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Bridging the Dignity Gap

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April 15, 2012

From Cairo to Wall Street, are we in the midst of a historic shift in the way governments relate to their citizens?


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, at least four continents erupted in protest movements that ranged from disruption to revolution. For many activists and observers, they seemed a long time coming. But a closer look at the protests reveals that, in the particulars, many are asking for quite different things. Is the historical tide really shifting? Or was it all just a coincidence?

When I think about the spirit of resistance that has blossomed all over the world, and wonder why it has happened now and in so many places, I often remember a short car trip I took in Damascus five and a half years ago.

In 2005 and 2006, while working in the Syrian capital for the main United Nations office, motorcades of tinted-window black sedans would periodically careen through the boulevards. Long and loud, they drove at fast speeds and sent a message to the populace: someone important is in town. And while fast presidential convoys are well known in many countries, in Syria they seemed to be another performance in a theater of authoritarianism. At times, the country felt like a propagandistic stage covered in the props and sets of a great play, every detail calculated to remind the audience that the regime was in charge, completely. When those black Benzes bent the corners, even an American like me knew that something of real importance was taking place, involving people who lived on a different plane from the triviality of our existences.

That was a politically volatile period in Syria, with the U.S.-led war raging in neighboring Iraq, Syrian troops pulling out of Lebanon after a 15-year “peace-keeping” stint, and Israel bombing southern Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs into rubble in pursuit of Hezbollah. So it was little surprise that plenty of international figures passed through Syria in those days, and made the requisite call at the offices where I worked.

During one of these visits, I was astonished to find myself a passenger in one of those black sedans with the curtains in the back windows, a government driver and security agent in the front seat. The government and the UN were carpooling to attend a dinner meeting with a visiting dignitary, and I was tagging along.

It was a ten-minute trip I’ll never forget. In a dusk drive from the UN offices in an upscale neighborhood across town to the ancient narrow streets of the old city that are famous with tourists, I saw Damascus from the other side of the tinted windows. I saw the people’s heads turn as they scurried away, hawkers pull carts back toward the sidewalks, young men who had lingered in intersections quicken their pace to cross. As we turned into an alleyway, the route became more clogged, but the cars continued at a near-reckless clip.

“Make way, guys, make way!” the security detail shouted at men who leapt onto curbs.

Someone asked why he was yelling at them. Be nice, they’re going to get annoyed with us.

“No, no, they’re happy they’ve seen an official!” the man said with a smile.

His words dripped with a derision that is necessary in any situation of extreme inequality. When a small group of people controls the fates of the masses, contempt for the powerless is a necessary ingredient in the perpetuation of the dynamic. Respect for the powerless complicates things terribly: if they are respected, they will not remain powerless for long.

At least part of the answer is that, as American-style capitalism became the norm for the world, consumerism became the tacit creed of every country that was tapped into the global economy.

When Syrian protesters rose up against the regime in the spring of last year, they were effectively saying No, we will not get out of the way. We demand respect, we demand an equal voice in our future, we do not honor your claims of importance nor your exclusive right to the road. Even for those who feared the chaos that might ensue in a power vacuum, that moment of defiance against a notoriously unjust system was deeply inspiring.

I don’t mean to pick on Syria. The reasons for its political situation, then and now, are complicated, rooted in a history of colonialism, conflict, and the poison of nationalism. In fact, Syrian inequality–economic, but especially political–has much more in common with other countries in the world than many would like to acknowledge. And for that reason, Syria and its uprising are instructive.

Because when popular cries went up around the world for change last year–beginning in Tunisia and echoing from Africa to Europe to the Americas–in many ways the underlying urges were the same everywhere. In doing research for From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices of the Global Spring, the collection of essays from the protesters of 2011 that I edited with Anya Schiffrin and which will be published this May, I have come to believe that the clamor that rose from every country whose streets filled with protesters last year was essentially a common cry for dignity in a global system that has increasingly denied it.

