[Marxism] Voting with their feet

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 28 07:14:25 MDT 2011


NY Times September 27, 2011
As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe
By NICHOLAS KULISH

MADRID — Hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Indians cheer a 
rural activist on a hunger strike. Israel reels before the largest 
street demonstrations in its history. Enraged young people in 
Spain and Greece take over public squares across their countries.

Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable 
housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But 
from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall 
Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even 
contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic 
political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little 
faith in the ballot box.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta 
Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the 
Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that 
voting is worthless.”

Economics have been one driving force, with growing income 
inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social 
spending breeding widespread malaise. Alienation runs especially 
deep in Europe, with boycotts and strikes that, in London and 
Athens, erupted into violence.

But even in India and Israel, where growth remains robust, 
protesters say they so distrust their country’s political class 
and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel 
only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.

Young Israeli organizers repeatedly turned out gigantic crowds 
insisting that their political leaders, regardless of party, had 
been so thoroughly captured by security concerns, ultra-Orthodox 
groups and other special interests that they could no longer 
respond to the country’s middle class.

In the world’s largest democracy, Anna Hazare, an activist, 
starved himself publicly for 12 days until the Indian Parliament 
capitulated to some of his central demands on a proposed 
anticorruption measure to hold public officials accountable. “We 
elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our 
problems,” said Sarita Singh, 25, among the thousands who gathered 
each day at Ramlila Maidan, where monsoon rains turned the grounds 
to mud but protesters waved Indian flags and sang patriotic songs.

“But that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our 
country.”

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, 
are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade 
unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system 
modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not 
altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments 
this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 
Protesters have created their own political space online that is 
chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions 
of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social 
networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease 
of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of 
like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are 
used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the 
Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 
“They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, 
less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either 
in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of 
doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel 
“a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles 
like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand 
gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the 
latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for 
agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in 
Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet 
conviction that everything should be available without charge.

Someone had to step in, Mr. Levi said, because “the political 
system has abandoned its citizens.”

The rising disillusionment comes 20 years after what was 
celebrated as democratic capitalism’s final victory over communism 
and dictatorship.

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a consensus 
emerged that liberal economics combined with democratic 
institutions represented the only path forward. That consensus, 
championed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End 
of History and the Last Man,” has been shaken if not broken by a 
seemingly endless succession of crises — the Asian financial 
collapse of 1997, the Internet bubble that burst in 2000, the 
subprime crisis of 2007-8 and the continuing European and American 
debt crisis — and the seeming inability of policy makers to deal 
with them or cushion their people from the shocks.

Frustrated voters are not agitating for a dictator to take over. 
But they say they do not know where to turn at a time when 
political choices of the cold war era seem hollow. “Even when 
capitalism fell into its worst crisis since the 1920s there was no 
viable alternative vision,” said the British left-wing author Owen 
Jones.

Protests in Britain exploded into lawlessness last month. 
Rampaging youths smashed store windows and set fires in London and 
beyond, using communication systems like BlackBerry Messenger to 
evade the police. They had savvy and technology, Mr. Jones said, 
but lacked a belief that the political system represented their 
interests. They also lacked hope.

“The young people who took part in the riots didn’t feel they had 
a future to risk,” he said.

In Spain, walloped by the developed world’s highest official rate 
of unemployment, at 21 percent, many have lost the confidence that 
politicians of any party can find a solution. Their demands are 
vague, but their cry for help is plaintive and determined. Known 
as indignados or the outraged, they block traffic, occupy squares 
and gather for teach-ins.

Ms. Solanas, an unemployed online journalist, was part of the core 
group of protesters who in May occupied the Puerta del Sol, a 
public square in Madrid, the capital, touching off a nationwide 
protest. That night she and some friends started the Twitter 
account @acampadasol, or “Camp Sol,” which now has nearly 70,000 
followers.

