I’ll admit it’s a bit cliche to do a year in review article. We’re barely into December before we’re bombarded with “best” and “worst” lists, as if everyone’s taking the rest of the year off. But it’s good to pause for reflection as we near another milestone. It would require too much space to identify every important event of 2011, but some stick out as especially illuminating the times.
It was not frivolous for Time Magazine to name “the protester” as person of the year. The Arab world erupted. Egyptians ousted the tyrant Mubarak and their continued protests show that they won’t easily accept the conclusion that others have written for their revolution. Tens of thousands rallied in Wisconsin, disrupting the typical government way of cutting spending — one that follows partisan lines and cuts the bottom out from under people. Following especially shady elections, Russia erupted in disgust with the Putin regime. Disorder continues in Greece while alternative economic networks grow. China has not been left out of the uprising. As I write this commentary, Wukan, a town of about 20,000, is besieged by government forces after residents expelled officials and police.
Though the United States has seen a number of protest occupations in recent years, none captured public attention or shifted discourse as much as Occupy Wall Street and the movement it inspired. Occupy means different things to different people, and varies in quality in various places, but overall it remains a promising popular mobilization. Not only have Occupiers loudly raised questions about the concentration of wealth and power and collusion between economic and political elites, they’ve also invited the public to participate in crafting solutions, including though the consensus-based general assembly. The Oakland general strike, the West Coast port shutdown, the spread of Occupations out of coastal metropolises to cities across the country, and the movement’s ability to adapt while retaining its essential character all suggest that it will be a significant factor in days ahead.
But 2011 has not been an uncomplicated march toward liberty and justice for all.
None of the movements against concentration of power are irreversible. The revolutionary tendencies within them are not guaranteed to prevail, and the powerful have resources to use in holding onto their power.
Things have not been promising in the legislative sector. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act empowers the US government to indefinitely detain people without trial. The Stop Online Piracy Act tightens restrictions on Internet traffic, making it easier for the government to control the flow of information. Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law has brought harsh repression upon innocent workers, but will likely be profitable for prison corporations.
Let’s not forget who’s in the oppositional faction of the ruling class. Newt Gingrich, for example, in 1996 proposed the death penalty for importing more than two ounces of certain drugs, including marijuana. Last year he said “There is no reason for us to accept” the building of an Islamic cultural center in downtown Manhattan, a project which he compared to Nazis putting up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum.
Yet some things are especially difficult to pin one meaning on.
When Osama bin Laden was killed and when the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks passed, how many took the opportunity to step back from nationalist triumphalism to question the path that self-proclaimed leaders would lead us down?
What does the downgrade of the US government’s credit rating really mean?
How much popularity will Ron Paul need for the party establishment to let him get near enough to power to draw back its worst excesses, and how would his policies be mediated through layers of government?
Big things are ahead for 2012, and not the kind of cataclysm that is the stuff of bad movies. What will happen with the US election and its discontents, the spring of Occupy, the next stage of the Arab Spring, tensions in Europe, more Chinese resisting exploitation, the growth of Anonymous? The list goes on.
Whatever happens, freedom is best served by creating incentives to exit from the current system in favor of respect for the liberty and dignity of individuals, rooted in solidarity and mutuality.