But I also realize that claiming the global protests are a common movement is difficult. And the more you know about each country, the more difficult it becomes. As I have sought out the voices of protesters and sympathizers–both those whose essays were featured in From Cairo to Wall Street and elsewhere–I have listened hard for shared themes and often found that while Tunisia and Egypt were near universal sources of inspiration, the relationships between other groups of protesters have ranged from support to skepticism to mistrust.

Nevertheless, I’m still prepared to argue that we are in the midst of a historic shift in the way that governments relate to their citizens, and citizens to each other, which is founded on the common yearnings of a new generation that has discovered the power of its voice, and is using it to pursue ends that are congruent, if far from identical. What they seek lies on the border of the material and the intangible: equity, fairness, security, and an equal right to the road.

***

But what of the differences, often sharp, between the countries in which protests emerged in 2011? In roughly chronological order, there was first the Arab Spring, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain; the next wave included Uganda, Greece, Spain, Israel, and Chile; relative latecomers were the United States and Britain. By the beginning of 2012, similarly themed protests had emerged in Russia, Nigeria, Russia, and elsewhere.

A few of these countries–Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, for example–had relatively analogous political and economic situations. Generalize too much though, even in the Arab world, and you quickly enter the realm of inaccuracy.

Take the issue of poverty, which was surely a driving force for the revolutions in Tunisia and especially Egypt, where in the Tahrir Square chant of “Bread! Freedom! Human Dignity!”, “bread” was notably the first demand. Poverty, however, was not a common trait of the protesting Arab countries (to say nothing of the rest of the world). Oil-rich Bahrain has income per capita of more than $18,000 per year, making it a high-income country roughly on par with Korea. Syria, which had chugged along for years with underperforming economic growth rates, had nevertheless only recently begun to taste poverty, as the government shifted from a centrally planned economy that was far from vibrant, but did look out for its poorest citizens, to crony capitalism. But acute poverty in Syria–the kind that leaves people hungry and without roofs over their heads–was new, and not widespread.

Meanwhile, the grievances in Western countries must have sometimes looked almost comical to some of the Arab protesters. In the United States, where the crowds at Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots around the country chanted in support of the 99%, critics pointed out that the protesters themselves were probably close to being in the 1% worldwide. (In fact, the claim was not quite right; the median American is actually at about the 93rd percentile globally, which is however still doing pretty well comparatively). Even in countries like Spain and Greece in the midst of severe turndowns that hit the youth especially hard–the youth unemployment rate in Spain has recently reached 50%–few legitimate comparisons could be drawn between the material conditions of the masses and those in poor countries. In Yemen, mothers are 35 times more likely to die in childbirth than in Spain, income disparities notwithstanding. The fact was that while these countries may have all had gloomy outlooks for their economies according to their own relative measures, the standard of living of the average person in the wealthier countries, on paper at least, was still orders of magnitude higher.

Economic variables are the easiest to quantify, but there are also vast political differences between even a dysfunctional democracy and a place like Syria that lacks even the pretense of political choice. Further, the differences between countries meant that protesters had different goals, and that they employed different methods to try to achieve them.

Despite all this, core activists in the groups would clearly love to believe they enjoy solidarity with one another. And in the end, I believe it truly exists. But insisting on it can be awkward. In the weeks before Mubarak stepped down, satellite TV beamed images of Code Pink protesters unfurling their branded banners in the heart of Tahrir. I remember thinking it looked a bit ridiculous–in those days the fall of Mubarak and his henchmen was far from assured, and while Egyptians were putting their lives and livelihoods on the line, the presumably American Code Pink activists were mainly risked an impolite deportation.

Even within the Arab Spring, there were lost-in-translation moments. When I interviewed Bahraini opposition politician Matar Matar, who spent forty-five days in solitary confinement last year for participating in peaceful protests against the regime, he said Egyptians were bemused and perplexed at his demands, which were for serious reform, not revolution. “I believe that overthrowing the regime is not feasible right now,” he told me in December of last year. “Even if the West changes its tone and starts to call Bahrain an authoritarian regime instead of a strategic ally.”

