Hugh Graham, History In the News.
A specter is haunting Europe. Those were Marx’s words. Except now the specter is not Communism. Economic discontent boils on half the European continent. But the haunting is vaster, more diffuse and it’s all over the world. Security Contractor Edward Snowden has revealed unprecedented violation of privacy by Washington's National Security Agency. In Brazil, a vast, unfocused protest erupted in a dozen cities against transit fare hikes, corruption and police repression. In Turkey, thousands of demonstrators against Islamic law and an authoritarian Prime Minister have been cleared from Taksim Square with no solution in sight. In the Arab Spring of the last two years, seas of humanity from almost all classes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and even Syria raged against poverty, economic mismanagement and corruption. Occupy Wall Street, peaceful as it was inarticulate, spread briefly around the world, sputtered and died. Here in Canada, the indigenous “Idle No More” movement, demanded a new relationship Ottawa, perhaps even autonomy. Libertarian, anti-government movements range from anti-tax and anti-regulation on the right to civil liberties on the left.
Slowly, tentatively, left and right have shifted from stark global opposition, to common, though not quite harmonious opposition to the state. When that happens, it used to be called anarchism. Anarchism, at its very minimum is the politics of the sovereign individual in opposition to the state. Here, Edward Snowden might be a case in point. But as far as definitions go, Anarchism remains a Pandora’s Box. There are too many varieties. At the very least, what is happening now is not the so-called “Anarchism” of Black Block rioters or ” the “malign chaos” anarchism rejected by philosopher George Woodcock. But consider this: Anarchism aside, the personal computer has made the individual more sovereign than ever. Anarchism of some kind, for better worse, is on the wind.
I was born in 1951. For most of my life there were hard, clear, global ideologies of right and left: capitalism and communism. It was part of the air you breathed, the vocabulary. It loomed. I was forty before it all started to dissolve. Left and right lost their grandeur and became smaller and more local. As well as noisier, more vulgar, belligerent and less articulate. Left and right and ideology in general have lost the weight and dignity of history along with the fear and the dread. So what of the all the disparate mass protests, the “Springs,” even the coloured democracy protests of the last few years in Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere?
Pundits are quick to point out that most of these global events and movements have little in common but social media and the internet. Most share even less with Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks founder Juian Assange who have exposed US government secrets, often by dumping them on line. The fates of all these movements, from keyboard to public square are likely to be different as well. Aspirations to liberty and democracy have been taken over and buried by religious parties, lost in civil war, chased into embassies, pursed underground, allowed to die in the news cycle.
The questions remains: why now? Why so much protest, everywhere and more often? Sure, there’s the speed and pervasiveness of the internet. But there’s a huge, slow and messy sea change- even if it begs definition, expression, even comprehension.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has defined himself as an anarchist. He and Edward Snowdon have defied the state, not on the principle of socialism or capitalism, but in defense of the sovereign individual. The growing Libertarianism that is so close to the heart of the United States, though right wing, is a form of anarchist individualism. Then there’s the individualist banditry of Wall Street. Take it altogether and it does look like an amorphous, incoherent anarchism. Few of these disparate movements identify with traditional left or right; but continually and everywhere, for one reason or another, they oppose the state and the status quo.
The widening insistence on individual rights, brilliant or banal, won’t go away. Secular, gay, pro-democracy, religious or ethnic, it’s finding expression, increasingly, in the sovereignty of the individual facing the state; and perhaps also, in a subtle way, the sovereign power of the personal computer itself.