July 6, 2013
A Human Spring
LET ME come back to the story about Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Communist leader. When asked what he thought about the French Revolution, he famously answered: “It’s too early to say.”
This was considered a typical piece of ancient Chinese wisdom – until somebody pointed out that Zhou did not mean the revolution of 1789, but the events of May 1968, which happened not long before the interview in question.
Even now it may be too early to judge that upheaval, when students tore up the
QUESTIONS ABOUND. Why? Why now? Why in so many totally different countries? Why
We know how it started. In the souk of
It was there that a policewoman confronted a fruit vendor and overturned his cart. He was mortally insulted, set himself on fire and set in motion a process that now involves many millions of people around the world.
How did this come about? How does it work? What is the hidden mechanism?
And especially: why at this point in time?
I CAN think of two interrelated phenomena in contemporary life that make the uprisings possible and probable: television and the social media.
Television informs viewers in Kamchatka about events in
Once upon a time, it took weeks for people in Piccadilly Circus in
Not any more. Brazilian youngsters saw what was happening in Gezi Park,
The other instrument is facebook, Twitter and the other “social media”. Five
young men sitting in a
This is a new form of direct democracy. People don’t have to wait anymore for the next elections, which may be years away. They can act immediately, and when the groundswell is powerful enough, it can develop into a tsunami.
HOWEVER, REVOLUTIONS are not made by technologies, but by people. What is it that arouses so many different people in so many different cultures to do the same thing at the same time?
For example, the rise of religious fundamentalism. In recent decades, this has
happened in several countries and with several religions. Jewish fundamentalism
is setting up settlements in the Occupied West Bank and threatening Israeli
democracy. All over the Arab world and many other Muslim countries, Islamic
fundamentalism raises its head, causing havoc. In the
I don’t know about other religions, but there are news stories about Buddhists attacking Muslims in several countries. Buddhists? I always though that this was an exceptionally peaceful creed!
How to explain these simultaneous and parallel symptoms? Commentators use the German philosophical expression, Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”). This explains everything and nothing. Like that other great human invention, God.
So is the Zeitgeist behind the upheavals now? Don’t ask me.
THERE ARE many curious similarities between the mass revolts in different countries.
They are all made by young people of the so-called middle class. Not by the poor, not by the rich. Poor people do not make revolutions – they are too busy trying to feed their children. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was not made by the workers and peasants. It was made by disaffected intellectuals, many of them Jewish.
When you see a group of demonstrators in a newspaper picture, you do not know at first glance whether they are Egyptians, Israelis, Turks, Iranians or Americans. They all belong to the same social class. Young people alienated by a heartless globalization, confronted by a labor market that no longer offers the bright prospects they expect, university students for whose skills there is little demand. People with jobs, but who find it hard to “finish the month”’ as we say in Hebrew.
The immediate causes are varied. Israelis demonstrated against the price of
cottage cheese and new apartments. Turks protest against the plan to turn a
But at root, all these protests express a common disgust with politics and politicians, with a power elite that is seen as remote from ordinary people, with the immense power of a tiny group of the ultra-rich, with a barely understood globalization.
THE SAME mechanism that makes these revolutions possible also produces their outstanding weakness.
The model was already apparent in the
There was a certain spirit. Claude Lanzmann, the writer and director of the monumental film Shoah, once described it to me this way: The students were burning cars. So every evening I spent a lot of time finding a secure place for my car. Until I suddenly said to myself: What the hell! What do I need a car for? Let them burn it!
This spirit lingered for some time. But life went on, and the great event was soon just a memory.
This may happen again now. Again the same thing is happening everywhere: No organization, no leadership, no program, no ideology.
The very fact that everyone has a voice on facebook seems to make it easier to agree on “against” than on “for”. The young protesters are anarchist by nature. They abhor leaders, organizations, political parties, hierarchies, programs, ideologies.
You can call a demonstration on facebook, but you cannot hammer out a joint ideology that way. But, as Lenin once remarked, without a political ideology there is no political action. And he was an expert on the art of revolution.
There is a great danger that all these huge demonstrations will fade away some day – Zeitgeist again – without leaving anything behind, except some memories.
This has already happened in
IN ANY democracy, real change can only take place through new political parties which enter parliament and make new laws. For this you need political leaders – now, in the era of TV, more than ever. It is not enough to generate a lot of steam – you need an engine to make the steam do useful work.
The tragedy in
The brotherhood has failed. Power, after decades of persecution, went to their heads. They threw away caution. Instead of building a new state on moderation, compromise and inclusion, they could not wait. So they may lose all.
The democratic revolutionaries have yet to prove that they are able to lead a
country – in
It’s up to them.