If some Egyptian activists thought that tact sounded overly timid and practical, they were really in for a shock when they visited OWS in October in a show of solidarity. Atlantic correspondent Thanassis Cambanis described in a blog post how Egyptian revolutionaries Asmaa Mahfouz and Ahmed Maher unfurled a banner in Zuccotti Park and tried to find their bearings, only to realize it was nearly impossible to locate the “organizers” of the protest. They seemed bewildered at the lack of focus and the less-than-revolutionary atmosphere. Cambanis’s somewhat comical account culminates with Mahfouz single-handedly stopping traffic while OWSers awkwardly wait for permission from a police officer to enter the street.

Put more simply, this whole system represented a transaction of comfort, or the promise thereof, in exchange for dignity.

In a few cases, relationships between protesters were more than just awkward. After the wave of defiance swept from the Arab world to Europe by way of Spain, it surged back to Israel, where hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets to denounce their country’s turn toward neoliberalism, which had been decades in the making. The Israelis are proud of what they have accomplished. They made strides in reversing regressive tax reforms, in reducing the cost of education, made some improvements in addressing the high cost of housing–the subject that most directly sparked the protests–and established groups of citizens tasked with overseeing lawmakers’ work, by physically invading their proceedings. But the subject of Palestinian rights, if not totally absent from the rallies, was also definitely not a top agenda item. To some Arab protesters, this probably seemed like a game of protest-telephone gone awry, and probably fairly ironic. From Iraq to Morocco, complaints about despotism in the region had long focused on three factors: Arab dictators, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and American occupation of Iraq. Worse, from the perspective of many Arabs, many of the Israeli protesters were self-described Zionists, a term that is nothing short of slander in Syria, Egypt, and many other countries of the region, where it has become shorthand for colonialism and occupation.

But Israeli activists, at least, saw themselves as very much a part of the same season of protest. Youth leaders Stav Shaffir and Yonatan Levi, in fact, cite the Arab Spring as a direct source of inspiration. Though part of their aim is to reclaim Zionism and the symbols of Israel, they describe their movement as a multiethnic one that aims to fight the politics of exclusionary nationalism in their country; they make sure to note that Arab Israelis were among those that joined their protests. Further, they describe Israeli activists borrowing chants from Tahrir Square in their own marches–they told me that one popular slogan was “We are all Tahrir.”

“Even if people felt intimidated, the very image itself was powerful,” Levi said, reflecting on watching the crowds in Tahrir. “It gets into your system,” Shaffir added, saying that it showed “the force and power of nonviolence.”

So what to make of all this? Is the extent of the connection between the global protests that people everywhere saw the hundreds of thousands amassing in Cairo, were inspired by the sheer mass of humanity confronting the powers that be, and that seeing this, they believed those people to have the same grievances they felt in their own country–and projected their own desires onto the upheaval they saw on their screens?

Or do the protests have something deeper in common, even when they don’t see eye to eye on all the particulars?

***

To evaluate this question, we need to take a closer look at some common themes, as well as differences. It’s an inquiry that, I believe, reveals the protests to issue from a common font of yearning for an alternative to the global order that has gradually but quite thoroughly taken hold in the last several decades. What we see are human societies, able to exchange information more quickly than ever before, organizing specific local responses to domestic problems that are manifestations of broad global trends that have left most average people behind. This is not an ideological revolution, at least in the world-wide sense. What the protesters share in common is a rejection of a status quo where some people have more citizenship than others.

