Empire and its Discontents: The Tahrir Square tipping point as Revolution 2.0

In part one, Steven Colatrella gives the long view of the importance of the uprising/revolution in Egypt. In part two, one of the leaders of the movement in Egypt, Ghonim stresses how important the peer to peer communication infrastructure was for the success of the movement and how it is a tipping point for a new model of transformative action, Revolution 2.0.

Part One: Tahrir Square in the context of the history of Empire

* Essay: From Tiananmen to Tahrir Square. By STEVEN COLATRELLA. Counterpunch.

Steven Colatrella starts this long and very worthwhile analytical essay, which is a history of the social struggle in the last 30 years, with the following summary of the five pillars of contemporary neoliberal Empire:

Our entire global civilization, or to be more precise, the domination over and exploitation of global civilization, has, for over 30 years rested on five pillars. These four are: the defeat of the US labor movement and working class during the Reagan years; imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs by the IMF and World Bank in most of the world under the excuse of the Debt Crisis; the defeat of the Iranian and Polish revolutions in 1980-81; the crushing of the revolt of workers and students in Tiananmen Square in China in May 1989; and the cordon wrapped around the oil fields of the Persian Gulf making sure that the production and distribution of oil would take place under conditions that enhanced and maintained capitalist profits and rule. This may seem like a strange list, and indeed it may be difficult at first to see what they have to do with each other.

The bulk of the essay then reviews these five pillars and the history of their coming about, in the context of the historical defeat of worker’s movements since the early 80’s.

The author sees a first tipping point in Venezuela, in 2002, which broke the fear of repression for the whole of Latin America:

“But the spectre of Tiananmen hangs over popular revolt ever since 1989, and its horror was recently reinforced in Thailand, where a mass occupation by the Red Shirts movement for democracy against the monarchy and military rule on behalf of the rich was crushed with a massacre in the streets of Bangkok. This massacre, which came at a moment nearly analogous to that of today in Egypt’s revolution, led to barely a squeak of protest from the world. Yet when Burma (Myanmar) next door massacred its citizens and when Iran did the same last year, the world screamed. The difference is that Thailand is highly integrated into the world economy, and before the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 it was Thailand, not China, that for the previous decade had had the highest growth rates in the world. The message was clear: so long as a government is friendly to the US, so long as it plays the game of global capitalism – be it China in 1989, or Thailand in 2010, it is okay for it to massacre its own people even in front of the whole world. This message was further underlined by events in Honduras where the democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup barely criticized by Obama and Clinton even when it began openly assassinating its opponents and crushing huge democratic demonstrations against the military regime. Only the unprecedented phenomenon of hundreds of thousands who turned out in 2002 to stop a coup against the democratic government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela sent a different message. Those demonstrations broke the fear that had held Latin America in its grip ever since Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government in Chile in 1973 and the rule of the military in Argentina and which had been the insurance policy underwriting neoliberal policies throughout the continent during the 1990s. Revolutionary governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, leftist government in Paraguay and other benefits have derived from those demonstrations. “

Tunisia and Egypt represent the second tipping point, which brings the whole Arab world into play, in a replay of the spring of people’s in Europe in 1848:

“The impact of Tahrir Square is even greater than that of the crowds that defended Chavez at the Presidential Palace nearly a decade ago. For the eyes of the rest of the world outside Latin America have been long focused by other events – wars, 9/11, the Palestinian issue, oil prices – on the region that the Egyptian revolution is taking place in. With Al Jazeera providing reasonably friendly round the clock live coverage, and the world’s media there, only Tiananmen Square can compare to this as a global moment of popular revolution. But the Egyptian army, like that of Tunisia, has so far refused to fire on the protesters (in 1989 the Beijing garrison also refused and it was an army from Szechwan led by a relative of Deng that carried out the massacre) and today seems openly on their side, protecting them from the murdering gangs of pro-Mubarak security forces and hired hands that has been attacking the people in the square for the past three days. The example of Tunisia did not take long to spread far and wide, despite the absurd attempt by all kinds of Western commentators to claim that the revolt would not spread because of the specificity of Tunisian politics and society. Of course the outcome, forms of struggle and political solutions will be different in each country, based on their institutions, political culture and history, as well as the events on the ground, but it is clear that the methodology that has sought to separate Arab countries into hermetically sealed cubby holes is flawed. Postmodernism taught for decades that universalisms were sources of repression. Today we see that this wrong. It is precisely the universalism of the Arab people, their unity first with each other across their national boundaries and second with the rest of the working people everywhere in the world, that is both the main theme and the desperate need urgently being asserted in these revolutions. We were told that the Middle East was different: that it was part of something called “The Islamic World” and that only Islamist politics existed aside from the dictators (the New York Times ran an article mere months ago asserting this for the entire region).

