The power of people

The power of people

Winds Of Change

The power of people

These are tumultuous times. From Wisconsin and Greece to the Arab world and India, people are standing up to be counted and are demanding change.

There is more than a whiff of the 1960s in the air, a decade of people power when civil rights activists, anti-war protestors, students and workers across the western world were on the march. Perhaps today’s younger generation is living through its own version of that period.

Although this decade is still in its infancy, it’s quite possible that people will look back on it in 30 years’ time in the same way we now look back on the 60s.

The 1960s crackled with revolution. It was a decade of excess and flamboyance as much as it was of feminism, Marxism and the New Left. There was the hippie movement that questioned conservative post war conventions with flower power, free love and Woodstock. And then there was Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Tariq Ali, radicals who resisted oppression and advocated wholesale political change.

The Prague Spring shook the communist world, over 30 African countries gained political independence, racial segregation in the US was outlawed and the revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, was at the helm in Cuba. Many things didn’t work out and have left a lingering legacy of disillusionment, but we do actually have a lot to thank the 60s for. The decade laid the foundation for women’s rights, gay rights and a whole host of civil liberties and personal freedoms that are now taken for granted, especially in the western world.

The lesson from the 1960s is that change is possible, and thankfully, this has not been lost in today’s world. With a hint of deja vu, the Left is on the rise once again, with Hugo Chavez in power in Venezuela, Evo Moales in Bolivia and a number of other leftist leaders holding top political office throughout the region. Change is sweeping North Africa and West Asia too.

If the heady days of the 60s and the current upheavals in the world tell us anything, it is that the individual, whether acting alone or collectively, can be a force for change. Look no further than India and the plight of Binayak Sen, for instance, which has inspired many and captured the world’s imagination. Along with other prominent figures, such as Arundhati Roy, Sen has drawn worldwide attention to India’s powerless and forgotten folk, who are being thrown off their land by powerful mining interests in the name of ‘progress’.

But Sen has been making a difference all his life to the lives of the poor and downtrodden. The Indian Academy of Social Sciences has stated that his suffering and personal risk may well serve to inspire scientists as well as the general public for some time to come. The Global Health Council has noted that his accomplishments speak volumes about what can be achieved in very poor areas when health practitioners are also committed community leaders.

Anna Hazare has also been making a difference for quite some time with various social and economic projects, ranging from improving irrigation, education and local decision making to successfully tackling untouchability. But it is his ‘fast till death’ anti-corruption protest that has been a rallying point for ordinary people. The fast led to nationwide protests and has forced government action.

Hazare’s belief is that India will become a strong nation by having self-reliant, self-sufficient villages, which can be achieved only through social commitment and the involvement of the common person. For too long, many have been mired in fatalism by adopting a ‘we are like this only’ mentality, but, for a moment at least, Hazare’s anti-corruption protest appears to have struck a chord with many across India.

Sen and Hazare are not alone. There are many others battling for change, not least Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for over ten years to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in Manipur. Unfortunately, her plight and cause have not impacted the public conscience in the way that Hazare’s has.

While Sen, Hazare and Sharmila are concerned with the looting of the nation’s wealth, debasement of civil liberties or the oppression of certain populations, recent events elsewhere show that such concerns are hardly unique to India.

On his visit to the country last year, it was noticeable that Barack Obama and his corporate entourage had little to say about the bottom 50 per cent of the population. Not much was said about the kind of warped ‘development’ that creates rich-list billionaires while driving many into poverty and removing access to publically funded services. And it’s the same situation across the globe.

In fact, Hazare says that corruption is an issue that encompasses poverty, unemployment, water, food and sources of livelihood. And it is those very issues that have, to an extent, fuelled many of the protests as an arguably corrupt global economic system has negatively impacted the lives of tens of millions throughout the world.
In Greece, as a result of the ‘austerity measures’ being imposed on the population, resultant anger is fuelling a challenge by ordinary people to the power of finance.

Hundreds of academics, politicians and activists are calling for the opening of Greece’s debts to public scrutiny, with the aim of confronting the way that the International Monetary Fund and European Union work behind closed doors to force their policies on member countries, whereby ordinary people suffer the consequences. A short viral film called ‘Debtocracy’ (government by debt) is sweeping Greece’s online community and convincing people they are being conned.