One common theme in all the protests is a sense of alienation from the political decision-making process. While the utter lack of democratic choice in, say, Syria stands in stark contrast with the opportunity for participation in Spain or the United States, a major grievance of every protest movement has been the outsized influence of a small group of people in the political process. Even when most people do have access to the polls, the grievance is a serious one. In many countries, this small group is simply the wealthiest cohort who have been able to use their growing influence–income inequality is on the rise throughout Europe and the United States–to buy their own laws, leaders, and policies. This was certainly the case in the United States, where the top 1% of income earners seize some 20% of the total income, and where regulations on the financial sector just happen to be incredibly poorly formed, taxes on capital gains–which disproportionately go to the top–are mind bogglingly low, the estate tax became an issue of national importance even though it affects only the tiny proportion of Americans who inherit $5 million or more, and the wealthy have successfully rebranded themselves “job creators” in much of the mainstream discourse. In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria it was also the super-wealthy who controlled the political sphere, but in these cases brute force and intimidation created the atmosphere for the elites to syphon off riches, whereas in the West the web of power and money is a more tangled one with less clear beginnings.

When dignity is accounted for as a factor, though, the big picture becomes more clear: this global outcry is a historic rejection of life lived according to the whims of a few.

The dynamic of massive inequality that defines the global system is not particularly new. In fact, while inequality has grown with startling speed in the last decade, it really has much earlier roots. Why, then, did it take so long for people to reject these systems?

At least part of the answer is that, as American-style capitalism became the norm for the world, consumerism became the tacit creed of every country that was tapped into the global economy. And consumerism, focused on personal betterment through the acquisition of products, diluted the urge for an alternative.

It all began in the United States. Billboards and advertisements in every medium screamed to us that self-actualization is possible through consumption. The desire to acquire superseded all other concerns; those who were unable to keep up were derided, accused of being a drain on society, or simply ignored. People were blinded to their shared plight.

The false promise of getting one’s own little slice of consumer heaven quite literally distracted people from the fact that it was a bad bargain. Consumer heaven was a package deal–you had to accept that there was a class of people far above who created and sold the brands, defined the terms of success, and accrued the wealth that resulted from so many people buying into the fantasy. In the United States, rather than feeling suspicious about the new shape of our society, we celebrated the rich as our new saints and entrusted them with decisions about our future. We kept their taxes low, we accepted that they enjoy massive privileges unavailable to the rest, and we entrusted them with the steering wheel of the country. We created a new moral order where wealth itself was proof positive of virtue. It was easier to accept this absurdity because we were mostly well-fed and enjoying marginally better creature comforts every year, even as our incomes stagnated and the gap between most of us and the wealthiest grew astronomical.

The United States exported this doctrine. We did it directly by sending our neoliberal thinkers to international institutions, persuading others to adopt our model, or imposing it by preying on the vulnerability of the heavily indebted who needed our assistance. Markets were opened, social safety nets scissored up and burned for capitalist fuel, American corporations given free reign. But we also spread the doctrine indirectly. The exportation of American culture that has made Friends an institution in the Arab world and The Fresh Prince a common reference point for Kenyans is really a gospel of consumerism that has penetrated every village in the world that gets a satellite signal.

In countries where more people got a bigger taste of the consumerist dream–as in the United States–the fantasy of satisfaction through consumption acted as a sedative. But even in poor countries, it was a painkiller. If the threat of violence cowed would-be dissidents in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, the promise of economic growth through open markets robbed them of their consciousness. Where political liberation was an impossibility, personal liberation was still a goal that could be pursued through success in the capitalist system.

This is not to say that well-informed people any place in the world seriously thought they had a big chance of getting ahead playing by the rules of those in power. But they believed they had enough of a chance that it forestalled action, and a critical mass of dissent failed to emerge. They continued to cede the right of way, and smile because they had seen an official. The evidence of this is quite simple (though I admit it has a necessary element of tautology): had they not believed there was enough of a chance, protests would have erupted much sooner.

