Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steve Walt on Occupy Walt Street and the democratic moment of 2011

Steve Walt seems to think we're experiencing a very significant manifestation of what Jerry Brown calls a "democratic moment". In Riding the wave of discontent Foreign Policy 10/18/2011, he's ready to declare this something like a world-historical moment, though he doesn't use that exact term. And this from a guy who is so cautious he doubted the Tunisia protests that kicked off the Arab Awakening would spread outside Tunisia's borders! (Unlike a lot of other foreign policy honchos, he quickly acknowledge his mistake.)

Speaking of the current state of information technology, he writes that it:

... allows events and ideas to spread much more quickly. As a result, demonstrators in Cairo can watch what's happening in Tunis and imitate it, and then other people in other countries get the idea that protest can be effective, even if their particular grievances are somewhat different. And so it spreads, as the radical idea of ordinary people taking action against the seemingly impregnable becomes increasingly contagious. Plus, each group can learn from each other and feed off the sense of being part of a larger process, instead of feeling like isolated and powerless individuals with scant hope of success. This sort of thing has happened before in world history (e.g., in 1789, 1848, 1919, 1989, etc.), but never in so many far-flung and widely different contexts.
He's a tad inconsistent on his historical comparisons, earlier including 1968 among them: " This wave of political contagion is more widespread than the "velvet revolutions" of 1989 (though not yet as significant), and perhaps the nearest analogue would be wave of youth-revolutions and upheavals that occurred back in 1968."

One of the historical problems/issues around the worldwide protests in 1968 is what was it that made them such a global phenomenon, affected so many different countries. Norbert Frei in 1968.Jugendrevolte und globaler Protest (2008) gives this question quite a bit of attention, without coming to a firm conclusion. I hope I'll be around in 40 years to look back and wonder why things happened the way they are happening in 2011. Hegel's famous metaphor for his view that we could only understand the real significance of historical periods only when they were passing from the scene is a reminder of our limitations of fully appreciating what's happening before our eyes: "When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in."

So I don't know if the Owl of Minerva has taken wing yet on whatever this is that's happening. But Steve Walt is pretty impressed:

There is, of course, a deeper taproot to all this. As my colleague Jenny Mansbridge reminded me in a superb talk I attended last week, (and which will be published next month in PS), the present combination of economic inequality and political gridlock is fatal to the proper functioning of democratic orders. In a capitalist democracy, corporate interests tend to be wealthier than the rest of society, and the state is the only actor powerful enough to intervene to prevent corporate interests from going too far and exploiting their position. This is what happened in the Gilded Age and again in the Roaring 20s, which eventually led to the Progressive Era and later the New Deal.

But if the political system is gridlocked, then the state cannot act quickly or decisively to retard corporate power. Even worse, as corporate interests grow stronger they tend to acquire greater political power (and especially when a tame Supreme Court helps them, as it did in the Citizens United decision). Instead of just hamstringing the state, corporate interests can get it to enact laws that favor them even more. The result will be rising economic inequality and precisely the sort of irresponsible and unregulated behavior that led to the Great Recession of 2007.

Put these three things together, and you have a recipe for global protests in very different countries. Despite the many differences between conditions in the United States, in Greece, in Egypt, in Syria, in Israel, or elsewhere, what unites the 2011 wave of global protest is the shared belief that the People in Charge do not know what they are doing, care more about their own wealth and well-being than they do about the common weal, or are simply too spineless and shallow to do what at least a few of them secretly know to be right.
That Citizen's United decision, one of the worst and most irresponsible in the history of the Supreme Court (right up there with Dred Scott and Bush v. Gore), really may turn out to be a legal decision that contributes greatly to a major political turning point, just as Bush v. Gore should have been.

I don't remember the last time I saw anything about our Democratic President Barack Obama mentioning the Citizen's United. But if he thought it was the menace to democracy that this guy did, he would be raising hell about it constantly:

Wow! He really calls the seriousness of this ruling out:

This ruling strikes at our democracy itself.

I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest.

Wouldn't it be great to have a guy like that for President?

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