By Dipankar Gupta
Jan 1, 2012,
The headiest feeling, chroniclers and philosophers say, is that of freedom. To live a life without the tyranny of power, the shackles of dogma, the shadow of corruption and the stench of inertia. The year gone by saw teeming masses of the ruled raise an angry fist at cruel despots, avaricious money-makers and indolent rulers. Sunday Times brings you stories and perspectives from across the world on 2011 - a remarkable year that saw the rise of the common folks, the fall of dictatorships and the beginning of protest as ideology.
In 2011 the Fear of the Greater Evil magically left us. This, to a large extent, explains the worldwide rise o f p rotests against regimes and governments in the past year. What spooked us earlier seems so amusing now. Ideology hung grey and ominous then, providing the right kind of atmospherics to our frightened state of mind.
So much has changed in just one year!
Till recently, potentates thrived in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia for it was feared that barking mad mullahs would otherwise overrun Israel. As long as that scene brought out a scream, the West let Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi rule the Middle East. It was as if they could cure everything in that region, from an oil shock to a snake bite. Tunisia and Tahrir Square switched on the lights and chased the ghosts away, but unlike in the past, the US, this time around, did not blow a fuse.
There was dissent in Israel, too, and that surprised the world. Those who routinely fell for the scare that attacking Zionism was tantamount to supporting Nazism and denying the Holocaust, protested in their thousands in Palestine. With banners unfurled, they came out in the open demanding jobs and just governance. They also stood together, not as Arabs and Jews, but as Israelis. This new-found public mood laid another fear to rest.
That the Israeli uprising should shamelessly copy what happened in Tunisia and Tahrir Square embarrassed the Knesset no end. The "Good Life Revolution", as the dissenters called it, openly acknowledged the Arab Spring. It began with just 150 angry Israelis pitching tents in Tel Aviv's fashionable Rothschild Avenue. By September 3, about 400,000 people, roughly 5% of Israel's total population, were out on the streets.
Even the once-dangerous cold warriors look like aging gunslingers now. In the past, Soviet Russia used the spectre of the hated capitalists and other thugs to point west and shut out democracy. In the US, it was the old equation of anti-capitalism with Red Russians and other thugs that pointed east. Today, Muscovites and New Yorkers resemble each other because they are both free of the fear of the Greater Evil.
We, in India, had our share of phobias too. Can India stay as one and fend off the avaricious Pakistan? This thought was so fearful that it kept people from demanding a more responsible democracy and even the making of smaller states. Today, regardless of which side one is on - for the Lokpal or against it; for the division of Uttar Pradesh or against it - the worry that India might break up into little pieces does not even surface.
Rothschild Avenue (renamed Tent City by Israeli protesters); Zuccotti Park in New York (the site of Wall Street Occupation); Tahrir Square in Cairo (needs no introduction), and Ramlila Ground in Delhi (we were there) attained iconic status in 2011. Corrupt politicians, dictators and wallet whackers always existed, but movements against them were checked worldwide by the fear of the Greater Evil. This kept protesters indoors, actually under the blanket.
Yet, in 2011, that fear died the death of a thousand cuts. The death of this fear also meant the end of ideology. As long as there was this Greater Evil making faces at us, we could not but hide under ideological wraps. Consequently, communism, capitalism and Zionism did well in the old days. Each of them, face up, was frightening enough, and when they were flipped over, the other side was equally awesome.
If these ideologies appeared menacing it was because they succeeded in demonizing their enemies. They needed fear to give themselves substance, tone and muscle. Criticize Indira Gandhi on Punjab and the Pakistanis would win; let Fidel Castro survive and communists would land in Florida; funniest of all, support George Bush on Iraq or the world would be destroyed.
If these old bogeys sound ridiculous today it is because the era of the Great Fear is over. Neither Dwight D Eisenhower's domino theory, nor the horrors of Balkanization, nor the belligerence of NATO, nor the fanaticism of the Arabs hushes people into quiet corners. This explains why there is hardly a trace of ideology in any of the protests today. The most recurrent theme in the popular uprisings of 2011 was the demand for ethical accountability in public affairs.
Compared to the many-splendoured corpus of Communism, Nazism or even straightforward Capitalism, the slogans today appear so trivial. Where is that complete explanation of everything that rival sides once used to sponsor their respective versions of the Greater Evil? Public honesty, delivery of services, and cash on the nail were never, by themselves, the stuff of protests, till 2011 unveiled itself.
There were sporadic expressions of this kind earlier, but never in such a conjoint fashion.
Falling oil prices, failed banks, joblessness or public loot would have woven intricate ideologies in the past. Today, without the fear of the Greater Evil, what unites people the world over is the call for clean governance. Ideologies no longer occupy the high moral ground for the mood today is to simplify.
That is why agitators can now make do on anger, hope, and downloaded protest manuals. This is also the reason why their most profound slogans like "Degage (get out) Ben Ali" or "We are the Indignados," or "We are the 99%", or "I am Anna" sound so graffiti-like. Yet these words survived, even inspired, and did not need ideologies to pump them up.
From Russia to India corruption and national honour twinned, taking the Great Fear out of the picture. Whether it was Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, or Daphne Leef, the first tent pitcher in Tel Aviv, Anna Hazare at Ramlila Ground or David Graeber in Zuccotti Park, the tendency around the world was to get to the basics. The demands everywhere were the same: clean governance and transparent justice. This, they believed, would bring jobs and social equity.