The consumerist fantasy offered a potent cocktail for control that regimes everywhere used to excellent effect. In Syria in the last decade, as military might dwindled with the decline of the one-time patron Soviet Union, billboards for Syriatel–the mobile phone company owned by billionaire and first cousin to the president Rami Makhlouf–popped up next to the many romanticized portraits of Assad family figures on the highways and byways. In Bahrain, the monarchy kept the peace with dividends from trade in oil–consumerism’s lifeblood–even as it hoarded the best land and most of the money for a tiny few (a driving cause for the protest movement). Tunisia’s relatively robust economy and superficial nods to democracy often made it the poster-child for a more forward-looking Arab country, but of course the government itself was nearly as repressive as the worst ones in the region. Tunisians knew this, but it’s not hard to guess that here as in many other countries, the possibility of an economic freedom made the lack of a political one more palatable. So alluring was the narrative of global capitalism that even in places that never really got a taste of the economic bubble, the sweet stuff that made the 2000s feel like a bonanza for Americans even when it wasn’t (real median income declined over the decade), the promise and possibility held a light in the darkness. What people didn’t seem to realize, on the whole, was that that light was false and fickle, leading them farther away from a fulfilling life, all while reinforcing the already powerful. In exchange for the promise of consumer satisfaction, people were asked to accept that the big shots had the right of way, to accept that they would not participate meaningfully or at all in making decisions about their lives, to ignore for now the inexplicable riches the richest were taking in.

Put more simply, this whole system represented a transaction of comfort, or the promise thereof, in exchange for dignity. When this equation is taken into account, it makes quite a lot of sense that so many countries have erupted in protest at this moment in time.

The bitterness of this bargain was easier to ignore in good times because the material dividends of the new global economy seemed so sweet. But then, there was the global economic downturn, and the scales fell from eyes everywhere.

Let’s throw a few statistics out there to remind ourselves of just how severe an event the Great Recession has been. The global economy shrank by .5% in 2009; advanced economies by 3.4%. The Middle East and North Africa grew at a sputtering 1.8%–even worse when one considers that this is about the same as the population growth rate in the region. The United States, long the beacon of growth and innovation, appeared to be crumbling, with millions of people kicked out of their homes because they couldn’t keep up with payments. A quarter of all homes are now worth less than what is owed on them. The world watched as, rather than helping the poorest, the U.S. government then dug deep in its pockets to bail out the richest financiers who built the system that had collapsed on itself. Further, there still seemed to be money left over to aid America’s despotic allies in the Middle East and to continue pursuing its wars, all while state and local coffers dried up along with tax revenues. Similar sacrifices were made all over Europe, where citizens were asked–or told, in the case of Greece–to tighten their belts.

In places like Egypt, though a step removed from the epicenter of the financial crisis, the fact that 15% of the population was living on $2 a day no longer seemed like a situation that might be escapable in the near future. Things looked worse in the sober light of the global downturn. The brutality of political impotency was now naked. What was left of the fantasy of liberation through growth was dissolving. Economic prospects for the future had dimmed so much that some societies could simply no longer abide their accumulated injustices. The last buffer against each country’s ills had been torn away. From Cairo to Wall Street, from Athens to Damascus, many people who had been robbed of their self-determination–or had given it up, as was more often the case in more democratic polities–saw the bargain for what it was. In our global system of markets, esteem could only be earned through consumption. As even that esteem eroded with the global downturn, it became ever more clear that there was no respect in accepting such an unfair deal.

The people were indignant.

***

It is in this context that we can see how the protests are part of a common surge. And there is one word that pops up again and again to describe why, this time around, people are choosing not to get out of the way for the caravan of black sedans to pass–why this time they chose to occupy public space en masse. That word is dignity.

In Tunisia, as youth activist Mouheb Garoui writes in From Cairo to Wall Street, “Westerners have called our uprising the Jasmine Revolution, but this doesn’t describe the forceful break from the past we have made. Tunisians call it the Dignity Revolution. We believe that dignity was the unique demand of those who protested all around the country and occupied the streets, and in many cases gave their lives.”

Ala’a Shehabi, a Bahraini activist whose husband has been jailed in an attempt to silence her, describes the movement in that country this way: “In the spirit of the Arab Spring, the revolutions of dignity, people are no longer interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself their master. The people want the full menu of rights.”

Matar, the Bahraini opposition politician, put it even more starkly: “This is a movement of dignity. Many activists have good jobs and good living standards, but they are refusing to be slaves for this regime.”

