The Last, Best Hope on Earth: The Popular Uprisings of 2011 and “the Optimism of Uncertainty”

“There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible…Life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”
             —Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

2011 will go down in history as a year when the established elite in countries all over the world shook before the awesome force of mass protest, when large numbers of ordinary people suddenly refused to continue acquiescing to the savage order of things around them, when they stopped believing in their own powerlessness and the notion that charismatic leaders would save them and instead took to the streets. It was a year when millions of people around the world seemed to almost simultaneously realize what Howard Zinn was talking about. And not even the most prescient analyst or powerful psychic could have predicted it.
The basic progression of events is still familiar. On December 17, 2010, a poor Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, sparking the first of the Arab Spring revolts. On January 14 Tunisian nonviolent protests toppled the notoriously corrupt Ben Ali dictatorship. Less than a month later, Egyptian protests forced the resignation of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. From there an electric current of rebellion swept the Middle East and northern Africa in a modern-day realization of the “domino theory” so hyped by US imperial planners during the Cold War. And as in times past, the US government gave rhetorical support to the notion of democracy while supporting dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak until the last possible moment, after which time it set upon trying to manage the democratic transition in a way that would preserve the exclusionary, pro-US nature of the governments in the region.
By late spring the pro-democracy protests had spread to Europe, demanding an end to the neoliberal economic policies of privatization, fiscal austerity, and corporate welfare and the domination of government by the elite few. Massive protest movements erupted in bastions of stable Western democracy like Spain and Greece. The Spanish Indignados burst on the scene in mid-May, occupying dozens of cities and drawing in perhaps eight million Spaniards as direct participants. The movement in Greece had its roots in previous years, but reemerged in June after the Greek government, under heavy pressure from the IMF and foreign creditors, imposed new austerity measures.
Most unpredictable, perhaps, was the eruption of a substantial left protest movement among the population of the United States, which foreigners and US activists alike have long viewed as ignorant, apathetic, and atomized. First, in February, several hundred thousand people occupied Madison, Wisconsin, as the governor there tried to revoke public workers’ right to unionization. Later, starting in mid-September, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement multiplied that turnout at least several-fold, spreading like wildfire to hundreds of US cities and towns. It’s not so much that US protesters finally “woke up” to the greed, injustice, and authoritarianism of which Wall Street is a symbol—polls have long indicated that average people condemn the degree of inequality in this country and dislike big business and its dominance over politics—but that large numbers of people who were never politically active before came to believe in their own ability to make a statement by participating. Other protests also expanded to include many thousands of people. The movement against the environmentally destructive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, for instance, mounted a two-week-long civil disobedience campaign in Washington in late summer and may well succeed in killing the planned pipeline.
Moreover, many of the protesters have presented creative and thoughtful alternatives to the status quo, belying the incessantly-repeated claim that “yeah, but they’re not presenting any alternative.” In New York, a May-June 2011 campaign against Mayor Bloomberg’s austerity budget even presented a detailed “People’s Budget” as an alternative. And groups in New York and elsewhere have long promoted clear and concrete alternatives, both to budget austerity and other pro-rich policies and to capitalism as a whole, as well as to the various forms of non-economic oppression that characterize our society. The fact that most such proposals have been ignored in the media demonstrates that advocating even the most concrete alternatives does not necessarily help a movement gain visibility. The fact that critics continue to claim that the protesters have no alternative to the current system simply confirms Noam Chomsky’s point: “One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘They present solutions, but I don’t like them.’”
As diverse as the uprisings of 2011 are, they have many things in common. They have been united by their demand for more democracy and egalitarianism, in multiple realms of life. While the primary focus of the Arab Spring has been political democracy and civil rights, there have also been vocal sectors of the Arab uprisings denouncing economic inequality and women’s subordination. Likewise with OWS, which has focused on injustices in the realms of governance and the economy but also—thanks largely to the efforts of women and minorities—a democratization of the household and of the social community, meaning an end to patriarchy, racism, police abuse, homophobia, imperialism, and other forms of oppression. Despite their diversity and any number of ideological disagreements, the protesters of 2011 have been broadly united by the simple but radical principle that human beings should have control over the decisions that affect their lives.
The Occupy Movement: Arrogant Early Dismissals Proven Wrong
Certainly the right and most of the corporate media have reacted negatively to the Occupy Wall Street protests; indeed, an army of propagandists has come out in force to defend inequality while ridiculing the protesters and cheering the violent police repression of the movement. But how many liberals and leftists were also quick to find fault with the Occupy movement and thus dismiss it? How many well-to-do liberal intellectuals, even those who professed sympathy for Occupy, immediately assumed they knew more than the “misdirected” protesters and, despite often having little or no organizing experience themselves, sought to instruct the protesters about the “proper” way of making their voices heard? Most ironic, perhaps, were the comments of a prominent veteran of the Civil Rights movement, who denounced the protests as merely an “emotional outcry” devoid of all “organization and articulation.”
Yet the Occupy movement has defied the arrogant early forecasters and self-styled clairvoyants who wrote it off as naïve, destined to fail, or too full of pot-smoking, middle-class white kids. Many of the same voices who at first criticized later came around to supporting the movement after it started to gain numbers and momentum. Big labor unions and myriad celebrities who initially kept their distance began offering their support. The members of one Latino hip-hop group from New York originally dismissed the Wall Street occupation for having too many white people, but to their great credit soon changed their tune and have given vocal support to the movement since.
To be sure, very few of these movements, from Egypt to Wall Street, were truly “spontaneous.” In most cases, hardworking groups had been laying the foundations for years, usually with very little reason to believe that much would come of it in the near future. In the case of Occupy Wall Street, the protests were preceded by a series of smaller campaigns against budget austerity and various other injustices in New York City, organized by many of the same community groups and political organizations that later started OWS. Without these efforts and the organizational coalitions forged during previous campaigns, Occupy Wall Street might not have been possible. The depiction of the Occupy movement itself as a leaderless, directionless mass is highly misleading, though this image has been widely propagated by observers on the right and even some on the left.
Nevertheless, in August no one could have predicted the eruption of the movement in New York and its spread to hundreds of sites across the country, let alone the coordinated October 15th demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people in 1,500 cities worldwide. And no one would have predicted that the movement would have such an impact on national political discourse and corporate media coverage, forcing inequality and corporate power into the realm of mainstream debate. Howard Zinn wrote that “what leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability.” For Zinn this unpredictability was cause for hope—what he called “the optimism of uncertainty.” As brilliant and prophetic as Zinn was, he too would have been taken by surprise by the uprisings of 2011.
A Partial, But Very Healthy, Shift in Focus
Upon securing the Democratic nomination back in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered an eloquent and inspiring speech:

