Sunday, May 8, 2011

People Power, Political Power, Fire Power and the Balance of Power in a Connected World

First there was Tunisia, with the people demanding change and the ancient, creaking government pushing back.  Then came Egypt, with it's restive, hungry youth wondering what their lives might look like, and a sclerotic old dictator who never had a chance to understand the new order - he was gone before he could slaughter his people, once again, into submission.  Now there's a referendum, a re-written constitution and elections coming, but inexorably the old political order moves in to take the reigns of power once again.  The ridiculous, hated "emergency" laws will be history, but the same grinding, desultory economic reality will continue to take it's historic toll.

In Yemen and Syria, regimes fighting for their lives and livelihoods, but peering over the time horizon is the status quo, in a different guise, but the same, all the same.  In Saudi and Iran, the power of the state called out to crush their own people's cry for a voice, for a chance, for a future.  And in Bahrain, an oppressed and mal-treated majority rises up, and a wealthy, sclerotic monarchy reaches out to their sectarian brothers for the raw firepower necessary for them to retain their increasingly illegitimate power. For them, like so many historical autocrats, the end game is nothing but increasing violence, and people increasingly willing to sacrifice for a chance for their children.  So many lessons, so poorly learned.

It's all happening in a small geographic region, but it's a diverse region, and what's happening in these countries from North Africa to the Persian Gulf has many reasons, a hundred fathers and a thousand flashpoints.  It's difficult to learn a lesson that is anything more than an ephemeral, passing explanation, a mere case-by-case analysis.  But here's what we HAVE to learn - the one data point that can draw a line across the calendar, from police state to government made legitimate by its own people.

The question is simply this: Can democracy be born in violence?  And the alternate option, can a people's demand for democracy be ended by violence?  Historically, the answer to the first was a resounding, unequivocal yes.  People could, and repeatedly have thrown off autocratic governance, even monarchy, in the name of self determination and a viable political process.  The rule of law, not of men, came into being only when the people demanded it, and were willing not only to fight for it, but to die in whatever numbers it took.  Certainly there are also historical examples of a regime being willing to use sufficient violence to crush dissent and cement their political power for another generation.  But like so many other things, the rapid evolution of digital communication technology has changed these calculations, and for now, unsure of how the various dynamics play out, we watch, transfixed, as people fight for a voice in their own future, and the regimes that profit from their oppression, with no valid justification for their continued rule, fight only to intimidate, to raise the cost of rebellion until it exceeds that of the status quo.

As we watch the old line, those made wealthy and powerful by the previous regime maneuver against the politically naive people in Tunisia, we realize how hard it actually is to win a modern revolution.  In Egypt, the power has always, ultimately, belonged to the military, and it remains to be seen just what sort of representative government they might allow.  In Libya, a stalemate, leaving open the question of the efficacy of unfettered violence and brutality as a method for the preservation of power.  And all around the region, the people bleed, not only blood and viscera, but hope itself as they come to realize the size and strength of the roadblocks to real change, and as they come, every day, to understand a little more clearly how alone they are, and how hopeless is their quest.

There is, within me, a real sense of anger and helplessness.  First, at the brutal, self serving regimes, who have forgotten, if they ever knew at all, that the role of a nation's leadership is to serve, protect and improve the lives of their population.   But then, in rapid succession at the rest of the world.  What is our role?  What responsibility do we collectively bear?  It so often seems that everyone involved in the process has some kind agenda, that it's all about positioning, finding a seat at the table when the gunfire stops, or at least subsides.  Commodities, trade routes, manufacturing hubs, cheap labor, timber - the only thing that seems to be left out of the calculation is the desperate hopes and aspirations of a population so hopeless that they believe their best future is to face down tanks unarmed.

In Libya, the world at least tries to make it a fight and not a slaughter.  In Iran and Syria, the world shrugs it's collective shoulders as the slaughter is brief, information scarce and media coverage non-existent.  In Egypt, the people may have made significant political progress, but that doesn't stop the basic tribal stupidity of religion from ending whatever unity the Egyptian people might have found in Tahrir Square.

And even as we watch these people, along with their dreams, die hard and slow on Democracy's altar, we ourselves turn away without a word as our Democracy unravels into some kind of Capitalist Security State, built in the name of greed, fear, hatred and bigotry and structured to serve only the wealthy and powerful.  Is it sadder to watch people fight and die for a chance at what we have, or to watch us give it all up, unwilling to even raise our voices in protest?


  1. I remember having similar thoughts when UK students protested having to pay tuition costs. I can't imagine there being such angry protests here, though I know there were some small-scale ones in California. Just the idea of people demanding a safety net and a more egalitarian society feels foreign to me. It's depressing.

    W/v calls me a Booker.

  2. There is, within me, a real sense of anger and helplessness. First, at the brutal, self serving regimes, who have forgotten, if they ever knew at all, that the role of a nation's leadership is to serve, protect and improve the lives of their population

    I am often confused by this. Okay, there can be a degree of corruption such that you live a good life...but after that, what in these people prevents them from trying to do good things?

  3. Sadder to watch us give it away.

    The Clash:

    all the power's in the hands
    of the people rich enough to buy it
    while we walk the streets
    too chicken to even try it