of belonging and fulfillment while leaving individuals perfectly free to develop themselves physically, mentally and spiritually; to actualize their greatest potential and achieve a sense of internal peace and harmony. A society that cherishes culture and creativity, selflessness and solidarity. That is the world that was born in Sol, Syntagma and Plaza Catalunya – that is the vision that gives us hope.

Some may call us dreamers for pursuing such an idealized vision of society, but we know better. As the Greek resistance hero and anti-austerity campaigner Manolis Glezos told us in Athens last month, “the boat, before it was first built, was a Utopia; the airplane, before it was invented, was a Utopia; the satellite, before the first one was shot into space, was a Utopia. No one believed these Utopias were possible – until necessity made them reality.” Or, as Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer so poetically put it, “Utopia is on the horizon. Every step I take towards her, she takes a step back and the horizon runs ten steps further away. So what purpose does Utopia serve, then? Well, it serves the purpose of making us move forward.”

Ever since we were young, they told us there was no alternative; that the world was flat and a rising tide would lift all boats. But the rising tide was a deluge of debt, and the lifeboats have long since been replaced with the cold logic of the marketplace. As we stare into this ocean of despair, the endless struggle has become our only hope for a genuine alternative. When the system pushes ordinary people to become revolutionaries, you know you are no longer at the End of History – you are at the very edge of it.

Tonight, on the eve of a global day of action that will once again make the indignant roar of the people resonate across the globe, we must realize that our movement is part of this unique historic process. The occupations were only just the beginning.  Even if we manage to re-occupy the squares tomorrow, these camps are bound to fade with time. Another thing Manolis Glezos told us in Athens last month, is that the police crackdown on Syntagma Square was actually a good thing, for it forced the people back into their neighborhoods. What we saw in Syntagma, he said, was not direct democracy – it was a lesson in direct democracy. The end of the occupation allowed the people to return to their homes and start applying these lessons in their everyday lives. Or in the poetic words of another activist, Konstantinos, “imagine a tree; it was cut down right when it was blossoming, and as it fell down, the cool summer breeze took the seeds and planted them in all the squares and villages of Greece. Syntagma never died – it spread.”

To sustain our endless struggle, it is important to keep this global and historical perspective in mind. When the merchants and bankers of Venice, Florence and Genova started to defy the church and the aristocracy in the early 15th century, they had no idea that they were at the very edge of a historical process that – five centuries later – would culminate into the emergence of a globally-interconnected capitalist economy. Yet they completely revolutionized society and helped shape the system that we are trying to replace today. If we are to arise out of Tolstoy’s ‘fog of war’, we will have to learn from our adversaries and how their system came into existence to begin with. We can start by creating our own institutions and applying the lessons of direct democracy, horizontal decision-making, self-organization and mutual aid in our daily lives.

At times, we may lose this perspective and be overcome with self-doubt. We may be carried away with excitement and expect the world to change tomorrow – or we may become overly pessimistic in expecting it to never change at all. But even when the times may seem bleak; when it seems that our efforts may lead nowhere; when it seems that the repressive forces of capital and the state squash us underneath their boots; that internal divisions will tear us apart; and that the challenge of creating a better world is simply too Utopian and quixotic to begin with; even when we are about to lose all hope and give up this good fight, we have to realize that each and every single one of us has his or her role to play.

In this global revolution, we all have our place. None of us will triumph alone. Some of us may not even live to see the impact of our actions. But as long as we keep struggling, all of us can return to bed at night knowing that today we did everything we possibly could to make this world a better place. And then, when we rise in the morning to start it all over anew, each and every single one of us can look into the mirror and be proud of being part of the unique historical moment that we are living through. For “hope,” as the 19-year old Niki from Athens told us in an interview last month, “is last to die.”

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Kenny May 13, 2012 at 17:05

The secret of good speechmaking is never to provide a written text! Speeches always sound great. And then you read the text! What strikes me about Mr Roos’s speech is that it is so out of sync with the audience he was addressing. The defining feature of the current youth protest in Spain has been its lack of ideology, which, indeed, is the defining feature of today’s youth in general. No dogmas, just practice solutions which actually work. In complete contrast to that ethos, Mr Roos’s speech reads like something straight out of the 1960s (I’m old enough to remember!). It’s back to the future! Rosa Luxemburg (born 1871) and Karl Marx (born 1818). Syriza’s Manolis Glezos (born 1922). The class struggle is back to the fore. Parliamentary democracy is to be abolished, to be replaced with what, we are not told. This is all the classic line of the old fogey Marxists, particularly the American “internet left”, and strikes even someone of my age as absurdly old-fashioned. Indeed, if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed that Mr Roos was about 70 years old! And then, to a movement that wants more EU and a better EU, he launches, almost verbatim, into the ritualistic American attack on the EU. The Eurozone is on verge of disintegration (yet again!). European leaders carry out the “diktat” of technocrats in Brussels (whom those very leaders appoint and dismiss, and whose salaries the Member States pay!) The same “technocrats” have booted out their employers and installed “unelected banker governments” in their place. And so on. The whole thing reads like the last desperate throw of the dice of the discredited ideologies of the 20th century. Come into the 21st century, Mr Roos. It’s great fun over here!