People have been protesting in many countries in response to the banking crisis, unfair public sector service cuts and rising food prices and poverty. Even before the banking crisis, too many had for too long experienced the impact of deregulated markets and consistent downward pressures on wages.

In the Arab world, throw into the equation simmering resentment over the treatment of Palestinians and the presence of western-backed dictators and corrupt officials who have scant regard for human rights and civil liberties, and you had an explosion of mass resentment that was just waiting to be triggered.

The self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia seems to have been the turning point. After that incident, protest and revolt spread across the Arab world, despite crackdowns by repressive governments. Calls for change have swept the region.
The mantra of change for change’s sake can be very seductive, however. Think back to Obama and his ‘world tour’ just before he was elected.

Tens of thousands all over the world turned out to listen to him talk inspiringly about change and hope. The media fell over itself to impart what turned out to be a cruel public relations con-trick by his Wall Street backers based on the deceit of no more wars, no more Gauntanamo and no more US imperialist-type jaunts abroad.

Gauntanamo is still there, war has been stepped up in Afghanistan and a new one started in Libya, and the CIA has its blood soaked fingers ever deeper in the turmoil that has become a defining feature of Pakistan. Despite the exercise in portraying him as the man of the people, Obama has failed to make a significant difference for the better. But, what of the ordinary folk who want change, particularly in the Arab world?

Gigi Ibrahim was one of the many activists in Tahir Square demanding an end to the Mubarak regime. When interviewed on British TV, the interviewer suggested that, unlike in the 1960s, today’s protestors lack any coherent ideology or sense of political idealism.

When the interviewer listened to Ibrahim stating that she is a ‘revolutionary socialist’, perhaps he was somewhat surprised by such a good old dose of 60s-style radicalism.
What young people like Gigi Ibrahim want and what they finally get, however, may well turn out to be entirely different things, given the disparate nature of those involved in the protests, cosmetic personnel changes by regimes that stay in tact (a major concern in Egypt) and the heavy shadow cast across the Arab world by the US, Israel and the Europeans.

In any case, the tectonic plates of history may not yet be ready to shift in the right direction for far reaching, radical and lasting change to take place. Lenin posited that in spite of widespread discontent throughout Europe in the early 20th century, Russia was the country in which revolution occurred because it contained all the contradictions possible within a single state at the time. It was ripe for transformation.

Nonetheless, individuals acting alone or together can still enact change. Sometimes the best that can be hoped for is incremental change rather than that of the revolutionary kind — just giving those tectonic plates a slight nudge in the right direction.

In India, it remains to be seen if people power can ultimately win through. Persistence is the key. After all, the people are many and the power holders few. Hazare, Ibrahim and many others appreciate this. Irom Sharmila, and for that matter, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, are more aware than most, at least as far as persistence is concerned.

Of course, new technology in the form of the internet and social media can help. The online transnational community, Avaaz, informs people by e-mail about issues and urges them to take action on matters from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change.

This model of internet organising is allowing millions of individual efforts to be rapidly combined into powerful collective forces. The vital role of social media in campaigns and protests is now an accepted norm among a burgeoning younger generation that appears less inclined to tolerate corruption, inaction or injustice than those that went before.

When used this way, new technology provides individuals with a sense of direct power in an age when an increasing number of younger people are acutely aware that placing an ‘X’ on a ballot paper every few years just isn’t good enough. Given the deep seated nature of the many problems facing the world, a new generation wants democracy to be an ongoing, everyday affair and politicians genuinely held to immediate account, especially when the main priority of many an official and political party appears to be the speed at which they rush to suck at the corporate teat.

If new technology is helping to bring about change in places like India or the Arab world, then all well and good. Nearly all change that has benefited ordinary people has resulted from the actions of ordinary folk themselves.

Apart from the philanthropists, such benefits have never been handed out freely by the bankers, stockbrokers or corporate rich who wield the power. This has been true whether for women’s rights, political rights, workers’ rights or any other number of civil liberties. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X knew this. Gigi Ibrahim, Anna Hazare and countless others know it too.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox