Protests in Madison, Wisconsin (USA) would otherwise appear to be a home-grown, Tea-Partyish type of movement (indeed, Tea Partiers were a large contingent protesting in support of the bill) were it not for the past two weeks of protests that appear to be spreading (if not necessarily “escalating”) throughout much of the Middle East, and now, China too (the “Jasmine Revolution.”).
It started in Tunisia, quickly spread to Egypt, where the most dramatic protest narrative came to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion with the resignation of Mubarak. Before Egypt was finished, though, there were reports of protests in Morocco, Libya (where they have turned violent – that is, the military shooting against citizens), and Bahrain. As one commentator said, “if Bahrain – usually such a stable state – can see an uprising, this can happen anywhere.”
Can such a “revolution” happen in the United States?
First, we would need to define what we mean by revolution. It can’t simply be mass protests that fizzle out and effect no change (just think of all the Iraq war protests under Bush – what good did any of that do?). Second, if an Egyptian-style revolution were to occur (i.e., mass protests that actually achieve a widespread consequential resolution), it would likely look very different in the United States than it does in the Middle East.
No One-Size-Fits-All Revolution
There is no one-size-fits-all style of revolution. Someone on Twitter commented that many of those in the Middle East are willing to “die for their freedom” but yet people in Germany don’t even want to go vote. This is a bit of an unfair comparison. First – the “freedom” spoken of is likely understood to mean some version of a free-market-influenced political “democratic” freedom, which Germany already has. So they don’t need to fight for it anymore. Fighting for freedom in Germany would refer to something very different indeed.
Second, it is the nature of advanced capitalist economies to gather up all political and social energy and route it into ongoing cycles of sales and profits. This language isn’t meant to be hyperbolic. Products are the Gods of capitalism, and they are constituted by their own mythologies – the virtual marketplace is the 21st century Mount Olympia. This is a place where you can have any need fulfilled if you can pay for it – and a place where all opportunity is yours if you can create a product for it.
Capitalist social organization creates the illusion of individual autonomy – it requires this illusion in order to survive. You think you are such an individual because you bought such and such a car rather than the one your neighbor has – or because you’re “opting out” of consumerism when really it has just defined a new market niche built just for people like you (and you might even be complicit in this, if you’re a minimalism blogger selling e-books from your website on how to become a minimalist blogger).
Revolution in the United States isn’t going to look anything like the Middle East, simply because American social organization is a much more intricately woven, manufactured social system. It is an ecology of competing mythological narratives, all of which compete to claim their participation in the ideal narrative – that of the “real America.” The variety of constructed market segments and “voter populations” and social niches each with their own official narratives and needs and wants – everyone with a “unique voice” and “unique role” to play in the economy – all of this segmentation and citizen differentiation prevents any critical wave of mass consciousness from getting off the ground.
Protests and Coming Economic Austerity
What do all the protests have to do with the economy? Well, there’s the massive food inflation that Bernanke has exported everywhere else in the world. This is at least part of the reason for Egypt’s unrest. It’s starting to come back home, though – check out the valuation of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters – now the officially most expensive company in America. You can’t think that none of that has anything to do with higher coffee prices going forward.
In Wisconsin, Republican governor Scott Walker wants to trim benefits and bargaining rights for many public unionized workers – including large groups of students and teachers. Protesters have spent much of the week protesting against Walker’s bill, drawing out some of the largest crowds the capital has ever seen. The protests have been completely peaceful, but police officers were drawn in from neighboring counties to help bolster support.
This is what the creeping austerity is going to look like. Who has the right to say how much money is enough to live on? America likes to think that it stands for equality, but America is one of the least equality-producing nations on earth. Citizens are all equally “American,” that’s for sure – but aside from that, what does that really mean? It means everyone gets the same chance to run in the big capitalist wealth-accumulating marathon, that’s all. And what happens when that race has been run? On what basis can America constitute itself as the ground of equality then?
The problems of Libya and Morocco are not the problems that America has now, nor in its past. People can’t look at Egypt or Libya and project American ideas of freedom onto those situations. Americans are just as “enchained,” and need to understand what this really looks like at home. They need to see themselves in Libyans, not as potential fellow consumers of more bite-sized capitalist freedoms, but as individuals similarly subject to nationalist narratives (which, in the case of the United States, includes the capitalist economic ideology) that work to keep social order.
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