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Jerome Roos May 13, 2012 at 18:20

Haha, I have absolutely no problem with people criticizing my work — I actually enjoy it quite a lot — but to be honest I have never been faced with such an amusingly misplaced and uninformed critique. First of all, if you had been there, you would have seen that I never read out the text. This is the essay that accompanied the presentation.

Second of all, your analysis of the “defining feature of the current youth protest in Spain” is overly simplistic. While the movement presents itself as ‘beyond left and right’, and while the organizers of Democracia Real YA deliberately do not align themselves with any political party or ideology, the movement itself is profoundly political and profoundly ideological. The people who initiated the occupations of Sol and Placa Catalunya mostly came from the autonomista and anarchist segments of Spain’s well-developed Okupa culture. These are people who have been struggling against capitalism and building their own institutions of direct democracy for most of their active political lives.

The beauty about this movement is not that it is not ideological, but rather that it never presents its ideology in dogmatic terms. Rather, it provides a breath of fresh air by wrapping its class-based contentious politics and systemic critique of capitalism in an inclusive and constructive discourse. This is not a post-political movement — it is a profoundly political movement. What it seeks to do, however, is to move outside of the extant institutions and dominant ideologies of our time, thereby opening up new spaces of political contestation and social creativity.

And so I, as an active member of this movement from the very beginning, somehow follow the classic line of the old Marxists? If I did, that would only imply that the movement as such is not as “post-ideological” as you claim. But clearly your assessment of my own political stance is a few miles off to put it mildly. Indeed, playing the Communist-card is a very funny critique to leverage at someone who aligns himself with the anti-authoritarian/anarchist movement.

Citing brilliant and insightful authors from the past to indicate the fact that our struggle did not arise out of a vacuum (but in fact has deep historical roots) does not constitute an embrace of any particular 20th century ideology. It merely serves to show that our struggle is a continuation of a historical process that began with the emergence of the modern world and the capitalist system; and that many great minds have come before us who understood this process better than most of our contemporary “experts” seem to.

Also, I never said Parliamentary democracy is to be “abolished” — I said it is to be replaced with our own institutions. You say “we are not told” what it is to be replaced with, but if you read carefully you will see a very clear embrace of direct democracy: a leaderless society where decisions are taken collectively and by consensus, where self-organization and horizontally-networked federation bring about spontaneous and organic order, without political parties or representatives to “show us the way”. This is exactly what happened in the people’s assemblies of the occupied squares and parks across the world. If anything, this is “de-dogmatized” anarchist theory applied in practice.

May I inform you, by the way, that the young people in the Greek movement generally consider Manolis Glezos to be a national hero? He enjoys enormous respect among the country’s “post-ideological” youth. Putting him down as a relic of the 20th century is quite a disgraceful thing to write about a 90-year old man who risked his life to fight the German occupation, who lost his younger brother in the process, and who today still stands in the front-lines of Syntagma Square to fight the dictatorship of the markets and the harrowing assault on the Greek people. It is also a very misplaced assessment of the beliefs and allegiances of the Greek movement and the people (young and old) who constitute it.

Finally, your assessment of my stance on Europe is just hilarious. While this may sound arrogant on my part (and I apologize for that in advance), you will be hard-pressed to find someone who believes more firmly in the idea of European unification than I do. I despise borders and do not adhere to any nation or people but those of the world as a whole. My profound sense of indignation with European institutions derives precisely from the obvious fact that the EU today is doing more to destroy the ideal of European unification than to promote it.

The EU as it is undermines not only democratic principles, economic well-being and social solidarity, it is also engaged in a frontal assault on the very principle of popular sovereignty. As it stands, the EU is an elite project that serves the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the European people. Lobbies and banks control the political process and core countries can dictate their preferences upon those in the periphery. To be critical of this lamentable state of affairs is not to be anti-EU or anti-European — it is to defend the very principles upon which European unification was founded.

Please feel free to question and disagree with anything I write, but I do urge you to do some background research before you launch into an ill-informed critique like this one. Thanks for the good laughs though ;)

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Jerome Roos May 13, 2012 at 18:33

On a much-shorter sidenote to my long response: I think your critique is most powerfully disproved by the fact that (so far) noone actively involved in the movement has expressed anything close to your sentiments. Indeed, the response to the speech was very positive — and the essay itself has already been shared widely within the movement.

If you informed yourself a bit more, you might find out that the two most popular slogans in the movement here are: “a-anti-anti-capitalista” (yes, it sounds better when hundreds of thousands scream it in the square) and “que no, que no, que no nos representan”. If this is not an ideological stance against capitalism and representative democracy, I don’t know what is.

Maybe you might have to reconsider some of your own views instead? Your critique, not ours, seems to be stuck in 20th century ideology: the “post-political” ideology of the Third Way. It is precisely the denial of a political program inside this profoundly political line of thought that is such a dangerous subversion of critical consciousness. What you are expressing is exactly the End of History philosophy of Fukuyama and friends.

So please do join us Puerta del Sol, Mr Kenny, it’s not only great fun over here — it’s also truly revolutionary!

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Ron Horn May 14, 2012 at 20:15

Michael Kenny’s diatribe is his usual behavior: he flits around from one website to another looking for any views that undermine his world view which is that of the One Percent. He reminds me of some people I know who long ago sold out to the ruling class because he/she found that doors opened for them and that their careers were advanced. Now when more and more people are questioning this system, he feels very threatened because his better nature is appalled by his life choices.

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Jerome Roos May 15, 2012 at 02:51

Haha, your message just made my day. Thanks Ron!

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dave May 18, 2012 at 07:25

“Ice from a dying creed” MK. Yes, you are correct, class struggle is back–by popular demand. The old obscurantism is working anymore, the old lies fall on deaf ears. The world over the public places throng with market apostates, and the guardians of the old order scramble to keep the straw man of capitalism upright. Here is what the global youth now understand: “As long as we have industrial feudalism, politics will be the shadow cast by commerce over society.”

Why don’t you come and join us in the 21st century MK. The past is beckoning the future hence, pulling it into the light. The end draws near.

[First quote is Joe Strummer of the Clash, the second John Dewey.]

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Jerome Roos May 18, 2012 at 07:28

Beautiful Dave, thanks for that.

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peter storm May 14, 2012 at 04:07

This is a beautiful text, well-written, convincingly argued. It deserves to be spread far and wide, translated, printed as a pamhlet etcetera. It is relevant, both within the movement – whether it be Occupy or any of our sister movements anywhere on earth – for it helps our self-understanding; and within wider circles, because it clarifies a lot about where these movements come from, what they are trying to achieve, and about our challenges for the future. As a blogger, I have the sometimes annoying habit of searching something to strongly disagree with. In this text, my search failed abysmally… And yes, the criticism below the article, and Jerome’s reaction, are bringing good cheer here also :D

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Katie May 14, 2012 at 15:19

I really appreciated your situation of the current political/economic crises within a historically aware, internationally sensitive framework as well as your situation of it in time and space. While I certainly do believe that we need to abolish the hierarchys that drive current social relationships, I think it is also to remember that in non-capitalist societies, there have always been forms of ‘leadership’ and that accepting the knowledge/skill base of others as worth listening to and respecting is important. We DO need an information revolution – we DO need to smash the power/knowledge/discourse triad being forced on us and learn to recognize that there ARE better ways to live and organize. I think that an important step that is getting missed in transitioning to that space of learning is the role of teachers as leaders to help facilitate it. In my humble opinion, an important part of any consensus based future would be learning to listen to and respect the experience of others in situations where our own may not allow us to make informed decisions about how things should be done to start creating that better future. It would also be to accept our own responsibility to learn about all aspects of our societies and the value of informed decision making. While we may not need to let ‘them’ make decisions for ‘us’, we may need to learn to be taught and to teach one another; to be patient in the process and learn that we need to educate one another in order to move forward. There will be times when different people are teachers and learners. Hopefully, we get to a space where we are constantly accepting of teaching and learning.

Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and well informed piece.

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Katie May 14, 2012 at 15:23

wow. There were a lot of typos and spelling mistakes in that response. My apologies for that, I am clearly doing too many things at once. Great article, all the same.

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bezerro May 14, 2012 at 15:38

love this, saying mutch off what i think, better, and given historical feedback, love your guy’s work keap doing it!!

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Leen Karman May 14, 2012 at 22:06

To build a boat, or a satellite, you just have to write down the specs.
But, what are the specs of Utopia?

A utopia está lá no horizonte.
Me aproximo dois passos,
ela se afasta dois passos.
Caminho dez passos e o
horizonte corre dez passos.
Por mais que eu caminhe,
jamais alcançarei.
Para que serve a utopia?
Serve para isso:
para que eu não deixe de caminhar

This poem brings good feelings.
It brings a lot of thinking.
It also makes me thinking of Achilles and the Tortoise.

As Hans Herbert Kogler puts it:

… utopias seem indispensable for motivation. The sense of a better, realizable state of affairs not only gives meaning and significance to critical engagement, but also encourages interest in and hope of achieving real change in political action.

I wish you al the best.

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