What’s Next for the New People Power?
Immanuel Wallerstein: Worldwide social justice movements
are developing their second wind.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
posted Dec 09, 2011
Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square on the December 02,
2011 election day to pay tribute to the people killed in
clashes the previous week and demand the end of military
Photo by Muhammad Moneib
During the protests in Tahrir Square in November 2011,
Mohamed Ali, age 20, responded to a journalist's query as to
why he was there: "We want social justice. Nothing more.
That's the least that we deserve."
The first round of the movements took multiple forms across
the world--the so-called Arab Spring, the Occupy movements
beginning in the United States and then spreading to a large
number of countries, Oxi in Greece and the indignados in
Spain, the student protests in Chile, and many others.
They were a fantastic success. The degree of success may be
measured by an extraordinary article written by Lawrence
Summers in the Financial Times on November 21, with the
title, "Inequality can no longer be held at bay by the usual
ideas." This is not a theme for which Summers has previously
In it he makes two remarkable points, considering that he
has been personally one of the architects of the world
economic policy in the last twenty years that has put us all
in the dire crisis in which the world finds itself.
The first point is that there have been fundamental changes
in world economic structures. Summers says that "the most
important of these is the strong shift in the market reward
for a small minority of citizens relative to the rewards
available to most citizens."
The second concerns the two kinds of public reactions to
this reality: that of the protesters and that of the strong
anti-protesters. Summers says he is against "polarization,"
which is what, according to him, the protesters are engaged
in doing. But then he says: "At the same time, those who are
quick to label any expression of concern about rising
inequality as misplaced or a product of class warfare are
even further off base."
What Summers' article indicates is not that he has become an
exponent of radical social change--far from it--but rather
that he is worried about the political impact of the
worldwide social justice movement, especially in what he
calls the industrialized world. I call this success for the
global social justice movement.
The story, however, is far from over. The movements are
developing their second wind.
The response to this success has been a few minor
concessions here and there, but then a growing amount of
repression everywhere. In the United States and Canada,
there has been a systematic clearing out of the
"occupations." The virtual simultaneity of these police
actions seems to indicate some high-level coordination. In
Egypt, the military has been resisting any dilution of their
power. Austerity policies have been imposed on Greece and
Italy by the fiat of Germany and France.
The story, however, is far from over. The movements are
developing their second wind. The protesters have reoccupied
Tahrir Square and are treating Field Marshal Tantawi to the
same scorn they treated Hosni Mubarak. In Portugal, the call
for a one-day general strike closed down the whole transport
system. An announced strike in Great Britain protesting the
cut in pensions seems likely to reduce traffic in Heathrow
by 50%, which will have major worldwide repercussions, given
the centrality of Heathrow to the world transport system. In
Greece, the government has tried to squeeze poor pensioners
by putting a big property tax on their electricity bill,
threatening cut-off of electricity if it's not paid. There
is organized resistance. Local electricians are illegally
reattaching the electricity, counting on the inability of
the reduced municipal government staffs to enforce their
law. It's a tactic that has been successfully used in the
Johannesburg suburb of Soweto for a decade now.
In the United States and Canada, the occupation movement has
spread from the downtowns of cities to the campuses. And the
"occupiers" are discussing alternative places to occupy
during the winter months. The Chilean student rebellion has
spread to the secondary schools.
The movements are not bureaucratic structures but coalitions
of multiple groups, organizations, sectors of the
Two things should be noticed about the present situation.
The first is that the trade-unions--as a part of what is
happening, as a result of what is happening--have become far
more militant, and far more open to the idea that they
should be active participants in the worldwide social
justice movement. This is true in the Arab world, in Europe,
in North America, in southern Africa, even in China.
The second thing to notice is the degree to which the
movements everywhere have been able to maintain their
emphasis on a horizontal strategy. The movements are not
bureaucratic structures but coalitions of multiple groups,
organizations, sectors of the population. They are still
working hard to debate on an ongoing basis their tactics and
their priorities, and are resisting becoming exclusionary.
Does this always work smoothly? Of course not. Does this
work better than reconstructing a new vertical movement,
with clear leadership and collective discipline? Up to now,
it has indeed worked better.
We have to think of the world struggle as a long race, in
which the runners have to use their energy wisely, in order
not to become exhausted while always keeping their eye on
the end goal--a different kind of world-system, far more
democratic, far more egalitarian than anything we have now.
Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of
The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World
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