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The age of dissent

Why are people resorting to street politics across the globe?

Last updated: 11 Feb 2014 09:46
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.
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Demonstrations have significantly increased globally over the past 20 years [EPA]

In 2012, after the beginnings of the Arab revolutions, Paul Mason, editor at BBC's Newsnight programme, wrote a book called "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere - The New Global Revolutions". Mason pointed out that social neworks, a newfound sense of self-reliance, and a disjuncture between the young and an old political order are ushering in a new age of discontent.

He may well be right. Today, while the Arab world continues with its political somersaults, the street in Thailand, Ukraine, Brazil and Turkey and elsewhere is alive with protest. Foreign Policy magazine has put together a  timeline highlighting that demonstrations have indeed significantly increased globally over the past 20 years.

Why are people going out on the street to address their woes? It's an act of courage and determination that can land you in jail, one far more difficult than simply casting a vote in the ballot box. What has changed?

The internet is certainly everyone's favourite cause. We are better informed, more aware of inequalities due to globalisation, as well as the shady complicity of our leaders. Smart phones and computers have also accelerated and improved organisational capacity, and middle classes have risen in many countries, along with their related demands. As a result, average folk are haunted by the stark possibility that the state can no longer provide for their material and emotional needs; employment and a sense of dignity and empowerment are all under serious threat.

Gaps fuel discontent

The gaps fuelling this discontent are many. Global processes handicap national economic decision-making; elites, with vested interests and vested friends, are increasingly distant in terms of dollars and discourse from their fellow citizens. Tech-savvy new generations seek a different future than older folks who seek calm and stability in their twilight years. These many gaps add up to a new tower of Babel, humans speaking new incomprehensible languages, and making even more incomprehesible demands of each other - a grand cacophony refreshed every minute by the worldwideweb. However, nature abhors a vacuum: Enter the citizen taking to the street to fill the gap.

These many gaps add up to a new tower of Babel, humans speaking new incomprehensible languages, and making even more incomprehesible demands of each other - a grand cacophony refreshed every minute by the worldwideweb.

Indeed, the resort to the street is alluring: "At least I'm doing something", fighting oppression and for a future on the front line with thousands of others. In the open, pursuing a just cause, vulnerable to the threat of tear gas or the crush of police batons, the street offers a space for meaning and personal empowerment, as well as an adrenaline kick from their action. This is powerfully motivating stuff that temporarily trumps a lack of a clear programme.

The Ancient Greeks had the Agora, we have Tahrir Square, Gezi Park and Bangkok's streets. The former was a place of gathering, the latter is one of confontations between political poles aimed at delivering knock out blows. Meanwhile, governments have little idea what to do with this living Stuxnet disrupting their streets and public spaces. In Thailand, the protests have managed to disrupt electoral process; in Ukraine, as elsewhere, the legitimacy of rulers is in deep question.

The first instinct of governments is to dismiss the protests, the second is to confront, the third to negotiate and compromise. If none of the above works, and the movement is not crushed or temporarily bought off, some rulers may find themselves in jail - or in Saudi Arabia.

Sadly, the problem may be deeper than it looks. As the Arab world is finding, the street-demo or change in government is quickly overcome by old interests, and some persistent older habits. Furthermore, if and when the youth take over, who is to say that, despite their undeniable pragmatism, old human habits, such as greed and tribal attachments, won't still be as active in them as in Grandpa? The shocking answer may well be that all the actors in the play, not just ruler and structures, will have to undergo significant change.

A new world, a new mind

In 1989, an American psychiatrist and an American demographer, Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, wrote a book with the exciting title, "New World, New Mind". They suggested that we have managed to create a "new world" full of technological wonders and bounty, but we run it from a very old (read prehistoric) mind. This mentality was made to fight the sabre tooth tiger not run the United Nations. It's dramatic, short term and prone to severe inflamation. It goes rapidly to sleep when faced with less perceptible change. Simply put, our old mind loves the excitement that technology and street protests offer - while we snore through the solutions to climate change.

Those who see gaps are right. We are operating with 19th century political systems designed for an industrial not an information age. Meanwhile, global networks of technology and transporation performed a sweeping encircling manoeuvre around the old systems - checkmate. National governments cannot fix the problems, and state bureaucracies turn round and round as slowly as giant ferris wheels, while the street smashes the door down demanding something new.

The fixes will require a massive and new degree of cooperation. That, in turn, requires not just information networks, but basic changes in human behaviour. Hard as it may be to fathom, ruler and ruled, elite and protestor, young and old share the same problem: A dramatic short-term mind, greed, and overattachment to tribe and nation, all intercepting positive change.

The good news is that we do contain an undiscovered attitude, one more multidimensional and subtle. This space is capable of responding to global problems through innovation and cooperation, i.e. it is made to manage the crazy world that we have built. There are solutions to Egyptians' economic problems and food supplies, and even to Syria's political mayhem. They lie in getting a firm grip on our basic drives, such as greed and tribalism, which are often masked as fancy political discourse.

Politicians - at least the old politicians - will not be happy delivering this tough news to publics (Spend less? Expect less? Give up more? Think of your neighbour?). But the real politician-leaders will help us align to these realities, and base political decisions firmly on them, while maintaining whatever of the old that is useful.

The human gap does not lie between the street and the palace, but between monumental greed and tribal/national thinking (exciting as both may be) on one hand, and the urgent need for greater cooperation (and less consumption) on the other. The gap lies in our misadaptation to the very world we have created, and the solution lies there too: In the shift that can handle this new and complicated world.

Tall order? The complexities require it, and the first step is the awareness of the need.

Until then, the protests will continue, and, over the coming 20 years, today's many white blips on the timeline may just accelerate into a wall-to-wall white heat.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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