[I]f we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

Nothing could seem more ridiculous after three years of the Obama presidency, as even those who initially supported Obama must now concede. And Obama’s implicit praise for his own campaign as “the last, best hope on Earth” is the epitome of absurdity given his administration’s faithful service to big banks and corporations, its obstruction of a global accord to head off catastrophic climate change, and its unabashed continuation of US political, economic, and military imperialism around the globe.
But something major happened this year. If in 2008-09 the focus of much of the US public and world was on Barack Obama, in 2011 it was on the broad-based protests that consumed dozens of countries around the world. These protest movements stole the spotlight, if only partially, from the millionaires, politicians, and celebrities that normally fill the news. Even TIME magazine, no big fan of democracy or human rights, named “the protester” as its person of the year. The protesters forced elites onto the defensive, splitting the ruling classes between staunch enemies of the protests and those liberal elites who initially opposed the movements before frantically playing catch-up and trying to co-opt them for political gain, as the Obama administration did first with Tunisia and Egypt and later with Occupy Wall Street. And they acted en masse upon the principle that “there’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens” (Howard Zinn again).
The Courage to Confront Grim Realities
Despite the movements’ victories, the aftermath of the Arab Spring and other protests has reminded us of the ongoing challenges that confront even successful protest movements. The Egyptian generals who took over from Mubarak have resisted real democratization and any substantive policy change and continue to brutally repress protesters. Ruling elites in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have clung to power by murdering thousands of nonviolent protesters. Most such regimes have enjoyed crucial backing from the US government and European allies. In other cases, the US and Europe have intervened against dictators who had fallen out of favor in an effort to steer the post-rebellion governments down an acceptable path.
Though the level of state violence against protesters inside the United States is less extreme, the US progressive movement of 2011 continues to face formidable obstacles. Naomi Klein warns that “many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off” because “they don’t have long-term plans for how they are going to sustain themselves.” Staughton Lynd has expressed concern that many protesters will “turn out to be sprinters rather than long-distance runners.” The Wisconsin union protests and Occupy Wall Street have laid the organizational bases for what could become the biggest US protest movement since the 1960s, though it remains to be seen how the Occupy movement will develop and channel its energies into specific struggles and policy victories. The state of US policy at the national level, so ludicrously out of line with popular needs and wishes as well as international law and opinion, certainly inspires little hope.
But reality almost always looks grim from the perspective of the present. The history of the United States alone—to say nothing of the rest of the world—provides countless examples of people who somehow found the courage to confront the extremely dismal realities around them. The present must have seemed grim indeed for the anti-slavery abolitionists who were denounced as dangerous radicals by “respectable” opinion prior to the Civil War; for the wage slaves and factory girls who created the US labor movement and won basic rights like the eight-hour day and the weekend; for the hungry and unemployed who paralyzed US corporations and government in the 1930s until their politicians passed social welfare legislation; for the Freedom Riders and lunch-counter protesters who braved constant death threats to desegregate the US South; for the massive movement of civilians and dissident GIs who helped end the Vietnam War; for the human rights activists who paralyzed the meeting of world business elites in Seattle in 1999, helping force social justice into the forefront of the global debate. Surely these people must have had wrestled with pessimism and self-doubt. But if they had remained silent and resigned we might still be living in the Dark Ages.
If on one hand the past year has only meant an intensification of the many dire problems facing humanity, it has also sent a powerful message about the courage, creativity, and resiliency of human beings, in stark contrast to the greed, venality, and cowardice of their political leaders and economic overlords. Events of 2011 have confirmed that if humanity is to be saved from the myriad ecological, economic, and social crises it faces, it will be saved not by politicians and elites but by everyday oppressed people who build power through social movements. If there is any hope for the future, it lies in the protesters. They are the last, best hope on Earth.

Leave a comment