How and why the fears of the Greater Evil receded in 2011 is hard to tell. But it took guts to take that first step and call that bluff, and millions did. The masses were often led by little people whose lives were too unremarkable to either register or envy. In Tunisia it was a desperate pushcart vendor; in Tel Aviv an oustee; in Egypt, a down-andout computer hacker; an unhappy editor in the US; and a 74-year-old social activist in India. It is hard to get more ordinary than that.
Even so, it is not as if these protesters had identical interests across continents. In the Middle East, the cry was for a change of regime and for a total overhaul of the system. Dictators had to go to let in democracy and the present had to make way for something entirely new. Ordinary people led the charge, but they were now asking for extraordinary things.
In many instances this brought about unlikely coalitions between liberals and Islamic activists, but it was a united struggle for a pointed cause. If and when that was achieved there would be fresh contests, most intensely perhaps between present friends. Even so, that would be preferable to the current political dispensation. It was just too awful to share the same century with the likes of Ben Ali, Basharal Assad and Gaddafi. Islamic Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Liberals may trade blows in Egypt today, yet Tahrir Square belonged to all of them against Mubarak. Scenarios of this kind were played out in different countries. But what unites these potential rivals is that the present system is repugnant and must go. Nobody quite knows what it should be replaced with, but that bit of detail was not stopping them now.
On the other hand, in the democratic world the protests are aimed at refinement, not replacement. Even though the demands sound similar, there is this difference between protests in the Middle East and elsewhere. The present does not have to be uprooted, but needs to be put in order. In this case, it is not as if they want to overthrow a dictatorship for a democracy, or move from socialism to capitalism.
In neither US, Spain, Greece or India is the swirling public against universal franchise or private entrepreneurship. Instead, there is this pressing demand in all these places for an ethical delivery of the existing system. Why have capitalism and the free market gone wrong? They had promised efficiency and rewards based on merit and hard work, but just the opposite was happening. It is this open sore that is hurting in the town square.
It is hard to explain the lifestyle differences between those who work and those who play either the stock market, or golf, or both. The surreal picture of James Cayne, boss of Bear Sterns, swinging his club at the Hollywood Golf Course, New Jersey, even as his company was sinking in 2007, is hard to forget. In fact, his score remained consistently high through the entire crisis period that ruined hundreds of petty investors.
Yet when the judges hold up the scorecards, neither socialism nor dictatorships qualify. What the world has seen in terms of communist rule is hardly an act worth emulating. Given the rogues out there, even the thought of a benign dictator is repulsive. As utopias of the Left and Right have lost their shine, the only way open is to force the given system to deliver. That is what motivated protests in 2011.
Utopia would have been a good option if the fear of the Great Evil still prevailed. An imaginary threat produces an imaginary solution. In 2011, though, the threats were live, palpable and lived in. This made utopias unrealistic too. While there were no easy fixes, what was clear was a determination to make systems live up to their job descriptions. But if the state stays insensitive, should people go home and take a shower or spray-paint themselves with a brand new ideology?
This is where the dilemma lies and we in India see it close up as 2011 draws to a close. In the wrangling over the Lokpal Bill, there is a clear attraction in getting ideological, but mass sentiment still hesitates to go down that road. As the fear of the Greater Evil has been put away, the political/ideological route has lost its charisma. Even in a non-performing democratic state, people would prefer a one-point agitation to a multi-pronged political and ideological programme.
Anna Hazare has learnt this lesson, but not before he made a mess of himself and the cause he stood for. Well before the fiasco of the failed fast in Mumbai in December, Anna was already losing his touch. In fact, it began in Delhi as the agitation was drawing to a close in August 2011. Though the fast had made him weak, the vast numbers made him heady.
In his concluding speech in the Ramlila Ground that morning, Anna made his first big mistake. He announced to the crowd that his cause had now grown beyond Lokpal to include the right to reject and recall. He also advised the gathered multitude on how to be like Anna, like himself. Anna had suddenly turned political and a hero in his own eyes. His decline began that morning, right then, at that very moment, in the Ramlila Ground.
He was now no longer the ordinary man, the man outside the political class, the person who was so much like us, only slightly better. His advocacy of things beyond Lokpal and his willingness to campaign in elections took him further away from those who once admired him. It was for his simple ways and his one-point programme that people looked up to him. Post-Ramlila Ground, they saw another Hazare.
The world might learn at India's expense. Never give in to ideologues and politicians if you have a good single-issue, nonpolitical protest going. Make concessions to that when you are on a high and it will not take long to hit rock bottom. Today, Anna and his team look sadly into TV cameras as if property sharks had cheated them out of a deal. In truth, they are themselves to blame for raising their value artificially.
Granted, it is not easy to keep an even keel when the feel of mass adulation and the heat of success are so immediate, touchy and feely. But when a good movement goes wrong, the world stands to lose. The Lokpal Bill is back in cold storage and the next time somebody sprays anti-freeze on it, this fight of 2011 will have been more or less forgotten.
Ideologies did well in the past because there were Great Evils to tilt at. Now we know that our targets are only people with feet of clay and we do not need a mahatma, or a manifesto, to turn things around. When we are not stricken by the fear of the unknown why do we need great leaders and fiery programmes? When the fear of the Greater Evil died, it took down ideologies as well.
This is why 2011 spelt success wherever ordinary people stayed ordinary and pushed as one for a single cause.
Dipankar Gupta is former professor of sociology at JNU
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi