City Journal

Guy Sorman
The New Rebellions
Across the globe, technology-empowered protesters seek to disrupt the political and economic order.
Winter 2012
Occupy Wall Street has laptops and a hatred of capitalism--but no clear agenda.
Ramin Talaie/Corbis
Occupy Wall Street has laptops and a hatred of capitalism—but no clear agenda.

The media have drawn conservative fire for lavishing so much attention on the motley crew of young dropouts, half-educated college students, and older hippies who make up the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS). Yet the movement, though its numbers have been exaggerated, may deserve all the coverage as part of a much broader political shift. Across the globe—from Chile to the Middle East to South Korea—young protesters similar to Zuccotti Park’s unwashed have, like their American counterparts, aggressively used social media to organize and take to the streets, seeking to disrupt what they perceive to be the corruption and unfairness of existing political and economic systems. Rebellions, after all, can sometimes change the world—and not always for the better.

Occupy Wall Street’s demands are indeed inchoate, and, as many have noted, the movement lacks a clear organization and any kind of formal leadership. True, a few protesters are vying to become “first among equals,” but OWS is better seen as a rebellion than as a revolutionary movement, which requires clearly identified leaders with a definite political program and a proposed alternative to existing society. Few pundits or politicians saw OWS coming, doubtless because it existed virtually on Facebook pages and in Twitter feeds before it took physical form.

Some compare OWS with the Tea Party, but the comparison is inexact. Both movements do rely on social media to mobilize, and both are disgusted with the government’s bailouts of big banks during the financial crisis (the Wall Street Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz has even called for an alliance between the two groups). But the Tea Party is a middle-class rebellion of the employed, while OWS is driven by the young and unemployed. And their philosophical orientations are fundamentally opposed: the Tea Party is pro–free market and embraces a muscular individualism; OWS is anticapitalist and communitarian.

The biggest difference between the two movements, however, involves their stances toward existing institutions. The Tea Party is similar to European populist parties like the Northern League in Italy and the Progress Party in Denmark, which, though often denounced as illegitimate by their conservative and leftist opponents, fully belong to the democratic process, participating in regular elections and even winning seats. Their ambition is less to destroy the political and economic establishment than to transform it from within. Occupy Wall Street is far more radical in its hatred of current political and economic institutions, and it shares that trait with new rebellions breaking out in other countries.

Observing the nonstop debates on everything and nothing in Zuccotti Park, I was struck by the scene’s similarity to what I had witnessed during the summer in Madrid. The Indignados—the Outraged, who assembled at Puerta del Sol, the heart of the city, to protest—tended to be of the same age as most of their OWS counterparts: young but not as youthful as, say, student protesters were at Berkeley and Columbia during the sixties. Some were married with children and unable to find work. Like the American occupiers, they were nonhierarchical. Hundreds of thousands have participated in the Spanish protests over the last year, and the movement is spreading: though Madrid remains the epicenter, tent cities have sprung up in other major cities. In a country where the memory of civil war and dictatorship remains pervasive, the police have hesitated to crack down on the protesters.

For many of the rebels, the dominant issue is the country’s 20 percent unemployment rate, which climbs to 40 percent among those under 25. The Indignados think that this joblessness is a symptom of something larger: as in the United States, the protesters see the system itself as the enemy. Here, though, there’s a difference: for the occupiers of Wall Street, “the system” mostly means capitalism and the banks, while in Spain, the primary target is the political system. The Indignados contend that Spanish democracy doesn’t work because the major political parties—the Socialists and the conservative People’s Party—have coopted it for their members’ enrichment.

The alternative to party-based democracy that the Indignados propose seems to be some vague notion of consensus. At Puerta del Sol, the protesters, distributed in committees, speak at length about everything from cleaning the streets to changing the world. Resolutions get adopted only if all the participants on a committee approve. As one might expect, unanimity never arrives, and the debates repeatedly start from scratch. Interestingly, the protesters communicate through the same set of hand gestures that OWS uses. For instance, in both Madrid and New York, rotating your fingers over your head means, “You’ve been talking for too long.” The similarity of the gestures suggests that the rebellions are interconnected—not by any hidden political conspiracy but by the Internet, the movement’s leaderless, uncommitted organizer, crossing borders and connecting cultures.

Huge Facebook-facilitated crowds of young male and female protesters have also taken to the streets in Chile. The Chilean police won’t tolerate tent cities, so the upheavals look more like traditional street protests, with all the theater, chaos, and blaring loudspeakers that one would expect. Thanks to social media, the demonstrations have spread like wildfire from Santiago to other large cities in the country.

