This Saturday, one iconic square, Trafalgar, is to be turned into another, Tahrir – where Egyptians transfixed the world when, with collective determination, they overthrew a powerful regime. British protesters’ call to transform Trafalgar acknowledges that the struggles in the Middle East and those gathering momentum in Britain share a profound connection.
Both are movements of the disempowered many against the small groups of wealthy elites who run our world, often in charmed collusion. In rebellious Wisconsin, those protesting Governor Scott Walker’s attempted crushing of unions also carried placards exhorting themselves to “Walk Like an Egyptian”.
Western elites are, instead, stressing the differences between east and west as they scramble to morph their longstanding support of north African dictatorships into sudden solidarity with rebels. This revisionist view holds that the uprisings are mainly about the desire of young people in the Middle East to live in western-style democracies. President Barack Obama claims that the Arab world can be inspired by a globalising nation like Brazil working in partnership with the US. For Time magazine, the Middle Eastern protests manifest “the modernising imperative” (code for “westernisation”). More than decent employment, public services or fair wages, “what the protesters want”, it avers, “is to be treated as citizens not subjects”. The cheerleading historian of western supremacy, Niall Ferguson, understands, however, that far more is going on in the Middle East than becoming westernised, warning Americans to look to their own revolution and not those in the Arab world for inspiration.
Those calling on protesters in the west to look east actually have it right. The extraordinary levels of social and economic vulnerability impacting ordinary people from the American midwest to the Middle East have shared origins in the global concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands. It is time to dispense with the myth that only western capitalism can teach the world to be free and to turn instead to those people who are drawing on the anti-colonial struggles in their national histories to fight for dignity and justice. If imperialism once played itself out across racial and geographical lines, it is now a global economic system which affects us all, albeit in different ways by exploiting labour, expropriating and privatising resources, concentrating profits and institutionalising inequality. Muammar Gaddafi can scream for Libyan unity against the imperialist west but he fools few Libyans. Their history of incomplete decolonisation teaches them that one does not get rid of foreign colonisers only to be crushed, as Gandhi put it, under the heel of native princes.
It is simplistic to assume that protests in the west and the Middle East are fundamentally different because “they” are fighting “blood-soaked” despots while “we”, after all, live in liberal democracies. Without obscuring real political differences, let us reflect on some overlaps between the open despotism of Arab regimes and our politicians’ behaviour. While our defanged democracies provide ballot boxes, elected representatives feel free to ignore mass demonstrations and work against the general wellbeing, deploying lies and hysteria where necessary (from WMDs to “we are broke”). As Truthout’s Richard Lichtman argues, “managed” democracies can avoid the appearance of suppression while substantively “terminating democracy”. It is perfectly possible to crush collective demands, push millions into unemployment and deprive people of fair wages and benefits while adhering to democratic letter if not spirit.
Both capitalist democracies and dictatorships use political means to concentrate wealth, power and privilege. In Britain and the US, the right to fight corporate power collectively – and effectively – through unions is under ongoing attack. In Britain, the state uses demonisation, brute force and disproportionate punishment to contain mass demonstrations and talks of making some peaceful means illegal. In the US, Democratic legislators resisting anti-union measures, which were then forced through anyway, were threatened with arrest. Britain has seen policies destroying public services hastily enacted without a clear mandate while civil liberties are constantly eroded and inequalities expand. If Gaddafi screams “imperialism” when things get sticky, our politicians find it convenient to denounce “multiculturalism”. What unites the interdependent ruling elites of Britain and Bahrain is the priority they give to the entitlement of the few at the expense of the many, often embodied by dodgy business deals.
That all young Arabs only want free elections is untrue. Theirs is a generation seeking to redeem the full promise of freedom from colonialism, which was never only about getting rid of western rule or, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier condescendingly puts it, foreign “victimisation”. The Arab revolutions draw on a fundamentally anti-colonial vision, which is also about breaking with existing models of power and privilege. Or, as Greg Grandin says of Latin American revolutions, “for a society to be democratic it also has to be just”.
To turn Trafalgar into Tahrir, sharing this vision and taking ownership of our societies, we must now join forces with Arab rebels against the increasing absolutism of corporate power and privilege, wherever it manifests. This not about the “us” of the west versus the “them” of the Middle East, but that more fundamental clash between the barbarism of economic plutocracy and the civilisation of social justice.