Wanders and Wonders
The past weekend marks a year since I was last in the UK. I spent the equivalent of last Sunday in 2010 at the Burning Man Decompression block party in San Francisco, on my first ever visit to the USA. I spent all of last November in Peru. I became one of the ones who have visited Machu Picchu. I have been living in Bolivia since the start of December last year. I was in Colombia for my 30th birthday.
So it seems a good moment for a little reflection. It feels like it’s been an important year. And I’m not just talking about my having learned Spanish or Salsa or being in Latin America for Carnaval or seeing LCD Soundsystem in Santiago or living in five different houses with four different cats, all above 2,500 metres, or working for the Democracy Center or getting to know a little bit about Bolivia.
When I was leaving for the Americas a year ago the global economy was already fucked; but people were thinking it was going to get better. Strauss-Kahn of the IMF (pre hotel maid scandal) was praising Greece for its austerity efforts. Well it seems the medicine hasn’t quite worked. Greece is about to default, and Larry Elliott was writing in the Guardian last week that:
The panic-stricken reaction of the markets over the past few days reflects a growing mood in the financial markets that the default will not be managed and orderly but messy, with knock-on effects not just for the rest of the eurozone but for the entire world economy.
Banks will go bust, credit will dry up, trade will wither, jobs will be shed. Greece, Lehman Brothers 2.0, will be the prelude to the second Great Depression, something policy-makers were congratulating themselves on avoiding only a few months ago.
Obama’s Democrats, about to get slammed in the midterm elections when I was in California last October, have also faced ever greater economic woes, with unemployment becoming a chronic problem in the US and the threat of renewed recession constantly hovering.
In January, in a country whose people were fed up of years of political repression, cronyism, and the high price of basic living costs, Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia committed what must be one of the most significant suicides in modern history, sparking an Arab Spring which toppled governments there and in Egypt. Yemen’s future seems to be in the hands of UN Security Council for now, while Syria’s months of protests and violence and many killings continue without an end in sight.
A year ago Libya was in the news for hosting an Arab League summit that supported Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to continue with Palestinian peace negotiations with Israel unless they agreed to stop settlement building. Those talks failed of course, and today things look rather different in Libya, with the ‘final battle for Sirte’ occupying headlines every day and NATO’s role in the toppling of Gaddafi preoccupying commentary. The Palestinian statehood bid discussed at that Arab League summit last September was roundly rejected by the US a few weeks ago. One imagines things feel rather different inside the Arab League now. Sadly sectarianism and religious fanaticism still feature in the revolutionary era, with news stories this week of more than 20 deaths in Cairo following a Christian demonstration in the city.
And so Cairo, and Tahrir Square. As the biggest and best-known of the revolutionary Arab nations it was the one that caught outside attention most. In the news a year ago the European Commission was recommending a tax on the financial sector, partly fuelled by public outrage at the lack of accountability by the sector for causing a massive global economic meltdown. As things have dramatically failed to improve in 2011 the example of Tahrir Square and the Days of Rage have transmuted to Western protest against the archaic and seemingly untouchable institutions that control our lives: banks, corporations and those mystical ‘markets’.
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in mid-September and has been growing rapidly since is calling for a major wave of protest on October 29th, ahead of the G20 summit on Nov 3-4. The Washington Post has reported Kalle Lasn, Adbusters editor, of saying that the Robin Hood Tax is a concrete demand everyone can get behind. It’s a campaign that started while I was still working for Family Action early in 2010. The tax proposal will be put to the G20 meeting – perhaps with the full force of the Occupy movement behind it, it may stand a better chance of being seriously considered. Our very own UK government is leading the opposition to its implementation
The UK government. That coalition of ours was only a few months old when I got on the plane. Coalition politics was still a novelty. In the week after party conference season I get the impression the initial sheen has rather worn off in the face of slashed education funding, library closures, creeping NHS privatisation, David Cameron generally…
Even if the parties are all Tories now there does seem to be some hope that maybe the people they try to rule are not. At least that’s what the social networks and the alternative media suggest. It’s really been the year of social organising online, with Twitter playing such a key role in both the coordination and the coverage of the Arab revolutions, and events closer to home, like the UK riots (remember them?). I use Facebook as my main media filter now, and there is no doubt that the amount of politicised content I see has greatly increased in the last year.
Which can only be a good thing in the face of (in fact it may even have been encouraged by) media monopolisation and maliciousness. The Murdoch scandal is something else I have been ‘absent ‘for (only not since I could follow every move via my web 2.0 platforms). I don’t know what the hopes are of Leveson’s current inquiry achieving anything, but let’s hope the social awakening we are witnessing continues to make the connections between the ‘axis of evil’ that comprises governments, corporations and much of the mainstream media industry. As I am about to publish this one of Murdoch’s top bods has resigned over a circulation scandal at the – delicious this – Wall Street Journal.
Of course, the real action happens when people get face to face – the networks can only do so much to encourage change. The ‘human microphone’ in use in Liberty Plaza is a pretty cool example of the need for solidarity unmediated by technology – though of course it is also crucially employed to relay speeches by the likes of Žižek which are then shared globally on YouTube.
But the world is much more tuned into New York. Real, physical occupation of public and institutional space has been going on for months in Chile. A truly remarkable political phenomenon has grown up around a student-led movement for educational reform which has attracted support from all corners and evolved into a more general questioning of the neo-liberal, privatising model. A model which our institutions seem to be embracing ever more closely if the Lords passing of the Health and Social care bill today is any indication.
But let’s hope that now truly is the moment when we can look back and say the 99% took the power back and forged a different path. I hope the coming year is as interesting as the last.