The protesters’ original goal was to stop the conservative government’s effort to build dams in southern Patagonia. That the dams are the only means of bringing electricity to Chilean cities—the country lacks other energy resources—was of no consequence. The rebels have since added to their demands; for instance, while visiting the country last August, I heard protesters demanding the elimination of the country’s school voucher program merely because it had been promoted, decades ago, by Milton Friedman– inspired economists. These reasons may be distinct from the pretexts for rebellion that one hears in New York and Madrid, but the Chilean rebellion is similar in other ways. The young Chileans, for example, don’t trust the nation’s democratic institutions, viewing them as controlled by self-serving political parties. They even make the absurd comparison between the current democracy—the least corrupt in Latin America, in fact—and the defunct Pinochet dictatorship.

On the other side of the world, in another democracy, the Indian government has been besieged for months by a massive, youthful, grassroots movement protesting political corruption. This movement has planted its tents on the vast lawns in front of the Indian parliament in New Delhi, though the protests take place elsewhere in the country, too. The Indian police can be brutal, but so far they have been reluctant to remove the occupiers, who have, in Gandhian fashion, rejected violence. In addition to the corruption charges—and Indian politics are certainly sleazy—the Indian occupiers express a more unformed objection to Indian political institutions, the party system, crony capitalism, and the unequal distribution of wealth that the country’s booming economy is swiftly generating. In these ways, too, the movement is the inheritor of Mahatma Gandhi, who placed the community above the individual and rejected the Western notion of progress.

Unlike the other rebellions, the Indian protests have a leader: a Gandhi disciple who goes by the name Anna Hazare. By starting a hunger strike last April, Hazare secured a promise from officials to create a special committee to assess the honesty of each member of government. This doesn’t mean that social media haven’t played a key role in organizing the protesters, most of whom are middle-class and well-educated. Indeed, without Facebook and Twitter—many Indian celebrities and spiritual leaders Tweeted their support for the anticorruption cause—Hazare would have remained a provincial community organizer instead of becoming a national figure.

A similar protest movement swept South Korea in October when a relatively unknown social activist, Park Won-soon, was elected mayor of Seoul, defeating the heavily favored conservative candidate, Na Kyung-won. Radical young bloggers and social-media activists, extremely energetic in South Korea, helped assemble anti-Na protests—rebels set up their tents and blared their music in front of Seoul’s city hall—and ultimately secured Park’s surprise victory. Not without reason, the protest movement finds South Korean society too hierarchical, too controlled by the older generation, and too dominated by an alliance between the leading political parties and the private economic conglomerates known as chaebol. The mayoral race was a testing ground for the protesters’ growing power to disrupt the system; their next target will be the 2012 presidential election.

Israel is another country recently struck by popular Internet-driven protests. In September, a young crowd gathered in the streets of Tel Aviv—taking political observers by surprise, just as in the United States and Spain. Once more, the demonstrations were enabled by social media, no organizational structure or clear leadership was to be found, and the protesters were young people who didn’t trust the system. But there was a significant difference between the Israeli protests and the other movements: not only did the Israeli demonstrators make specific requests, like cheaper rents and more public housing, but the government immediately took them into consideration.

In Cairo, the young sociology student Ahmed Maher, a recent graduate of the American University there, was one of the many instigators of the Tahrir Square demonstrations that ultimately toppled Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship last year. For months, he says, he had been inviting his Facebook friends to meet on Friday evenings and demonstrate against the regime. Typically, he managed to rally 100 or so students—not even enough for the police to notice. Then, in January 2011, massive protests in Tunisia forced that country’s authoritarian ruler out of office. The Egyptians, following the remarkable events closely on YouTube, Facebook, and other outlets, were galvanized. “If the Tunisians could do it, Egyptians could succeed even more,” Maher says, displaying the usual Egyptian feeling of cultural superiority over Tunisians. Maher’s weekly Facebook invitations now included images of the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia. “From 100, we jumped to 1 million,” he says.

It might seem far-fetched to compare the Arab Spring, which toppled authoritarian regimes, to protests in democratic countries. But the similarities are striking. In the Arab world, too, the enemy was “the system”—in this case, one that combined political oppression with crony capitalism. And behind the rebellions were youthful crowds demanding change, jobs, and social justice. In the sclerotic economies of the Arab countries, the despair of the young was profound. Remember that the Arab Spring was ignited by the suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor who had been shaken down by corrupt police (see “Is Islam Compatible with Capitalism?,” Summer 2011). Millions of young Arabs, who had never taken to the streets when rallied by pro-democratic forces, identified with Bouazizi’s economic plight and revolted. Democracy may be an eventual consequence of the Arab Spring, but it wasn’t its starting point.

China has closely monitored the Internet-driven rebellions, especially those in the Arab world—the Communist Party has a tradition of learning from foreign protest movements so as to avoid them at home. After the collapse of the Soviet Union showed that allowing free expression undermined dictatorial political control, Chinese leaders have kept a lid on speech, including on the Web. The Chinese government’s Internet watchdog reportedly employs 100,000 experts who erase subversive blog postings and block politically provocative text messages. When Chinese bloggers began to call for a version of the Jasmine Revolution in their own country, a number of them wound up in reeducation camps. Of late, 300 million cell-phone microbloggers, sending their messages in 140 characters or fewer, have been keeping ahead of the censors.

