I have watched the waves of discontent this winter with fascination and awe. We began late last year with the wave of strikes and protests that washed across many European countries, such as France, Germany, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Italy, Spain et al in response to the austerity measures being imposed on the working class. This year we have seen an incredible wave of protest in the Arab world that aims to topple crony dictatorships all across the region, and protests in the USA, most notably, but not limited to, the Wisconsin battles over the efforts of their governor to strip public sector workers of their rights.
These protests are remarkable for many reasons. Firstly, they represent a genuine unity of the working classes. Organized labour, impoverished workers, students, democracy advocates, practically everyone who is not part of the establishment, has had a part in this. This must be very alarming for the establishment. To paraphrase George Orwell, the rulers hope that the masses will live in ignorance because if they ever work out what is going on and if they unify, all they have to do is shake themselves like a dog and the ruling classes will be scattered like chaff. Despite what the now-Mayor of Tripoli Muammar Qaddafi says, Al-Qaeda are not behind this (a thinly-veiled and ridiculous attempt to win American backing for his doomed regime). Nor is it anarchists or extremists. Those groups simply cannot put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets. This is a mass movement.
The police and the army are autonomous organs, not extensions of the state, and I have also noted instances where the army has refused to turn its guns on protesters, whether en masse as in Egypt, or in isolated incidents as in Libya. The police in Wisconsin have also joined the protesters, disobeying orders to throw them out of the state capitol building. This must be terrifying for the establishment, because as Kaiser Wilhelm II or Tsar Nicholas II could tell you, when you lose control of the police and the army, you've lost power.
Secondly, this is not just a pro-democracy movement, but a working-class movement and a rejection of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Neoliberalism is basically a war that has been waged against the working class by the rich since the late 1970s; a war which they have waged with great success. They have made the great masses of the people poorer, even in the industrialized-democratic world, while they have grown far richer. I think a large part of this wave of protest is the sickening realization of many poor people that they are poorer than they have been in a long time, and that their prospects are worse than they have been in a long time, and the people who have made it so are growing richer and more powerful all the while.
The neoliberals have waged a war against democracy, not only in their efforts to prop up undemocratic but anti-socialist regimes all over the world, but in their efforts to destroy democracy at home. I had a really great professor for an American Politics course who summed it up thus: in theory any American can be President, but in practice you need about six hundred million dollars (and that price tag goes up with every election). You also need to to be upper-class and cisgendered, and great preference is given to white males. Politics across the democratic world have come to be completely dominated by the moneyed classes. It is not surprising, therefore, that they can hijack the democratic process, cutting their own taxes while slashing the tasks government performs for the poor. This is not democracy. Just because you hold elections does not mean you are democratic. Democracy means the rule of the people; are "the people" composed of a few hundred fabulously wealthy white cisgendered males? Are they accurately represented by them? Is it democratic to spend 40 hours a week between the ages of 18 and 65 in miniature autocracies? Is it democratic for the white-male-dominated state to legislate the private space between half of the population and their gynaecologists? Is it democratic for the cisgendered legislature to dictate the private affairs of two non-cisgendered citizens in love? Is this the rule of the people?
Fourth, it amuses me no end that protests have spread to Iraq. It looks like the Iraqi people have no more love for their sham democracy than the Libyans do for Qaddafi, which must be humiliating to Washington given that it spent eight years "building democracy" there. In the end, it looks like the Iraqi people will achieve democracy all on their own, and given events elsewhere in the Arab world, there is no reason to believe that these protests in Iraq would not have been even bigger were Saddam Hussein still in power. Sadly, however, it means that thousands of American/coalition lives, over a hundred thousand Iraqi lives, and an immense amount of treasure have been thrown away for nothing. Hindsight is 20/20, but this entire effort was aimed at (and failed at) achieving something that would have happened anyway.
Lastly, this protest wave has really restored some of my lost hope for humanity. I think it is truly momentous, like 1848 or 1989. Just a few months ago, I was talking to a friend about the prospects of neoliberalism, and we dolefully agreed that for the forseeable future, Margaret Thatcher appeared to be right: there is no alternative. Now, all of a sudden, there is an alternative. The powerful are losing a very major battle in their four-decades-long war against the poor and the downtrodden; that is, if they are not losing the war itself. I really hope that these protests show everybody that they can actually make changes for themselves, that they do not have to accept their miserable lot in life, and that through unified and decisive action they can get back some of what has been stolen from them.
On an aside, I am once again thoroughly disappointed that nothing of this kind is occurring in Canada. To all Canadians, your meekness and myopia sicken me. This is your struggle too. Get out there. Something like 400-500 people showed up in Toronto in support of the Egyptian protesters, which was pathetic. I want to see tens of thousands in Toronto demanding the resignation of Stephen Harper and Rob Ford, the return of the billions of dollars that Bay Street has stolen from them, and a government that works for them and not for the rich. If I see that, you'll see me in the crowd. That's the deal.
I'm not the fellow to provide a good running commentary on these events, but if you are interested in detailed, up-to-date and relatively honest coverage, I recommend MotherJones, Alternet, the Guardian, Informed Comment and Al-Jazeera (English).