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Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Historical Frames: 2011, 1989, 1968

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Activists and analysts increasingly join the Arab Spring with Occupy Wall Street. And some now recognize this historical juncture to have more in common with the transformative social movements of 1968 than with 1989, the year in which east European dictatorships were overturned by democratically driven civil societies.  Shifting comparative frames for 2011 from 1989 to 1968 is helpful on a number of scores for thinking historically, theoretically, and strategically.  It can help us reframe our expectations for global transformations too: for now, it is not only a matter of drafting constitutions, but of rearticulating solidarity across the world. 

From1989 to 2011

At the beginning of 2011, some analysts likened the Tunisian and Egyptian movements to what happened in 1989. After all, in 1989, with a speed few anticipated, people in East Central Europe (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany) peacefully dismantled a system widely recognized as corrupt and unjust. Change came more slowly in Bulgaria, and Romania’s transformation was violent. A couple of years later, an attempted putsch ignited the movement to end the Soviet Union, while the wars of Yugoslav succession moved southeast European transformations with a legacy of immediate violence that continues to haunt. East Central Europe’s 1989, however, offered a model to many, especially European elites, who wished to insert the Arab Spring into a world historical narrative.  That story continues to guide many in the European Union foreign policy establishment. 

I heard the refrain over these last several months in a number of meetings with EU officials: in order to be a better partner for the European Union, Middle Eastern and Far East European emerging democracies (especially Ukraine and Moldova along with the Caucasus) need a better organized civil society and a political elite that recognizes the power of the people and the value of democracy.  With that, the European Union and its allies will reward good initiative with additional resources.  And, truth be told, that basic formula worked well for the first wave of European Union enlargement completed in 2004.

In 1999, European Commission President Romano Prodi was tasked with bringing five postcommunist countries into the EU within ten years; in fact, he managed to enlarge the EU by ten within five years, because the EU and the acceding countries’ elites worked so effectively together to design and implement institutional change.  But building on the story of what began in 1989 to guide what will happen following 2011 is profoundly misleading. 

There are important parallels between 1989 and 2011 to keep in mind.  In both revolutionary moments, Western elites were unprepared, having developed détentes and accommodations with Middle Eastern and East European authoritarians in the spirit of realpolitik. When changes began, political authorities of all stripes did not expect protest mobilizations to spread with such speed or endure for so long. That is, in part, because political elites were accustomed to dealing with one another, and not with civil society as such.  Because the dynamics of transformation were rooted in everyday life, in associations of secondary ties, ruling classes on all sides were blind to the potentials of change. But as the wave generated momentum in 1989, Western leaders could no longer assume the status quo and came to embrace and support democratic, peaceful protest in the name of universal goods like human and civil rights. 

2011 is not 1989

That universality already limits the parallels between 1989 and 2011. After some initial hesitation, there was full support for liberal democratic transformations across the European communist world, standing in stark contrast to the West’s general caution at the start for the 2011 transformation, and its continuing silence around the brutal repression of peacefully mobilized civil societies in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. But consistency is not something on which we should base our comparative sensibilities, for larger structures establish the probabilities of coherent foreign policies.  There are three big structural differences between 1989 and 2011. 

First, the principal imperial contest in 1989 was between a Soviet empire and what most east Europeans perceived to be a democratic community expressed through NATO and the European Union. Most Russians did not see it that way, but their leadership also did not want to continue an arms race impoverishing socialism.  The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, rather sought a European common home made with overtures of peace, expressed by letting east Europeans decide for themselves what futures they sought. In that release from imperial rule, several leaders with authoritarian and some with arguably murderous pasts embraced democracy and compromise, from Poland’s Jaruzelski in 1989 to Ukraine’s Kuchma in response to his country’s Orange Revolution in 2004-05. In this embrace of non-violence, even at the risk of their own fall from power, those associated with dictatorships past supported democracy’s future.  2011 looks very different.

Second, and structurally speaking, the Soviet Union occupied the counter-revolutionary position of 1989’s revolution. However, despite its legacy of counter-revolutionary actions, most evident in its invasion of Hungary in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, its pressure for martial law in Poland in 1981, and even under Gorbachev its killings of peaceful protesters in Georgia in 1989 and Lithuania in 1991, the USSR ultimately used its power to facilitate 1989’s democratic extension.  By contrast, the counter-revolutionary position in 2011 has many more geopolitical actors with very different associations with and commitments to democracy. While Saudi Arabia might be most obvious in that position with its invasion of Bahrain and role in Yemen, the implication of the US and the European Union in authoritarianism’s defense is not hard to recognize when calls for stability stymie calls for democracy and justice. That stands in stark contrast, again, to what happened in 1989, where the West was perceived to be innocent, and a clear ally against communism’s corruption. In 2011, charges of corruption are not limited to authoritarian homes, and reach quite easily to corporate and political elites in those places claiming the democratic mantle 

Third, global economic dynamics shape civil society’s allies and enemies.  Simply speaking, the wake of 1989’s emancipation anticipated an extraordinary, if not all real, expansion of the global economy allowing many more resources from the rich to be invested in the newly emancipated countries. That capital opportunity was coupled with the anxieties of not knowing how long the Russians, now without their Soviet infrastructure but still looking to define their own great power role, would be so accommodating to Western designs.  Both conditions moved the West to embrace the east central Europeans in NATO and the EU more quickly than anyone ever would have expected, thanks as well to extraordinary initiatives by elites and publics alike in the postcommunist world.  By contrast in 2011, with the EU focused on how to stave off economic collapse at home, and the US and the EU worried about how they are making the prospects of even greater global financial disaster quite real, the idea of supporting civil society in the EU neighborhood pales in comparative importance for most Western elites. Ironically, that is why 1989 looks so useful as a comparison for Europeans in 2011.

