This past year was a good one for protest and a bad one for government; 2012 will be a good year for both if our political leaders can figure out the connection.
People took to the streets in 2011, often overthrowing their leaders in the process. This was true in the Arab world, in Russia, in India, in Western Europe, in the United States and even in China. The experts had thought the Arabs were getting richer and were too scared of their autocrats, that the Russians were apathetic and quite liked their neo-czar, that the Indian middle class was politically disengaged, that West Europeans were too old for outrage, that Americans didn’t care about the class divide, and that the Chinese comrades were too effective at suppressing dissent.
But everywhere, the conventional wisdom was turned upside down by people who turned out to be angrier than their elites had suspected, and better able to channel that dissatisfaction into protest and even revolution. There was a surprisingly common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.
The unifying complaint is crony capitalism. That’s a broad term, to be sure, and its bloody Libyan manifestation bears little resemblance to complaints about the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the United States or allegations of corrupt auctions for telecom licences in India. But the notion that the rules of the economic game are rigged to benefit the elites at the expense of the middle class has had remarkable resonance. Could the failure of the experts to anticipate this anger be connected to the fact that the analysts are usually part of the 1 per cent, or at least the 10 per cent, at the top?
The second surprise was how easy it is now to transform mass dissatisfaction into mass protest. The communications revolution, from satellite television to Twitter to camera phones, has made it easier than ever to organize protests and to keep them going.
One of the most provocative ideas of late 2010 – published two months before a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, posted his suicide note on his Facebook wall, and three months before the Egyptian government blocked Twitter in an effort to muzzle its people – was Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that, as the subhead to his October New Yorker essay put it, “the revolution will not be tweeted.”
Mr. Gladwell is sticking to his guns, but others disagree. Consider Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecom billionaire and liberal politician who backed the Tahrir Square demonstrations. When I asked him about the Gladwell theory in a recent public interview, Mr. Sawiris said: “He has no clue what this technology has done to my part of the world. Ninety per cent of the success of this revolution is attributed to it.”
Inside the citadel of the state, meanwhile, 2011 was a veritable annus horribilus. That was especially true for some pretty vile dictators. But even in democracies, government didn’t seem to work very well. Political paralysis was a routine complaint in the world’s richest democracy, and in its biggest democracy; it was the diagnosis in presidential systems and in parliamentary ones. Right-wing governing parties were accused of dysfunction – and so were governments on the left. Some central bankers were attacked for printing too much money; others were criticized for doing too little.
The success of the protesters and the dysfunction of government are the flip sides of one another. They are related in an obvious way: People take to the streets when they think their leaders are doing a poor job. But the widely perceived failure of the state around the world is connected to the effectiveness of the protests in deeper ways, too.
The technological tools that made protesting so much easier may have made governing tougher – informed and empowered individuals are probably harder to boss around than ignorant, isolated ones. More importantly, social activists have embraced the tech revolution more effectively than governments have. It’s time for the state to catch up – and hopefully not by emulating the Chinese comrades with their cyber censorship expertise.
As for crony capitalism, most of the troubled market democracies don’t need a revolution to sweep away their cronies. What they need is a new version of capitalism, designed for the 21st century. That is what the world’s protesters are all asking for. Here’s hoping that 2012 provides some politicians with some answers.