by Nafeez Ahmed
The Occupy Movement is currently the most vocal manifestation of public resistance and civil disobedience to hit the West since the 60s. In turn, it has elicited a concerted and in some ways unprecedented militarisation of state violence. In the US, the deployment of tear gas, pepper-spray and rubber bullets has deliberately brutalised peaceful, civilian protestors – purely in the name of restoring ‘civil order’. More than ever, the insistence by people on reclaiming public spaces in the name of opposing the injustice and inequality meted out by the proverbial “1 per cent” is unpeeling the mask of the democratic state, to reveal the unrestrained monopoly of wealth and weapons on which its power is premised.
Unlike previous twentieth century protests, the Occupy Movement is distinguished by its genuine spontaneity, its leaderless dynamic, and its organic global proliferation through the streets of major industrial cities in the North. The driving force of Occupy, however, is not just the escalating global economic recession, although the latter’s role in galvanising grievances shouldn’t be underestimated. Rather, the determination of citizens to occupy strategic public spaces is inspired by a convergence of public perceptions.
The majority of people now hold views about Western governments and the nature of power that would’ve made them social pariahs ten or twenty years ago. The majority are now sceptical of the Iraq War; the majority want troops out of Afghanistan; the majority resent the banks and financial sector and blame them for the financial crisis; most people are now aware of environmental issues, more than ever before, and despite denialist confusion promulgated by elements of fossil fuel industries, the majority in the US and Britain are deeply concerned about global warming; most people are wary of conventional party politics and disillusioned with the mainstream parliamentary system, due to the continuation of scandal after scandal. In other words, on a whole range of issues, there has been a massive popular shift in public opinion toward a progressive critique of the current political economic system. It is, of course, largely subliminal, not carefully worked out, and lacks a coherent vision for what needs to be done – but there can be little doubt that this shift has happened, and is deepening.
People are increasingly disenchanted with prevailing socio-political and economic structures, and they are hungry for alternatives. Yet they see none readily available, no existing mechanism which allows their voices to be truly heard – what left to do, then, beyond simply occupying public space in an effort to, somehow, reclaim power?
Civil Contingencies: State-Preparations for Counter-Insurgency
Yet as the global economic recession began to kick in since 2008, the “1 per cent” – or elements thereof – were well aware that one of the immediate consequences would be citizens taking to the streets. And they were preparing for it.
In late 2008, an internal client memo from US bank and Federal Reserve member Citigroup, authored by chief technical strategist Tom Fitzpatrick, warned unequivocally of “continued financial deterioration, causing further economic deterioration, with the risk of a feedback loop.” This will “lead to political instability… Some leaders are now at record levels of unpopularity. There is a risk of domestic unrest, starting with strikes because people are feeling disenfranchised.”
What to do? One answer to that question was put out by the US Army Strategic Studies Institute in December that year, in a report urging the US military to prepare for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States” provoked by “unforeseen economic collapse”, “loss of functioning political and legal order,” or “purposeful domestic resistance and insurgency”, among other threats. The report warned that Department of Defense resources may need to be put “at the disposal of civil authorities to contain and reverse violent threats to domestic tranquillity” – including “the use of military force… against hostile groups inside the United States.” The noble aim of such state militarisation is, of course, to “restore public order and protect vulnerable populations” – from themselves, it would appear.
Similarly, in the UK since 2004 the government has held extraordinary emergency powers granted under the little-known Civil Contingencies Act. The Act paves the way for the rise of totalitarian state power. Under the powers enabled by the Act, the government can unilaterally decree a state of emergency at its own discretion without public consultation or parliamentary approval. Once a state of emergency is declared, all manner of powers can come into play. Ministers can introduce new laws, “emergency regulations”, by Royal Prerogative without recourse to parliament. These laws can include anything from destroying or confiscating property, banning protests and public assemblies of any kind, instituting curfews, prohibiting travel, deploying the army on British soil, sealing off whole cities, shutting down websites, censoring media, and so on. Worse still, the state could classify whatever it wants as new criminal offences.
The problem is that the Act has nothing to do with responding to real emergencies. According to the journal of the British Association of Public Safety Communication Officials, the government has “no clear direction or dedicated budget and a complete lack of Act-specific assessment” relevant to actually preparing the country for concrete national emergencies or disaster scenarios. They rightly ask, “If the Government is truly committed to protecting the nation, why are Ministers not using the powers provided by the Civil Contingencies Act to proactively monitor the true state of preparedness across the country?”
The New Transnational Class War
This is a good question, because the bulk of Western government preparation for ‘civil contingencies’ has focused overwhelmingly on centralisation and consolidation of state military and police powers. Why is this? For an idea of the kind of hopelessly regressive thinking that takes place at defence establishment level, a few excerpts from this choice Ministry of Defence report from 2007 are worth contemplating. The report, drawn-up by planners at the MoD’s Defence Concepts and Doctrines Centre – a supposedly advanced military think-tank which plans for future trends – points out that by 2035, world population is likely to grow to 8.5 billion, with less developed countries accounting for 98 per cent of this growth. The report acknowledges that this massive population growth will occur in the context of massive global stress related to simultaneous environmental, energy and economic crises.
