Monday, February 28, 2011


Egypt’s upheaval, following the one in Tunisia, is not just a regional earthquake with aftershocks rumbling throughout the Middle East. It reveals much about the contemporary world, in which new realities are evolving that impact popular struggles for social progress. Here, I don’t mean primarily the technological tools of social networking, remarkable as they are.

Egypt is the latest example that relatively peaceful popular democratic revolts can arise even under conditions of severe repression and dictatorship. It’s not that the dictatorial regime shies away from using violence to the maximum extent feasible: the Egyptian Health Ministry reports a toll of 365 deaths during the uprising. It’s that it may not be feasible to unleash its full arsenal of violence against a united, courageous and determined mass opposition while the whole world is watching. Such revolts have ousted tyrants and toppled their governments, although they have usually fallen short of achieving fundamental social change.

As revealed so clearly in Egypt, the great tension of our time is between entrenched political and economic systems on one hand and the powerfully growing pressures within society for social change. People everywhere who struggle for social justice and a better world need to recognize both sides of that tension. To lose sight of the first permits optimism and illusions that can’t be sustained; failure to appreciate the second nurtures pessimism and despair, a mood that is paralyzing in trying times.

Despite the dominance of finance capital in the global economy and over most governments, there is a river of social and cultural progress that cannot be diverted or effectively contained. In Egypt, a new generation of youth sparked an uprising that gave voice and power to labor and all sections of society no longer willing to tolerate Mubarak’s dictatorship. But it isn’t only Mubarak’s regime that failed to stem the rising tide of social change. The failure also belongs to the foreign policy establishment of the United States, which not only underwrote the dictatorship with massive military and financial investments, but which played catch-up so reluctantly as the Egyptian resistance inspired worldwide admiration. The failure belongs to a foreign policy that supports anti-democratic regimes so long as they serve as “allies” in unending wars and in pursuit of “our strategic interests” that are enforced by military bases all over the globe.

We don’t yet know the scope of change that the Egyptian people will be able to bring about. We can bet that the military government and its patrons in the Pentagon and US State Department aim to keep control of the transition and manage its outcome. We also don’t know the full impact of spreading resistance to authority in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and throughout the Middle East as desperate monarchs and dictators resort to greater violence to try to escape Mubarak’s fate. In Libya, where Qaddafi has insanely unleashed all the military force he can muster against mass protests, the protests have become an armed revolution that is sweeping his regime away.

The story is ongoing, yet it gives much food for thought about the struggle for democracy and social progress. What moves the process forward?

Even though reactionary or neoliberal administrations have dominated politics in the United States and most countries of the “West” for decades, and despite the dire effects of unfettered capitalist globalization, important currents of social and cultural progress have gained strength within the USA and worldwide. For example, struggles for the rights and equality of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and people of diverse sexual orientations have advanced and won popular support, among youth most of all. For the most part, the structures of government initially resist every new step forward, and then tail along behind as it becomes necessary to adjust to changing reality.

It is painfully clear that changes in the realm of public opinion are far from uniformly progressive. The ultra-right, which owns a lion’s share of the US media, exploits public anger over the economic crisis and failures of the government to amplify hatred and violence against immigrants, unions, racial and religious minorities, women, gays, liberals and progressives. That’s all the more reason to consider the sources and potential of factors that generate pressure for progressive social change.

The revolutionary expansion of technology for instant communication and access to information is changing just about everything. Like almost all technological advances, it has its downside: exploited by mega media and advertising agents of corporate power, it magnifies influences that erode cultural values and educational standards. Yet it has a truly historic upside: no longer can billions of people on all continents be kept in ignorance. It is too vast and multifaceted to be entirely controlled or silenced by political elites, oligarchs, or billionaires. The secrets of corruption and abuse of power are no longer secure. Increasingly knowledge of how societies function and how people live in any part of the world circulates everywhere. And in the hands of creative people, especially the young, the varied instruments of information can become clarions of freedom, remarkably practical weapons of protest and rebellion against oppression.

Within the United States and in other countries of the “West”, there are large-scale demographic changes that also press against an old order dominated by wealthy white elites. Immigration by poorer masses to the richer countries has changed the political landscape despite frenzied, often racist, opposition. Within the USA, the flow of immigrants in recent decades, particularly from Latin American and Asian countries, has penetrated all parts of the country. That — together with the historic internal migration of African-Americans (documented in Elizabeth Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” [2010, Random House]) — is changing America dramatically. People of color are now a majority, or close to it, in some states. Children of mixed color and ethnic backgrounds are a growing presence everywhere.

Perhaps the most important factor in rising pressures for social change, although its eventual consequences are uncertain, is the multi-dimensional crisis of the existing world order. In this still young century it appears that the era of effective domination by one or two “superpowers” may be over. The power of Washington to control events on a world scale is diminished. Other sources of economic and political influence are rising, but it is unlikely that any power will achieve the degree of imperial and military dominance that the USA has exercised. Moreover, the economic and environmental crises are beyond the capacity of any single or small group of nations to resolve.

An epochal change may be taking place on the role of war as a viable instrument in world politics. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stubbornly pursued by the US government, are the crowning evidence through decades of wars that have proved unwinnable despite overwhelming military superiority. Coming on the heels of retreat from the “crucial” Pech Valley in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Gates has made a remarkably sweeping acknowledgment of war’s folly. As reported in the New York Times (2/25/2911):

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim.

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here.

It is hardly likely that the military-industrial complex will fold up after Gates’ confession of failure, give up its bloated budget and worldwide bases, and cease its high-tech assassinations and far-flung interventions via “special forces”. Nevertheless, historic constraints are emerging against interventionist wars and occupation of foreign lands. These constraints arise fundamentally because the great majority of the people of the world oppose war. No matter how much destructive power the military may have at its disposal, unbridgeable political and moral limits on war have been evolving since it first became evident that modern war could destroy humanity.

The waters of social progress are not passive. Whether in Cairo, Benghazi, or Madison, the current is driven by actions and uprisings of people when they are ready to resist oppression and intolerable living conditions. One can’t predict the outcome of every battle, or even of the overall war for earthly survival. Unwarranted optimism (rare as it has become) can be balanced out with awareness of reactionary countercurrents so apparent in the USA today: the unaltered grip of Wall Street on our economy and political institutions, the emergence of racist and fascist–style movements, the assault on weakened trade unions and collective bargaining rights.

But the poor and long oppressed of the Arab world are reminding us that “people power” is inextinguishable. When masses awake, the walls of tyranny and elite privilege begin to crack. And when a new generation of youth unexpectedly kicks over the traces, we remember never to say “Never.”

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