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The age of activism

The world is convulsed in protest. In recent months, people have filled the streets in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa, and many parts of the United States. Their targets are local: autocratic leaders, corrupt politicians, and dismal economies. They're not performing acts of global solidarity. Nor has there been an outbreak of some protest virus. These demonstrations are responding to specific conditions. Tunisia isn't Bahrain. Croatia isn't Burkina Faso. Madison, Wisconsin isn't Frankfort, Kentucky.

Yet, I am an inveterate lumper – and only a half-hearted splitter – so I feel compelled to connect the dots between these disparate events in an attempt to delineate our era, to name our moment. In four magisterial works, the historian Eric Hobsbawm divided 200 years of modern history into the Age of Empire (1789-1848), the Age of Revolution (1848-1875), the Age of Capital (1875-1914), and the Age of Extremes (1914-1991).  The period after 1992 so far remains nameless.

Let me rashly and prematurely propose a name for our era: the Age of Activism. Here’s a preliminary sketch for a history of the age in which we are currently immersed, as well as a diagnosis of where this activism is heading.

In the early 1990s, the decay of Cold War structures that kept the Age of Extremes in place gave rise to new possibilities for national transformations in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and Latin America as well as activism on a regional and global level. A Europe-wide movement came together to support a united, peaceful, and Green continent. Activists launched similar efforts in Asia, North Africa, and Latin America. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies began to construct a "new world order" based on the expansion of multilateral and bilateral military alliances, the free flow of capital, and the management of the new global economy by a trio of organizations (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization).

The fall of the Berlin Wall, in other words, was to lead to the fall of all the smaller walls that prevented the free flow of goods, investments, and armaments. But this free flow of trade threatened to increase both global inequality and the divide between rich and poor within countries. To fight this vision of world order, a new anti-globalization movement emerged, breaking into the headlines at the World Trade Organization meeting in the legendary Battle of Seattle of 1999. Throwing sand into the gears of free trade and throwing into question the very foundations of global governance, the movement seemed to gather irreversible momentum in 2001. The first World Social Forum brought activists of all stripes to Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001. In April, protesters blocked the Free Trade Area of the Americas at the third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The preparations to gather in Barcelona in June scared the World Bank into canceling its meeting. The next month, thousands descended on Genoa to protest the G8 meeting.

Everything was building toward September 30, 2001. Activists were planning a giant demonstration with 150,000 people protesting the IMF and World Bank annual meetings. "The IMF and World Bank had rented miles of chain link fence and were planning to fence off dozens of city blocks," recalls John Cavanagh, my colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies. "It was going to be the biggest global justice demonstration to date."

And then came 9/11. And suddenly talk of war eclipsed talk of economics. Activists turned their attention to reining in U.S. foreign and military policy. On February 13, 2003, the largest protests in world history took place around the world in an attempt to forestall the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The effort failed, but it was an important step in the development of global civil society. Governments had failed to outlaw war in the infamous Kellogg-Briand Treaty of 1928. Citizens now stepped in, attempting to put this renunciation of aggressive war into practice.

After eight years of failed policies, the neoconservatives no longer run the show. Responding to pressure from the peace movement, the Obama administration has put a timetable on what had once been wars without end in Afghanistan and Iraq (though the drone war continues unabated in Pakistan and elsewhere). The effort to create large multilateral trade agreements through the World Trade Organization has foundered (thought bilateral treaties have taken their place). It might then be said that activists have scored victories, albeit qualified ones, in the first major engagements of the Age of Activism.

One vector of activism has targeted global institutions (WTO) and senseless bloodshed (the Iraq War). A second vector that included the revolutions of the first decade of the 21st century – Rose (Georgia), Orange (Ukraine), Cedar (Lebanon), Tulip (Kyrgyzstan), Green (Iran) – has focused on national political elites. The current convulsions in the Middle East and elsewhere on the globe are mostly found at the confluence of these two vectors.

To explain this confluence, let's first look at three conventional explanations for the current wave of discontent. According to one school of thought, the protests can ultimately be traced back to economic crisis. Rising food prices caused considerable discontent in Egypt. Limited economic opportunities created enormous frustration in Tunisia. Austerity measures in Greece brought out hundreds of thousands of protestors in a 24-hour strike on February 23. "With youth unemployment hitting 35 percent, young people in Greece see a bleak, jobless future," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Kia Mistilis in The Battle For Greece. "Greeks say a mass exodus is looming, similar to the period following World War II." Economic downturns were also partially responsible for the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1980 and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 in China. Sociologists call this failure of governments to deliver the promised goods a "legitimation crisis."

A second explanation focuses on impunity. Protesters are incensed at the corruption of their ruling elites. In Croatia, where protests have nearly paralyzed the country over the last two weeks, "protesters have focused on the lavish lifestyles of many of Croatia’s politicians," writes FPIF contributor Sabrina Perić in Days of Rage in Croatia. "The discovery last week that former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader received a commission of 3.5 million Croatian kuna in negotiations with the Austrian Hypo Bank has served to consolidate the loose alliances amongst protesters created via newspaper websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, talk on the streets, and phone calls between family members." In China, meanwhile, apartment owners are rising up against the management in their buildings in an effort to create democracy on the ground floor. "This is the same class that occupied Tahrir Square and pushed out Hosni Mubarak, the first generation to have the Internet and the first to think about buying a home, however small," writes Doug Saunders in The Globe and Mail.