Today we see that people in Egypt want democracy. They want social justice. They want their nation to govern its own fate. They oppose exploitation and want to do something about the unbearable and unsustainable inequality created by neoliberal capitalism. Their revolution, directed necessarily in the first place against Mubarak and his regime, like that of Tunisians was directed immediately against Ben Ali and his, is also sparked by poverty, unemployment and inequality. It necessarily opposes global governance organizations’ policies. It conflicts, inevitably, with the increasingly global ruling class, the elite that meets at Davos every year to come up with common polices for the problem that Karl Marx identified in Volume Three of Capital, a unitary, single profit rate with shares in it decided on based on power and capital, this time globally. Egypt has seen one of the world’s greatest strike waves over the past few years, 3,000 strikes involving at least two million workers since 2004, and this is part of a global strike wave that has been building over the past three years, with epicenters also in Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, South Africa, South Korea and elsewhere. This strike wave, now intersecting with strikes and protests in Europe against EU-initiated austerity programs, is a worldwide protest, a growing movement against global governance in its present form, the neoliberal regime of inequality and injustice that it governs and imposes, and the national governments that ally with this global ruling class, integrate their personnel increasingly with it, and carry out its polices against the interests of their own peoples. “

These struggles have global implications for the structure of Empire explained at the top of this article:

“Such a revolt in the Middle East inevitably, however, goes further in its implications – for as it spreads from the Arab countries without oil to those with oil, it places much of the power of the current world order into question. It challenges the regional power of the policeman Israel that keeps an eye on the area’s population which might otherwise threaten to hold the world’s oil as an instrument of power to make its own demands for access to the wealth produced globally. It challenges the power of the United States since these dictatorships are all US-backed. It challenges, in other words, the whole world order. Just as the Palestinian issue has never only been about Palestine, and peoples of Arab countries always made that clear, the current revolutions are also struggling against the parochialism that has been imposed on the Arab peoples. Attempts at a “peace process” have precisely been to isolate the Palestinian struggle from its wider implications and importance and cut it off from its allies. Those allies are today overthrowing their dictators and the tyranny of postmodern politics in a global world. A political solution that attempts to improve the lives of people region-wide will challenge the pillar of world order that has depended upon the control of oil to control capitalism and exploit the world’s working class more effectively.

So, three of the pillars are in danger at once – control of oil, global governance imposition of austerity and neoliberalism in the Third World, and the horror of Tiananmen Square for any working class ready to challenge its fate as cheap labor in the global economy. That is the meaning of Tahrir Square – it is the end of the era of Tiananmen Square that has already begun with the strikes and labor organizing in China itself. It is a threat to the world capitalist order.”

The fourth pillar, the weakness of the social movement in Europe, due to the defeat of the Polish revolution, is still standing:

“The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, aside from being near the Middle East and its oil and being part of the Arab world, are also part of the Mediterranean. In Greece, global governance in the form of the EU and IMF have imposed a draconian anti-working class program against the ferocious resistance of the Greek working class – resistance that came just up to the point that Tunisians decided to go past. French workers desperately defended their welfare state rights in mass general strikes last year. Spanish and Portuguese workers have carried out the largest general strikes in the histories of their respective nations. British , Irish and Italian workers and students have likewise been struggling against austerity policies and in the case of Italy against a leader whose similarity with the Mubaraks of the world is striking for the head of a democratically elected government. Indeed, democratic countries have recently seen a wave of a soft version of what political science textbooks call “delegated democracy” – an awful phrase that basically means, “I won the election so I can do whatever I want”. The political aspects of the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt may not be entirely irrelevant to us either. In Eastern Europe likewise, strikes and protests against EU austerity policies have revealed the class nature of that organization, once seen as a great democratic conquest by the peoples who freed themselves from tyranny in 1989. The fourth pillar holds for now, but is not without challenge. Sooner or later, perhaps on a European scale this time, the original meaning of Polish Solidarity will arise again in new form. “

Part Two: Ghonim on Revolution 2.0

Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture.

As reported by Nancy Scola:

Ghonim “made an appearance on “60 Minutes” last night, sitting down with Harry Smith. And he seemed as eager as the rest of us to figure out a shorthand way of thinking about what went down in Egypt over the last month.

In a web-only outtake, Ghonim comes up with a easy way of understanding how the contributions of the many could come together into a force capable of triggering the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Think of the wiki, says Ghonim, referencing that humble collaboratively-edited medium that Ward Cunningham dreamt up way back in 1995.

Of course, as Ghonim tells it, the “Wikipedia Revolution” isn’t about a medium at all, but an approach — a nimbleness that makes use of whatever tools are at hand and whatever interest can be tapped into in the hearts and minds of the people. When Facebook went down after he posted details on the locations of planned protests, says Ghonim, “I had a backup plan.” He switched to Google Groups, and then asked people to help spread the information far and wide. “And everyone knew, eventually,” Ghonim tells Smith. (So, wait, does that make this an “Email Revolution”? Yes. It must.)

Ghonim has tweeted that he plans a book on “Revolution 2.0.” And he’s also posted a Google Moderator forum that asks Egyptians to post their hopes and dreams for the country, now that the Mubarak era has ended. So is this a “Google Moderator Reconstruction” of Egypt? Stay tuned.”

Watch the video here, apologies for the advertising attached to it:

2 Comments Empire and its Discontents: The Tahrir Square tipping point as Revolution 2.0

  1. AvatarKatarina

    I fully agree with Ghonim that to define Egypt revolution in terms of approach (only that I would instead call it “action principle”) is, if not more, but equally important as defining it by the medium of action. In that sense: action principle of the revolution is open source, while its medium is web 2.0.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.