It is true that in 1989 civil society led change, just as in 2011 it leads it again. But civil society could institutionalize transformations following 1989 because national authoritarians and global geopolitical forces reinforced that change with a prosperous economic outlook channeling that trajectory. In 2011, those conditions work in the opposite direction, while civil society is nonetheless still expected to lead. When Europeans argue that civil societies must prove their worth to get more resources, they are taking a page from the history of 1989’s success, but they are also demonstrating something else: they are not prepared to be as invested in the emancipation of 2011 as they were prepared to be invested in 1989.  That is why, if we seek historical parallels, we should look to 1968 even as we look toward Occupy Wall Street. 

2011 approaches 1968

It’s not hard to find the connections between the protest movements of the Arab Spring and lower Manhattan: protesters from Tahrir address the Wall Street Occupiers and Mosa'ab Elshamy advises how to build the movement. The parallels and contrasts of 2011 remain to be elaborated not only across Cairo and New York, but Madison and Santiago, Hama and Madrid.  With those comparisons, moving beyond protests in the authoritarian world to those in the democratic, we are all emancipated from 1989’s constraints on our imagination.

1989 was defined, in part, by the east Europeans’ wish to be normal, to return to Europe, to escape an empire that painted socialism but produced degradation and indignity.  2011 has no road map, no actually existing normality toward which to drive.  It appeared to have begun that way, for dissolving dictatorship, ending random and brutal violence, and enabling free and open association and speech are the foundations for that public sphere in which public goods can be identified, defended, and sought. That embrace of freedom is the common starting point of 1989 and 2011. But 2011, with public demonstrations for dignity and justice expanding across the world, shows that the normal has become insufferable.  And that is why 1968 might be the better historical analogy to consider. 

In 1968, the normal was defined by imperialisms struggling to hold on to a worldview defined by elites alienated from mass publics, especially their youth.   Those elites’ realisms inspired rebellions without roadmaps for change that were grounded in an alternative ways of being. Yes, the students of Warsaw University emphasized free speech, the students at Columbia University an end to war, the students in Paris a new morality, but they and so many others came to recognize one another as part of the same effort, tied by similar tastes in music and art, and a common alienation from what passed for normal. 

You can see some of the same in 2011, where protesters in Madrid, Santiago and Madison have very different demands, but increasingly recognize one another by their common alienation from power and expression in new symbols.  The internet is critical here, not just for the words that can be shared, but the ways in which new images fuel identifications, bringing visual parallel to all the movements pressing for global change, with something so simple as this: “it is time for us to unite; it’s time for them to listen.”  

If one were to ask for a common platform for change across all these movements, either in 1968 or 2011, one would fail to find common ground. But if one were to ask these mobilized publics whether the one percent is ruling wisely or in the best interests of publics present and future, the “no” would be deafening. And that is enough, in 2011 or in 1968. In neither time is this a global movement with a destination; it is rather an expression asking us to see the world as ninety-nine percent of the world live it, not how one percent of the world promise it could be if they are given more license, more power, more bailouts, more time.

By looking to 1968 for the value of new explanations, questions, and metanarratives that its association brings to 2011’s recognition, we no longer put the onus on Middle Eastern civil societies to liberate themselves to prove their worth to the already democratic.  If instead we look to 1968, we overcome the limitations of talking about an Arab Spring by itself, or as an extension of 1989, and rather ask what the occupations in Madrid and Athens, on Wall Street and in Madison, in New Delhi and Santiago, have to do with one another, and with the continuing struggles in Cairo, Hama, and Manama.  It’s a time to open up, to question relationships and systems.   But that also carries risk.

Some invoke 1968 to warn that 2011 is doomed to failure. Without roadmaps, without leaders, without clear and realistic policy choices, movements like these are destined for takeover by ideologues detached from knowing how to institutionalize democratic and peaceful change, and for destruction by authorities who know how to divide and conquer and/or to stimulate violence and hate within civil society if simple state repression is not enough. That is why, in the end, I look back to 1980 for my final historical frame. 

The largest social movement in history was named for the value that was its greatest resource, allowing it to organize more than nine million men and women in a non-violent movement for radical change, leading with workers’ rights while extending democracy, freedom, and equality.  Poland’s Solidarity movement of 1980-81 grew in its demands, but was dedicated first and foremost to recognizing how demands might be local, but solutions are found by recognizing the struggles of others and sharing their burden across class, religious, and regional lines.  And that lesson of solidarity was born in the struggles of 1968, where Polish communist authorities mobilized workers against protesting students, arguing that their calls for freedom marked them as enemies of socialism, justice and equality.

Poland should not be the only nation so fortunate as to birth solidarity from its 1968 experience. Indeed, it is especially important in 2011.  Identifications between Tahrir and Wall Street’s Liberty Square are nice, but where solidarity remains to be made, and becomes increasingly important if the negative lessons of 1968 are not to be repeated. Solidarity, more than any other policy prescription, might be the greatest good to be realized in 2011, in anticipation of what 2012 can bring.

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