2011 was a year unlike many others. Change was in the air. Revolutions, protests and demands for equality. In the West. In the East. In the Arab world. It’s something I examine in the updated edition of my book The Blogging Revolution (recently released in India).
A new book by Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, continues the investigation and asks why the collision globally between technology and discontent is a heady brew:
If the Arab spring had happened in isolation, it might have been categorised as a belated aftershock of 1989; if the student unrest had been part of the normal cycle of youth revolt, it could have been quickly forgotten. But the momentum gathered, from Iran to Santa Cruz, to London, Athens and Cairo.
The media began a frantic search for parallels. Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, told me: “It’s a revolutionary wave, like 1848.” Others found analogies with 1968 or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In late January 2011, I sat with veteran reporters in a TV newsroom and discussed whether this was Egypt’s 1905 or its 1917.
But there is something in the air that defies historical parallels: something new to do with technology, behaviour and popular culture. As well as a flowering of collective action in defence of democracy, and a resurgence of the struggles of the poor and oppressed, what’s going on is also about the expanded power of the individual.
For the first time in decades, people are using methods of protest that do not seem archaic or at odds with the contemporary world; the protesters seem more in tune with modernity than the methods of their rulers. Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris calls what we’re seeing the “movement without a name”: a trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get stuck into fixed patterns of thought. Why is it happening now? Ultimately, the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself.
At the centre of all the protest movements is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future. In North Africa there is a demographic bulge of young people, including graduates and students, who are unable to get a decent job – or indeed any job. By 2011, there was 20% youth unemployment across the region, where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. In Libya, despite high GDP growth, youth unemployment stood at 30%. But youth unemployment is not a factor confined to North Africa. In Spain, in 2011 youth unemployment was running at 46%, a figure partially ameliorated by the tendency for young Spaniards to live off their extended families. In Britain, on the eve of the student riots of 2010, youth unemployment stood at 20%.
The financial crisis of 2008 created a generation of twentysomethings whose projected life-arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward curve to a downward one. The promise was: “Get a degree, get a job in the corporate system and eventually you’ll achieve a better living standard than your parents.” This abruptly turned into: “Tough, you’ll be poorer than your parents.” The revolts of 2010–11 have shown, quite simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively disillusioned, when it realises that the whole offer of self-betterment has been withdrawn.