In Spain, the very name that protesters chose–the indignados–reveals the nature of the movement. As much as the marchers set out to protest the austerity measures, they also set out to show that they would not accept the lack of consultation that led to their imposition. As Jose Bellver writes, the protests there that began in May 2011 had a “non-partisan character… perfectly captured in two of the most often heard slogans: ‘They call it democracy, and it isn’t,’ and ‘They don’t represent us.’ ” The movement is as much about changing the process of decision making to take into account all perspectives as it was about objecting to the actual decisions (which, however, were also heavily opposed).

Everywhere the language of fairness has permeated the protests, even as the specific demands have varied greatly according to local context. Of course, there is no curve representing dignity in economic models, at least currently. But just because we don’t have a way of tabulating it, or assigning it a dollar value, doesn’t make dignity less real. The voices of the global spring have shown that. Fairness and equity are factors no society can ignore, whether it is among the world’s most affluent or one of its poorest. Without factoring dignity into the equation, it is nearly impossible to understand why so many have risked so much for change.

Most protests have been exceedingly difficult to sum up ideologically–not only between regions, as I have described, but at the micro level. Protesters in many countries insist that they do not have a specific political agenda. Personally, I initially heard these claims with a great deal of skepticism, but the more I’ve listened the more I have come to believe it. Fundamentally, these movements are trying to open up a new discursive space where a voice is not defined by the number of goons it has enforcing it, or how much money it has to spend. In some places this is a revolutionary task, in others it is one of reform.

While it can be frustrating from an analytical perspective, I actually find the dizzying diversity in the protest movements of the last year refreshing. There is no overarching ideology to all the protests, no central authority handing out a game plan, no global recipe for revolt that is being mimeographed and sent out to cadres. Rather, each movement is developing its own specialized response to the local symptoms of a cancerous global economic and political regime. Rather it is an explosion of discussion. The fight for dignity has taken many forms in the last year, and not every country’s protest will lead to the same solutions. Some will be sidetracked and others, like Syria, are already mired in violence. When dignity is accounted for as a factor, though, the big picture becomes more clear: this global outcry is an historic rejection of life lived according to the whims of a few. The protesters are redefining prosperity and freedom, and respect, fairness, and equity are essential ingredients. People are starting to linger in the streets, and the black motorcades are being forced to slow down, even stop. Maybe soon they will also have to roll down their windows and ask for our opinions.

In watching, writing about, and researching the various movements over the last year, the questions of these movements’ viability and common purpose have nagged me incessantly and at times even dampened the emotional high of watching thousands of oppressed people insist on respect. In the end, though, I am heartened–something has changed in the world. Whatever its immediate outcome, return is not an option. The people have learned the power of their voices.

G

Eamon Kircher-Allen has reported on music, politics and the economy from several countries in Africa and the Middle East. From 2005 to 2006 he lived in Syria where he studied Arabic and worked for the United Nations. He lives in New York City. Eamon is the co-editor of From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring

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3 comments for Bridging the Dignity Gap

  1. Comment by smriti suman on April 17, 2012 at 12:07 am

    globality i this global protest lies in the thrust of people where they demand desperetly that black motocades will have to slowdown, in fact if they will have to follow the traffic rule as the commen man,and shairing of economicdownturn will have to balance itself with equal shairing of economic upsurge as well as dignity.

  2. Comment by sk sng on April 25, 2012 at 10:37 am

    are revolutions ever spontaneous? it would be hard to believe in the romance of them. yet even within this (neo) political network, revolutions in emerging economies achieve enormous meaning, not to mention OWS. great article; humanistic overtures……yet “humanistic” is in itself the very irony we are trying to overcome….or subdue?? love this article

  3. Comment by Cheryl Duckworth on May 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Outstanding article! Beautifully written, hopeful yet grounded. I’ve been writing on dignity and social movements for the past few years so I was excited to see the explicit theme of dignity that you raised, especially in the context of neoliberalism.

    Again, thanks for your article.

    Dr. Cheryl Duckworth
    Nova Southeaster University

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