The Chinese Communist Party’s fear of contagion by the new rebellions is probably justified. The social conditions faced by the younger generation in large Chinese cities are similar to those in the Arab world and, to a lesser extent, in New York and Madrid. Despite China’s fast economic growth, jobs for young, educated Chinese aren’t plentiful. While a manual worker can easily find work, a university graduate often needs two or three years to find a job commensurate with his education.

A constant criticism of all the new rebellions is their lack of a clear alternative vision. But for many of the protesters, the alternative to the hated system is the rebellion itself. Spontaneity, sharing, being together—these characteristics of the various occupations, the rebels believe, reflect how society should work. One might describe this communitarianism as new, but it does recall Romantic figures like John Ruskin, who reacted against industrialization, capitalism, and modern individualism and imagined an idealized premodern past. The nostalgia for some idealized communal past may even partly explain the political success of radical Muslim organizations in Egypt and Tunisia: in the time of Mohammed and his immediate successors, these groups claim, Muslims were a warm, unified community. Why can’t we bring that back today?

As with all political nostalgias, contradictions abound, just as they did when the antimodern Gandhi, who drew inspiration from Ruskin, happily used British-built railways to cross India. Today’s Chilean protesters want to ban electrical power plants but couldn’t imagine life without the Internet, any more than the occupiers of Zuccotti Park could survive without their cell phones and social-media apps—the latest innovations of the capitalist system that they despise.

The rebels’ refusal to embrace any realistic alternative to what they attack has perhaps been given its clearest theoretical justification by a French author, Stéphane Hessel. In late 2010, Hessel, a 93-year-old retired diplomat and longtime human rights activist, released a 40-page book called Indignez-Vous! In it, he repeatedly incites “the young” to be less passive and to revolt against essentially everything. What you protest, he maintains, is less important than that you protest. Few knew Hessel’s name before Indignez-Vous!, but within three months, the book had sold more than a million copies in France. It is now coming out in translations across the globe; its English translation is imperfectly titled Time for Outrage. The polemic was published just as Madrid’s Indignados appeared, and Hessel today receives a hero’s welcome in Spain, but there was probably no direct connection between the book and the protests. Similarly, though John Zerzan, the American anarchist author, is often cited as the inspiration behind the OWS-like protests on the West Coast of the United States, it seems unlikely that many of the protesters there have even heard of him.

So far, Hessel’s native country has not seen the eruption of similar protest movements, perhaps because of the strength of French far-left and far-right political parties, which help channel views opposed to the system. The same seems true of Italy, where far-left parties have unleashed street protests and strikes for decades and where no OWS-like movement has emerged yet.

Another guide to the spirit of the new rebellions is media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who was the first to understand that modern communications technologies were profoundly changing society. Television brought with it a fragmenting individualism: I alone choose my programs. Social media may be transforming society in a different way: any user has the power to create a social movement, to form a flash mob, to organize a boycott—if he or she seizes the right moment and captures something about the spirit of the time. Even as I write, I notice an article about a disgruntled bank customer who used Twitter to persuade half a million others to transfer their money from big banks to local credit unions.

Hegel famously observed that “the owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.” Only in hindsight are we likely to know the full significance of these youth rebellions. The ferment could vanish without a trace, absorbed by politics as usual and by the free market, which has always shown a remarkable capacity to digest new trends; or it could dramatically transform our culture, our politics, our economic life. Remember, after all, how the hippie sixties reshaped Western behavior and institutions.

New media are often the drivers of such change, opening new worlds and giving birth to new worldviews, for good or for ill. Who would have guessed, as the fifteenth century waned, that the Gutenberg printing press would revolutionize Western civilization by giving millions of Christian believers direct access to the Bible? Or, centuries later, that radio would allow fascism to flourish?

The current rebellions could remake political institutions. Traditional party systems could collapse, replaced by more open fields of candidates, as we’re already seeing in South Korea. Democracy may be the big winner in formerly authoritarian regimes, even if the process proves long and messy. In December, as City Journal went to press, massive street protests broke out in major Russian cities, disputing election results—proof that authoritarian governments are less and less in a position to lie to the people and manipulate elections when any citizen with a smartphone can document examples of fraud and broadcast them to millions instantly. And capitalism may need to adapt, with the wealthy doing more to prove their usefulness to society—more than a century after the economist Thorstein Veblen asked them to renounce “conspicuous consumption” and act more ethically, anticipating the Occupy Wall Street movement’s slogans about the 1 percent. Those of us who believe that free markets have brought the world unprecedented prosperity and freedom, though, can only hope that the protests’ anticapitalism grows no more influential than that.

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