Finally, a third theory attributes the spread of discontent to the multiplier effect of new technologies. Photocopiers helped spread dissident ideas in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Faxes were a key part of the Chinese democracy efforts in 1989. And now Twitter and Facebook serve to connect the likeminded – those who want to ogle silly kitty pictures as well as those who want to bring down governments.

But here's another way to look at the current wave of activism that goes beyond economics, transparency, and technology. The fundamental issue is the nature of the state.

In the Age of Activism, protesters aren’t venting rage just at authoritarian governments, like those of Egypt and Tunisia. They’ve gone into the streets against democratic governments in Croatia and Greece and Wisconsin. They protested the Islamic republic of Iran. They’re organizing, if only indirectly, against China's communist government. The modern state has proven woefully ill-suited for dealing with the challenges of the international economy, the worsening environment, or the aspirations of rising classes. The state is letting us down. And we're beginning to sense that a mere rotation of elites, through election or selection, isn't good enough.

Neoliberalism – the creation of a borderless global economy – was one response to the failure of the state to rise to these challenges. Another response was neoconservatism – a last-gasp effort of the United States to retain global power by force. The anti-globalization and anti-war movements have tackled each in turn. The current wave of activism, on the other hand, challenges the state as a vehicle for the enrichment of elites at the expense of the common good – at the local, national, and global levels.

The Age of Activism isn't, of course, all about progressives. There have been tea party activists, radical Islamists, European racists, and ugly populists of all hues. They also use the Internet, dislike economic austerity, and rage against corrupt elites. In Pakistan, supporters of the country’s blasphemy laws have already claimed two victims, Governor Salman Taseer and Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti. "More troubling than the murders is the soft support for – if not outright approval of – the law among the Pakistani public," writes FPIF contributor M. Junaid Levesque-Alam in How to Prevent Pakistani Anarchy. "Lawyers, once hailed by Western media as heroes of Pakistani liberalism, raucously supported the alleged murderer of Taseer."

We can imagine more democratic forms of governance at the global level. Activists are championing sustainability at the local level through community economics. But the real struggle in the Age of Activism is over that middle term, the state. In our era, a laissez-faire state cannot provide justice for the disenfranchised or tackle the major threats of climate change and nuclear proliferation. And our welfare states struggle to deal with the scarcity imposed by ecological and economic limits. We must conjure a different kind of state, which intervenes just enough to subordinate the military and the corporation on behalf of the common good. It must adhere to the principle of subsidiarity by which it performs only those tasks that can't be done effectively at a more local level. And it must be thoroughly transparent to reduce corruption to minimal levels. This is what activists are fighting for in Egypt, in Croatia, in the peace movement, and  the anti-globalization movement.

We must fight hard in our Age of Activism to construct this new political entity: the activist state. This is, literally, a do-or-die situation. If we fail, we will slip, inexorably, into an Age of Apocalypse.

International Women's Day

Women play a pivotal role in the Age of Activism. "Women often lead community organizations and movements that are on the frontline of battles against human rights violations and militarism," writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders. "These brave women, usually compelled to act by personal experience, take on the most powerful forces in society with little support or publicity, and with few alliances and resources. Their work is critical to describing, denouncing, and punishing violations that threaten basic freedoms throughout the world."

As FPIF columnist Christine Ahn details in Top 10 Wins for Women's Movements, these brave women have scored significant victories in 2010, including a march of more than 20,000 women and men in the eastern Congo against war and gender violence.

"Organized by the World March of Women," Ahn writes, "women from 41 countries claimed the streets with the Congolese people to bring international attention to government impunity. Their work is paying off: last month, a Congolese army colonel was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for ordering his troops to attack and rape dozens of defenseless civilians."

Oman and Ali

Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain over the weekend to help the government there suppress the popular uprising. But this has not stifled the protests now spreading in the Gulf state of Oman.

"Although most Americans may not be familiar with Oman, Omanis are certainly familiar with the United States and its support for the sultan," writes FPIF columnist Stephen Zunes in Pro-Democracy Protests Spread to Oman. "The growing unrest will make it difficult for the United States to remain silent about the severity of the country’s problems. Oman is yet one more test of whether the Obama administration will continue to back an autocratic status quo in allied Arab countries or respect the wishes of their people, manifested through large-scale nonviolent action."

Finally, in the latest interview in our special focus on Islamophobia, playwright and commentator Wajahat Ali talks about the importance of addressing American culture. "I'm writing a pilot right now for HBO with an American Muslim protagonist," he relates. "We'll see if it succeeds. After all, we still don't have any major Muslim personalities on the air. There's no Muslim Ellen, no Muslim Tom Hanks. To change peoples' attitudes and shift away from dangerous and inaccurate stereotypes about Muslims, we need to access the mainstream through sitcoms, movies, and music. These have a tremendous amount of power, much more than a policy report or a nonfiction book or a talking head."

This was the seventh interview in the series. Earlier interviews were with John Esposito, Juan Cole, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Phyllis Bennis, Arun Kundnani, and Raed Jarrar and Niki Akhavan.

Recommended Citation:

John Feffer, "The Age of Activism" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, March 15, 2011)

John Feffer

 John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003) among other books.


This work by Institute for Policy Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at www.ips-dc.org.

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