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The significance of recent protests for democracy

There is a certain historical justice about TIME magazine’s choice of its 2011 Person of the Year: The Protestor, with the sub-script, “From the Arab Spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow”. What managing editor Richard Stengel writes on page 7 of this issue (December 26, 2011/January 2, 2012), resonates with Albert Camus’s contention that for everyone there is a point where they start rebelling or resisting. Stengel says:

History often emerges in retrospect. Events become significant only when looked back on. No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that the spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy. Protests have now occurred in countries whose populations total at least 3 billion people, and the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history. Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough…the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, ‘the people’, and the meaning of democracy is the people rule. And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets. America is a nation conceived in protest, and protest is in some ways the source code for democracy – and evidence of the lack of it.

It would appear that this veritable eruption of protests in the course of 2011 has been building up for some time, judging by what Hardt and Negri wrote in Multitude (2005:268-288), where they listed and discussed a number of “global demands for democracy” in the contemporary world. According to them, these demands, which even at that time had been increasing in strength, were directed at governmental authorities and multinationals in an attempt to communicate a variety of grievances pertaining to serious encroachments on the principles of democracy – something conspicuously brought into focus by Stengel (above) just the other day once again – and explained by Hardt and Negri as governance with the participation of the people.

The worldwide protests against the global political and economic system could therefore be understood as a sign that “democracy cannot be made or imposed from above” (2005:237). Hardt and Negri listed three principal elements which recur constantly across the board in all the global demands in question as preconditions for democracy, namely (2005:269-270): “…the critique of existing forms of representation, the protest against poverty, and the opposition to war”. What occurred in 2011 (and is still continuing) is therefore closely related to the demands listed by them (especially the first two).

It is also important to keep in mind that the grievances identified by them are inextricably connected to what they (Hardt and Negri 2005:232-238) took to be an increasingly obsolete political conceptualisation and vocabulary, which were forged in the crucible of the birth of modernity, and which could increasingly be seen as having little purchase on the requirements for democracy in the postmodern, globalised world.

Drawing a parallel between the social and political significance of the more than 40000 “cahiers de doléances” (lists of grievances) compiled all over France and submitted to Louis XVI just prior to the French Revolution of 1789, and the accumulating lists of similar grievances – ranging from the most local contexts to the “highest”, most encompassing levels of governance – they observed (Hardt & Negri 2005:269): “Perhaps we can see the protests against the present form of globalization in the same light today and read in them the potential figure of a new global society.”

I believe that the more recent series of protests across the world, involving a range of related political and economic issues, has vindicated Hardt and Negri’s observations published in 2005, and their shrewd insight, that a new vocabulary is needed to conceptualise politics anew, in a manner commensurate with the requirements of an age that is no longer synonymous with modernity.

Their more recent work, Commonwealth (2009), seems to have anticipated the protests of 2011 and beyond even more accurately, and may be connected with the need for a new political vocabulary, articulated in 2005. For Hardt and Negri in Commonwealth the realisation, that revolution of any kind should be understood from within the immanent forces of revolution itself, instead of rooting it in transcendental principles, was already evident in the work of Adorno and Horkheimer (Hardt en Negri 2009:22), although these critical theorists did not break through the “scholastic” level to the point where their conceptualisation of revolution was situated in the thick of activism or militant action itself. According to them, such a practice-oriented theorisation is found in the work of Mario Tronti and Cornelius Castoriades. The possibility of developing the “new political vocabulary” (referred to earlier) is therefore located precisely at the point where theory and protest (or revolution, of the kind witnessed in Tahrir Square early in 2011) meet. They elaborate as follows (Hardt en Negri 2009:24):

“Key is the immersion of the analysis in the struggles of the subordinated and exploited, considered as the matrix of every institutional relationship and every figure of social organization…revolutionary research constantly has to follow and be redefined by the forms of social movements.”

One therefore has every reason to expect political philosophers and theorists of all stripes to have begun engaging with the lessons there are to be learned from the revolutions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, and the ongoing protests of different kinds in Syria, Yemen, Greece, Russia and other countries, expressing outrage at political and economic oppression. It seems clear to me that the understanding of how democracy could, and perhaps should, function in a changed world, may well emerge from a close scrutiny of individuals’ involvement in these protests.