The Arab Spring, Greek riots. Protests in Wisconsin and Indignados in Spain. The Chilean education conflict, rural uprisings in China, and the Occupy Movement. 2011 was a year of social uprisings. As we leave their anniversaries behind, we asked some of the top social movements scholars to reflect on these events and what we can learn from them.
First, we wanted to know what these revolutions, protests and occupations had in common. Is it fair, we asked, to characterize them collectively as a “global uprising”? Our respondents pointed out the similarities between mobilization strategies, but were skeptical about common goals.
Francesca Polletta: All these actions combined the physical occupation of public spaces with a reliance on virtual strategies and identities. What would the Egyptian Revolution have been without Tahrir Square? What would the Occupy movement have been without the encampment first in Zucotti Park and then in cities as far flung as Sydney, Berlin, and Mexico City? Occupying physical spaces nonviolently, calling for goals of freedom, democracy, and economic equality—these all seem about as 20th century a repertoire of protest as you can get. Yet, the latest in digital media have been vital to the 2011 movements.
Certainly, activists around the globe have taken inspiration and ideas from the uprisings in the Middle East. Activists communicate with each other; they learn from each other; they are emboldened by one another. But it would be a mistake to see a global movement in the making. Global justice activists fought long and hard for just that. But insofar as ordinary people today are conscious of the costs of neoliberalism, it is much more as a result of their experience of how the global financial crisis has rendered precarious their own economic futures than it is of their awareness of what transnational actors like the World Bank or the IMF are doing elsewhere. Nation states are still the name of the game when it comes to much of the policy that matters. I think we will continue to see movements in solidarity with one another but still animated by national identities and targeting national actors.
Michael Kazin: There was clearly an uprising against existing authorities in 2011, but what they had in common is not so clear. In the Maghreb, it was a revolt against authoritarian rulers who had ruled over an economy, which did not deliver the goods to most of their citizens. In the U.S., it was a protest against those at the top (and not really “in charge”) of a financial order that threw the rest of the economy into recession. Democratically elected officials were viewed as abetting “Wall Street,” but the protest didn’t aim to overthrow them. The Wisconsin case is an exception here.
But it is clear that each major uprising helped inspire and, in some instances, even organize later ones. So what happened in Tahrir Square and Madison in February was emulated, at least tactically, by those in the plazas of Madrid, Barcelona, and other Spanish cities in May and June. And some indignados traveled to New York to teach the Occupiers-to-be how to hold “general assemblies” and organize tent encampments. The huge demonstrations in Tel Aviv last summer, unfortunately, don’t seem to have had this same impact—no doubt, because of the dim view most leftists have of Israel and Israelis.
James Jasper: Perhaps the greatest failing of intellectuals is to believe that they are living through a world historical moment, the culmination of this or that Hegelian trend. Some of these protests inspired others, and many were opposed to neoliberalization, but most had distinct roots, especially the Arab Spring and the Chinese protests. I suspect that a global civic culture, like cosmopolitanism, is the dream of a few globe-trotting intellectuals.