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A Village in Revolt Could Be a Harbinger for China

Michael Wines, New York Times
China’s state-run media have had a field day this autumn with Occupy Wall Street, spinning an almost daily morality play about capitalism gone amok and an American government unable or unwilling to aid the victims of a rapacious elite.

Occupy Wukan is another matter entirely. The state press has been all but mute on why 13,000 Chinese citizens, furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite, sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake Wukan. But the village takeover can be ignored only at Beijing’s peril: There are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China, all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.

“What happened in Wukan is nothing new. It’s all across the country,” said Liu Yawei, an expert on local administration who is the director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
(25 December 2011)

Todd Gitlin on Occupy

Anna Bahr, Bwog
Columbia Journalism School Professor Todd Gitlin first immersed himself in protest culture when he got involved with New Left political activism in the 1960s. After a stint in the underground intellectual and writing culture, Gitlin turned to academia, becoming a prominent public intellectual and prolific author. He has recently asserted himself as a prominent and informed voice in the debates about the Occupy Wall Street movement, upon which he is currently writing a book. Gitlin recently found the time to sit down with Blue & White contributor Anna Bahr to discuss the trajectory, politics, and core values of the movement.

… Todd Gitlin: … It’s been two and a half months and the idea that there is a movement is installed in the culture now. Some of its phrasing is commonplace now, “99,” “1 percent,” and there are these networks that are organized projects. Obviously the Internet makes it easy for people to feel involved in something… It seems to me that there’s a critical mass of the activists who are thinking about the next phase—beyond next week.

Movements always have problems of self-maintenance and growth and questions of what to do for an encore. Some people will want to try to create a social equivalent of the kind of community that they experienced in Zuccotti Park. Maybe they will find substitute locations. Maybe there will be a proliferation of them. Maybe they will find interior locations to occupy or to utilize. That will be one component.

Then, at the other end of the vectors of ambition, there are the revolutionaries who see this movement as a launch into some sort of ongoing revolutionary movement that stands a chance of transforming the world. Then there’s a very large ground that lies somewhere between those poles that runs a gambit between people who want to keep the focus on particular economic-centered actions like focusing on certain banks, government regulations, or the need for taxing financial transactions; there will be some who want to play a part in political life in the longer run, and others who want to avoid being co-opted by the Democrats.

B&W: That seems like a fundamental inhibitor to the progression of the movement, though. How can a group that makes decisions based on consensus ever decide on a specific issue to delegate its attention and efforts to?

TG: There won’t be! This movement really is decentered. But these working groups are not just rhetorical. They exist, they have specialized functions and they’re doing their things. That’s what makes it possible for a great range of orientations and activities to coexist. They will go one coexisting. They will be disgruntled, and there will always be people who think the old structure needs to be restored or that one activity is interfering with another, but those are normal tensions within a large movement. And it is a large movement that incorporates several cultures at once—and not just different demographics. That is built into being a large movement.

… The trick for a social movement that practices civil disobedience is to avoid demonizing itself in the eyes of people who are not yet committed, but open-minded.

Secondly, all of these movements are theatrical, and the challenge is to perform for a large audience that, in no small part is people who are uncommitted but troubled by the current economic and social conditions and don’t know why they should take this movement seriously. Those people need to be convinced that something can be accomplished. Those people won’t be thrilled by streets being blocked. Those people want to see that something concrete can be won, not necessarily confronting the police, but getting legislation passed.

Andrew Cuomo has recently reconsidered his objection to the “millionaire’s tax.” I think the movement can take credit for that. The movement needs to be able to take credit for such phenomenon. Also, if it can actually change bank policies, if it can help people who have been dispossessed, that proves its reputation with the larger public.

There are forms of direct action that optimize the look of movement as being a movement on behalf of the general good. There are also forms of the movement that center on disruption that detract from it. There are debates about which is which. We will probably see varieties of both types.
(19 December 2011)

Eric Hobsbawm on 2011: ‘It reminds me of 1848…’

Andrew Whitehead, BBC World Service News
The renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm has … lived his life in the shadow, or the glow, of revolutions.

Born just months before the Russian revolution of 1917, he was a Communist for most of his adult life – as well as an innovative and influential writer and thinker.

He has been a historian of revolution, and at times an advocate of revolutionary change.

… The historian in him draws a parallel between the Arab Spring of 2011 and Europe’s “year of revolutions” almost two centuries earlier, when an uprising in France was followed by others in the Italian and German states, in the Hapsburg Empire, and beyond.

“It reminds me of 1848 – another self-propelled revolution which started in one country then spread all over the continent in a short time.”

… “What unites [the Arab Spring movements] is a common discontent and common mobilisable forces – a modernising middle class, particularly a young, student middle class, and of course technology which makes it today very much easier to mobilise protests.”

The importance of social media extends to the other global movement of the past year, the Occupy protests North America and Europe. That too has caught Eric Hobsbawm’s attention, and to a large extent his admiration.

… “The actual occupations in most cases have not been mass protests, not the 99%, but the famous ‘stage army’ of students and counter culture. Sometimes that has found an echo in public opinion – and in the anti-Wall Street, anti-capitalist occupations, that is clearly the case.”

Yet across the world, the old left of which Hobsbawm was a part – as participant, chronicler and would-be moderniser – has been on the margins of the mass protests and occupations.

“The traditional left was geared to a kind of society that is no longer in existence or is going out of business. It believed very largely in the mass labour movement as the carrier of the future. Well, we’ve been de-industrialised, so that’s no longer possible.

“The most effective mass mobilisations today are those which start from a new modernised middle class, and particularly the enormously swollen body of students.

… Hobsbawm doesn’t expect the Arab revolutions to ricochet still further round the world, at least not as the harbinger of wider revolution.

More likely, he believes, is a wider push for gradual reform…

Andrew Whitehead’s interview with Eric Hobsbawm will be broadcast on the BBC World Service’s World Today Programme.
(22 December 2011)