Intriguingly, the report focuses on a “youth bulge”, with some 87 per cent of people under the age of 25 inhabiting the less developed South. In particular, it notes that the population of the Middle East will increase by 132 per cent, and of sub-Saharan Africa by 81 per cent. These are predominantly Muslim regions. Hence the report warns of a danger that escalating global crises will fuel a rise in Muslim militancy: “The expectations of growing numbers of young people [in these regions] many of whom will be confronted by the prospect of endemic unemployment… are unlikely to be met.” Growing resentment among the rising numbers of young people in these regions toward their undemocratic regimes will be channelled through “political militancy, including radical political Islam whose concept of Umma, the global Islamic community, and resistance to capitalism may lie uneasily in an international system based on nation-states and global market forces.” But the report doesn’t stop there. It goes further in pointing out a danger of radicalization not only in the South, but also in the North, and warns of a global middle class revolution: “The middle classes could become a revolutionary class, taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx.” This could occur on a transnational scale, due to an increasing global divide between a super-rich elite and the middle classes, as well as the rise of an urban underclass, in which case: “The world’s middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest.” Curiously prescient – if a little off in terms of dates (24 years off, to be precise).
Let’s take a step back for a moment and reflect on this extraordinary document. It not only problematises population growth amongst particular religious and ethnic groups – it demonises all forms of potential resistance to prevailing global political economic structures across racial, national and class lines. And it does this because it is symptom-oriented – it offers a reactionary militarised response to certain surface symptoms rather than root structural causes related to the organisation of the global system.
The End of History is Nigh
The subliminal, unstated ideological assumption of this sort of analysis is simply this: the current global political economic order must be sustained, maintained, perpetuated at any cost; it cannot be permitted to undergo deep-seated structural reforms, because it is already perfect – we have already arrived at Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, the “unabashed victory of political and economic liberalism” in the West, and “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”, discounting all possibility of alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. Therefore, resistance against the neoliberal system is illegitimate, and deserves to be crushed without remorse.
But Fukuyama was dead wrong. We are currently facing not simply one crisis, but a converging multiplicity of global crises – the global financial crisis, the global water crisis, the global food crisis, the crises of terror, war & militarisation – each of which is merely an interconnected symptom of a deeper Crisis of Civilization. Even the International Energy Agency now warns that we have a maximum of five years before we enter an unpredictable era of dangerous, irreversible climate change heading toward an uninhabitable planet, driven by a global industrial machine which privileges unlimited economic growth for the benefit of a tiny elite minority, against the needs of the vast majority of the human population.
The Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement across the West are, in this context, populist outbursts of resistance against planetary-level human suicide; the beginnings of the death-throes of an overarching civilizational form that is simply not working. The very nature of our civilization – given its accelerating trajectory toward ecological and economic self-destruction – is now in question; its ideology of nature and life, its value system, and how these are inherently linked to its socio-political, economic and cultural forms.
Yet what we are facing is not simply a process of civilizational collapse, but more fundamentally, a process of civilizational transition, the outcome of which remains to be seen. For the first time in human history, we face a civilizational crisis of truly planetary proportions. With it we are witnessing the self-destruction and decline of an exploitative, regressive and harmful industrial civilizational form within the next few decades, and certainly well within this century. With all this, we have an unprecedented historic opportunity, as this regressive civilizational form undergoes its protracted collapse, to push for alternative ways of living, doing and being – economically, politically, culturally, ethically, even spiritually – which are potentially far more conducive to human prosperity and well-being than hitherto imaginable.
That can only be done if we galvanise the energy and excitement of the Occupy Movement to develop firstly, coherent critical diagnoses of the true nature of the problem; and on that basis, coherent alternative frameworks of action. We need to work concertedly to demonstrate the efficacy and superiority of alternative social, political, economic, cultural, and ethical models of life. Not only do we need to develop our thinking and action on this, we need to develop innovative ways to show-case these ideas, to popularise them, and to educate communities and institutions. Most critically, we need to explore how communities, particularly those who are most marginalised and disenfranchised, can act on these models now, to begin creating real change at the grassroots, from the ground up. How can we work together to develop more participatory forms of economic exchange? How can we pool local and community resources to become more resilient to energy shocks – by becoming more self-sufficient in decentralized renewable energy production? How can we learn new skills so that we can grow our own food and be less dependent on the unequal and temperamental international networks of industrial agribusiness? How can we build new community-level political and cultural structures that render top-down state-military structures increasingly irrelevant?
Taking to the streets and occupying public spaces are important seeds of direct action, but from them should blossom the models of social transformation and empowerment that the 99 per cent can begin exploring, in open dialogue with one another, and even with the 1 per cent whose monopolies we are protesting. For it is imperative to ensure that these popular energies develop accurate diagnoses of our predicament, so that our activism can be pointed in the right direction – not just at the 1 per cent, but at the wider political, economic, ideological and ethical system which enables their very existence, and which thus empowers the dysfunctional pathway on which we’re currently heading.
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. He blogs at The Cutting Edge. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (Pluto/Macmillan, 2010), which has been adapted into a critically-acclaimed documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011).