While the Spanish and Israeli demonstrations were peaceful, 
critics have raised concerns over the urge to bypass 
representative institutions. In India, Mr. Hazare’s crusade to 
“fast unto death” unless Parliament enacted his anticorruption law 
struck some supporters as self-sacrifice. Many opponents viewed 
his tactics as undemocratic blackmail.

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out last month in New Delhi 
to vent a visceral outrage at the state of Indian politics. One 
banner read, “If your blood is not boiling now, then your blood is 
not blood!” The campaign by Mr. Hazare, 74, was intended to force 
Parliament to consider his anticorruption legislation instead of a 
weaker alternative put forth by the government.

Parliament unanimously passed a resolution endorsing central 
pieces of his proposal, and lawmakers are expected to approve an 
anticorruption measure in the next session. Mr. Hazare’s 
anticorruption campaign tapped a deep chord with the public 
precisely because he was not a politician. Many voters feel that 
Indian democracy, and in particular the major parties, the 
Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have become 
unresponsive and captive to interest groups. For almost a year, 
India’s news media and government auditors have exposed tawdry 
government scandals involving billions of dollars in graft.

Many of the protesters following the man in the white Gandhian cap 
known as a topi were young and middle class, fashionably dressed 
and carrying the newest smartphones. Ms. Singh was born in a 
village and is attending a university in New Delhi. Yet she is 
anxious about her future and wants to know why her parents go days 
without power. “We don’t get electricity for 18 hours a day,” she 
said. “This is corruption. Electricity is our basic need. Where is 
the money going?”

Responding to shifts in voter needs is supposed to be democracy’s 
strength. These emerging movements, like many in the past, could 
end up being absorbed by traditional political parties, just as 
the Republican Party in the United States is seeking to benefit 
from the anti-establishment sentiment of Tea Party loyalists. Yet 
purists involved in many of the movements say they intend to avoid 
the old political channels.

The political left, which might seem the natural destination for 
the nascent movements now emerging around the globe, is 
compromised in the eyes of activists by the neoliberal centrism of 
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The old left remains wedded to trade 
unions even as they represent a smaller and smaller share of the 
work force. More recently, center-left participation in bailouts 
for financial institutions alienated former supporters who say the 
money should have gone to people instead of banks.

The entrenched political players of the post-cold-war old guard 
are struggling. In Japan, six prime ministers have stepped down in 
five years, as political paralysis deepens. The two major parties 
in Germany, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, have 
seen tremendous declines in membership as the Greens have made 
major gains, while Chancellor Angela Merkel has watched her 
authority erode over unpopular bailouts.

In many European countries the disappointment is twofold: in 
heavily indebted federal governments pulling back from social 
spending and in a European Union viewed as distant and 
undemocratic. Europeans leaders have dictated harsh austerity 
measures in the name of stability for the euro, the region’s 
common currency, rubber-stamped by captive and corrupt national 
politicians, protesters say.

“The biggest crisis is a crisis of legitimacy,” Ms. Solanas said. 
“We don’t think they are doing anything for us.”

Unlike struggling Europe, Israel’s economy is a story of unusual 
success. It has grown from a sluggish state-dominated system to a 
market-driven high-tech powerhouse. But with wealth has come 
inequality. The protest organizers say the same small class of 
people who profited from government privatizations also dominates 
the major political parties. The rest of the country has bowed out 
of politics.

Mr. Levi, born on Degania, Israel’s first kibbutz, said the 
protests were not acts of anger but of reclamation, of a society 
hijacked by a class known in Hebrew as “hon veshilton,” meaning a 
nexus of money and politics. The rise of market forces produced a 
sense of public disengagement, he said, a feeling that the job of 
a citizen was limited to occasional trips to the polling places to 
vote.

“The political system has abandoned its citizens,” Mr. Levi said. 
“We have lost a sense of responsibility for one another.”

Ethan Bronner contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Jim Yardley 
from New Delhi.




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