|'Thank you... Egyptian youth of Facebook,' Social media helped connect many of the youth activists who led fellow citizens - including the army - in uprising and revolution [GALLO/GETTY]
In mid-February, the week after Hosni Mubarak was driven from office by the Egyptian Revolution, unprecedented demonstrations erupted in the state of Wisconsin opposing the efforts of the newly elected Republican governor to destroy the organising power of public employee unions. Although the specific causes were significantly different, the underlying logic of the people rising up against powerful anti-democratic elites made for more than just a superficial resemblance between Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the capitol building and its environs in Madison, Wisconsin.
They were unique, yet related events, like the differing national expressions of waves of protest and revolution that swept Europe in 1848, or that wrapped around the world in 1968. These recurrent world-historical waves represent a prolonged struggle to realise a more just, egalitarian world - a yearning that crosses all manner of cultural boundaries, though it finds unique expression wherever it arises.
The pattern of these past waves was similar. Initially, an invigorating sense of unity in striving against the dead hand of the past brought together many different groups accustomed to seeing themselves as distinct. But within a few weeks or months, conservative forces counter-mobilised and found ways to play different groups off against one another, as the initial sense of unity faded in the face of difficult nuts-and-bolts questions of how to build something new.
Yet, despite the apparent defeat of these waves of revolution, they had profound effects, altering the very sense of the possible - even if it wasn't immediately obvious how to make the possible into the real. For example, demonstrations on both sides of the Iron Curtain in 1968 foreshadowed the decades-long development of movements that helped bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. The Western European peace movement and the Eastern European civil society movement gave significant support to one another, starting simply with their very existence and shared inspiration. Movements for the environment, gender equality and human rights also came to span the globe in the decades following 1968, eventually even gaining conservative support for some version of their aspirations.
The story of 1848 was similar. When Otto von Bismarck - one of Europe's leading conservatives of the 19th century - became the architect of Germany's welfare state in the 1880s, he did it in part to co-opt support for the socialist-oriented Social Democratic Party. Yet, that very act of co-option was itself an acknowledgment of how 1848 had profoundly changed the world.
The current wave of revolutionary protest, intensely focused in the Arab world, but which echoes from Iran to Spain to the US, shows signs of similar dynamics, though they play out very differently in different situations. One crucial difference from 1848 and 1968 is the role of social media, which gives bottom-up egalitarians a better footing for sustained organising. It remains to be seen how effective this will prove to be, but at the very least there is a vastly increased potential to sustain a broadly-shared sense of what a very different world could look like.
The Egyptian "Facebook Generation" was able to drive events in January and February, drawing everyone else along with them - even including the army. But even as those events were unfolding, it was well understood that getting rid of Mubarak and building something new were two very different things - as the late May demonstration in Tahrir Square reminded us again.
Things are very different in and around the Euro-US economic core, and the reason for that largely hinges on how the draconian practices of neo-liberal economics - forced onto the global south in the 1980s and 1990s - have finally come home to roost in the neo-imperial heartland.
Both the Egyptian Revolution and its Wisconsin echo resulted, to different degrees, from the catastrophic failure of the global neo-liberal order in the financial crisis of late 2008, and the followup efforts to save those responsible for the crash, rather than those victimised by it. The same is also true of Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, as well as in Spain, where the "Real Democracy Now!" movement has brought strikingly similar mass demonstrations onto the European continent.
Of course there are many more contributing causes for the Arab Spring - the story is set simpler in the West. But the explosion of Arab Spring can be seen as a more compressed and complicated version of Latin America's decade-long realignment away from neo-liberalism and US hegemony.
The neo-liberal backstory
In order to better understand how Spain and Wisconsin differ from Egypt and Tunisia, we need to reflect on the decades-long struggle between neo-liberalism and welfare-state economics around the globe. That's because the financial crash was a virtually inevitable outcome of decades-long practices preceding it, among them, the spread of the neo-liberal "Washington Consensus" that reordered the world economy after the collapse of the original Bretton Woods system amid the twin oil shocks of the 1970s.
That system, constructed following the Great Depression and World War II, had recognised the necessity for elites to accept the democratically popular welfare state to address social needs that the market had failed to meet during the 1930s, and which helped pave the way for war. Yet, it was primarily a system for maintaining Euro-US hegemony. When Iran tried to nationalise its oil in 1953 and Guatemala tried to establish its own New Deal-style welfare state in 1954, CIA operations were used to overthrow both democratically elected governments and replace them with dictatorships, in order to "defend freedom" as defined by the US during the Cold War.
Still, more modest forms of state welfare - food subsidies, public education and health programs et cetera - were accepted as normal costs of limiting mass unrest throughout "the Third World", as it was then called. But all this changed with the shift to the neo-liberal order that began in the 1970s. As explained in the 1988 book, The Debt Squads, by Sue Branford and Bernardo Kucinski: "The industrial centre transferred the oil bill to the periphery through dollar inflation, the deepening of the recession, and an increase in interest rates."
This in turn established the pre-conditions for imposing increasingly severe "structural adjustment policies" throughout the 1980s, primarily through the IMF and the World Bank, forcing countries throughout the global south to slash social investments and adopt neo-liberal economic policies. A pattern that has finally come hit home in the US itself, as Washington turned its back on efforts to restore normal levels of employment, and fixated on destroying America's welfare state - ostensibly in order to save it. Similar pressures are at work in Europe as well, with the European periphery - Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland - facing the most severe attacks.
In 2001, the Center for Economic Policy Research published a report: "The Scorecard on Globalization 1980-2000: Twenty Years of Diminished Progress." It analysed data on economic growth and various social indicators - life expectancy, mortality among infants, children, and adults, literacy, and education - grouping the countries by income quintile. It found that: "For economic growth and almost all of the other indicators, the last 20 years have shown a very clear decline in progress as compared with the previous two decades."
A follow-up report in 2005 reached similar conclusions, comparing the previous 25 years to the 20 years before that. But a third report issued earlier this year showed that things had actually improved over the past decade. "For all except the top quintile of countries – ie for the vast majority of low- and middle-income countries, there was a sharp rebound to the growth rates of the 1960-1980 period during 2000-2010." The report cited widespread rejection of failed neo-liberal policies as one reason for the turnaround. IMF influence rebounded somewhat after the world economic downturn, but most of its influence was "in Europe, especially Eastern Europe and the weaker Eurozone countries (Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Greece)," rather than Asia, Latin America and Africa - regions of the world that have recovered more rapidly than Europe and the US, though there are obvious exceptions, and inequalities within countries, as seen in Tunisia and Egypt, for example.
Underlying these particulars is a perpetual clash between the ideological promise of free market rhetoric, and the recurrent reality of oligopolies, oligarchs, crony capitalists and the like who manage to thrive, even dominate, in the name of freedom. First Britain, then the US, have dominated the world for two centuries under this peculiar banner of "freedom" that gives license to the most predatory forms of capitalism.
Abandoning the abandoners?
Throughout the world, but especially in Europe and the US , so-called "left" parties have largely accepted the neo-liberal rhetoric over the past two decades, even while maintaining a theoretical commitment to social and economic justice to distinguish themselves from parties of the right. This is why Spain saw massive demonstrations against the policies of the "socialist" government they had previously helped elect. It's also why more than a million voters stayed at home, allowing massive conservative gains in the recent elections - a phenomena quite similar to that which happened in the US in November.
The situation in the US is more complicated than in Spain, because many state-level Democrats - particularly in states such as Wisconsin - remain much more closely aligned with their electoral base. But it was remarkable how relatively little attention national Democrats paid to the massive Wisconsin uprising against Republican attempts to break public unions. National Republicans were far more attentive, because their state and federal policies were much more closely aligned.
This was seen again following a special election in New York, where Democrat Kathy Hochul won in an overwhelmingly Republican district, capitalising on the Republican House vote for the "Ryan Plan" to end Medicare as a social insurance program. Some commentators immediately noted that close to half the Republican House seats could be in play in 2012 - roughly four times the number needed for Democrats to re-take the majority.
But since then, President Obama and other Democrats have blurred the razor-sharp distinction Hochul drew by prominently discussing so-called "entitlement reform" with Republicans who continue to push the Ryan Plan. Any such compromise will seriously blunt any attacks on Republicans, while alienating their own base, as happened with the Spanish Socialists.
While much of the Arab world now clearly sees Obama siding against the forces of progressive change, particularly on the issue of Palestine, Americans remain remarkably confused, partly due to the depth of right-wing hatred. Even after the release of Obama's long-form birth certificate, a new poll of Iowa Republicans found that a majority of Republicans still aren't convinced Obama is a natural-born citizen - legally entitled to be president. With over-the-top opposition, it's difficult for a relatively disengaged public to see Obama as anything other than the complete opposite of those attacking him, even though his free-market ideology makes them remarkable similar.
Demonstrations such as those in Wisconsin can change this, however. They not only grab people's attention, and provide information about what politicians stand for, they help make politics matter to people. They draw lines in the sand. So far, Obama's response has been to stay away, to avoid being forced to make his position clear. He also tried to do this with the Arab world in his recent speech responding to the Arab Spring. But the Arab world is not so easily fooled.
Obama, however, is just one political figure, reflecting the more general state of US politics - particularly elite opinion and major economic interests. His ambivalence is, in this sense, an expression of America's fading power. Obama's belated attempts to play catch-up with the Arab Spring are but one facet of a more general loss of previous dominance.
But the true revolution is not to replace US power with another, similar false prophet of "freedom" defined by the marketplace alone. The true revolution is to make the marketplace the servant of humanity's dreams, rather than their master. This is the cause that Mohamed Bouazizi sacrificed his life for. It is the reason that his spirit lives, not just in Tunisia, but across the Arab world and around the entire globe - even in Madison, Wisconsin.
Not yet in Washington, DC, perhaps. But if 1848 and 1968 are any guide, that could certainly change within a decade or two. It could change much faster if social media make as big a difference as some believe they might.
Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Length News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.