By Nicholas Pell · 19 Mar 2012
What a difference a year makes. It's hard to believe that this time in 2011, the world was abuzz over the Arab Spring. Flying in the face of the "death of history" narrative, the Arab Spring shocked the world by overturning some of its most entrenched authoritarian governments. Soon after, Occupy Wall Street became the American protest movement, both inspired by actions in the Arab world, as well as urging young Arabs on to further action. It seems pretty safe to say that the 21st century will definitely be interesting times; the protest movements have little sign of letting up any time soon. Revolutions and uprisings spread like wildfire once they reach critical mass. Here are five places to look for social unrest, mass protests and perhaps even another Bastille Day.
China is often thought of as a place where politics don't play much of a role. The nation's political leaders are chosen by a tightly controlled process wholly owned by the Chinese Communist Party. However, cracks within the façade of order are difficult to completely ignore. Remember that this country was home to the Tiananmen Square uprising. Rather than being peacefully dispersed, many in the uprising gave their lives to fight Stalinist tyranny.
It's been over 20 years since those days, but the Chinese have not been quite so quiet as the Western media would have you believe. The Protests of Wukan, during which thousands of rural Chinese citizens responded to the Chinese Communist Party selling land to developers without compensating farmers, are only the most obvious example of Chinese taking to the streets and demanding real and lasting social change in their country. While Chinese workers de facto do not have the right to strike, this hasn't prevented them from engaging in militant labor action without government sanction. Remember just how high the stakes are for Chinese workers on strike. The Chinese remember. And they don't care. When it's time to fight, it's time to fight.
The PRC is a particularly unstable powder keg because of the power of shattered expectations. When you believe you live in a country where the workers own everything in common and the economy is planned for your benefit, it's easy to become disillusioned... especially when that's patently not the case. Further, as a cheap labor platform for international capitalism, China is a particularly volatile environment, politically speaking. This is a country where workers commit suicide rather than submitting to another 18-hour shift of making iPods. Add history of being unable to go 25 years without a massive uprising and you have a formula for social unrest.
2. PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain)
In the European Union, four countries deemed "PIGS" are often used as scapegoats for the economic woes of an entire continent: Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Greece has, of course, been getting the most press. In Greece, we see a place with enormous amounts of social pressure coming from the working class, with no real outlet. Action against the government is tightly controlled by the official labor unions and leftist parties, acting more as a pressure valve than anything. This pressure can only build so much until it explodes. One wonders how many one-day strikes and job actions it will take before the labor movement unleashes itself from the control of PASOK and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE).
The 20th-century history of the country bears mentioning as well: Greece was home to one of the first hot conflicts during the Cold War, the Greek Civil War, which pitted partisans and supporters of the KKE against monarchists. The victory of the monarchists laid seeds for the Regime of the Colonels, a virulently anti-communist junta that ruled the country for the better part of the decade.
The rest of the PIGS countries aren't much different. All have a relatively recent history of authoritarian governments and a deep history of militant labor movements. Portugal, Italy and Spain all host large, active and old socialist, communist and anarchist movements. In December 2010, Spain's air traffic controllers went on a strike unauthorized by union officials. The strike was later broken by forcing the workers back to the towers at bayonet point. As the European sovereign debt crisis shows no signs of abating and these four countries are made austerity scapegoats for the continent, expect more and more pushback from workers suffering from increased costs for social services and decreased wages and services.
True story: The Egyptian revolution never really ended. While the daily media coverage began tapering off when Hosni Mubarak resigned and the military junta took over, the people of Egypt never stopped taking to the streets. Not a month has gone by since January 2011 that didn't have the people of Egypt engaged in mass protest against the regime, be it that of Hosni Mubarak or a multi-party coalition government of national unity.
Egypt should be on everyone's watch list for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, the Egyptian people are buoyed with confidence. They successfully brought down one of the most entrenched single-party states in the world. Originally slated to rule for six months, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces has now ruled for over a year. Egyptian workers haven't simply returned to their homes because SCAF has assured them that everything is fine. Further, both far-left parties (such as the Revolutionary Socialists, affiliated internationally with the International Socialist Organization) and Islamist parties (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) have discredited themselves by working together uncritically and within the framework of SCAF. This leaves no one for the Egyptian public to get behind, except for themselves.
The Egyptian people have shown themselves unafraid of a fight. Mubarak is gone. The left parties collaborate with religious parties and a military junta. Eventually something has to give. Get ready to be glued to your television for daily updates from Egypt soon. The next round of protests will likely include an increased militancy, a deep distrust of the armed forces and a more sharply revolutionary rhetoric. More than anywhere else, the people of Egypt know they can't rely on anyone but themselves.
4. United Kingdom
It really wasn't all that long ago that the United Kingdom exploded in protests and riots against increased student tuition and fees. The UK is the model for the European welfare state. As such, people in the UK have a certain expectation about what services the government should provide. When college tuitions increased dramatically, student debt mounted and jobs were scarce to nonexistent (sound familiar, recent American college grads?), British youth took to the streets with a big assist from labor.
Since then, the UK has been home to one of the most vibrant Occupy movements outside of the United States. Combine this with a culture of state repression and you have a truly volatile political cocktail. Often spoken of in terms like America -- i.e. an allegedly "lazy and apolitical" population -- the UK (and Egypt, for that matter) show just how quickly things can change in even very conservative countries.
But don't take my word for it: Britain's domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is taking the possibility of an uprising in the UK very seriously. "New Labour" has long been viewed with suspicion and distrust by working-class Britons. Many disillusioned voters opted for the Liberal Democrats in the last election, hoping to push a "LabLib" coalition to the left. Instead, the LibDems blocked with the Tories and did nothing to prevent a program of austerity and repression. A new election will provide little relief. Wait for the Olympics to start and see what happens. The pressure of shutting the city down might well be the last straw.
5. United States
The United States has, since World War II, been considered an incredibly stable, mostly apolitical and conservative country -- the last place anyone would predict an uprising. However, this is a myopic and potted vision of United States history. America takes a backseat to no other country when it comes to radicalism.
International Workers Day (May Day) originally began in the United States, centered around the struggle for an eight-hour day. Further, the United States has been home to the most famous and influential form of resistance this side of the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement. What started on Wall Street has spread throughout the entire country, with Occupy movements everywhere from Oakland to Boston and in between. While there has been a decreased interest on the part of the media, the Occupy movement has been engaged in pitched battles for the better part of a year now, most notably in Oakland.
In a country where the recession shows no sign of abating and the Democratic Party continues to cave on everything from the debt ceiling to access to birth control, another election will provide little in the way of relief for the pressure. In fact, it's entirely plausible that a second Obama administration coupled with a Democratic-controlled Senate and House could lead to more unrest. People will expect more from such a political structure, though there are no indicators that any of the demands of the Occupy movement (in as much as the diffuse and autonomous movement has a unified set of demands) can or will be met by a new administration. Targeting this group for votes could just be kicking a hornets nest -- does anyone really think people won't notice that the lip service and platitudes weren't delivered on?
The Way Forward
Generic uprisings have one problem: Stomping your feet and breaking your toys generally doesn't amount to much. It might relieve some pressure in the short term, or it might just be picking at a wound to the point of infection. What's needed in every case is a political and historical analysis that absorbs the lessons of past struggles while providing a perspective for future victories. There's little doubt that the current working-class upsurge is throwing up leaders. The question is, will they be heard?