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n the commenting on the Arab Spring revolutions, most attention has gone to the unexpectedness of the events, the use of social media, and the fragility of the coalitions they appeared to represent. There has been much less reflection on the content of what demonstrators had to say. They have been portrayed as either just economically motivated, or just coming into the fold of liberal democracy. The South European demonstrators are also economically motivated, whereas the Occupy movement is well-intentioned but confused. In other words, the 2011 movements are supposed to be unrelated, but all are lacking a coherent ideology. Instead, I suggest that all the movements of 2011 have common antecedents and common ideological elements, in particular articulating a new emphasis on dignity, and a radical concept of democracy as a practice.
The much remarked upon use of new ICTs for mobilization and dissemination by the 2011 movements may have been unprecedented in scale, but rests on antecedents built up over the decade. The anti-corporate globalisation movement has used Internet to report on summit protests since the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 (Juris, 2005), mobile phones generated mobilizations in the Philippines, Spain and South Korea in the middle of the decade (Castells et al. 2005), the Kefaya movement in Egypt used a combination of mobile phones and Internet to disseminate evidence of state brutality and the Iranian Green Movement explored the use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. But the interconnections run much deeper than just the ICT.
Both the worldwide demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 and the World Social Forums were important vehicles of dissemination of ideas about horizontality, and about how to combine ideological pluralism with an anti-neoliberal stance (Glasius, 2005). A totally new element in the vocabulary of all the movements has been an emphasis on human dignity, which is constructed as requiring fulfillment of basic socio-economic needs, treatment with respect by authorities, and participation in determining one’s fate. The flip side of this appeal to dignity is indignation. The protests are not just against unemployment, wage cuts and other austerity measures, but also about having been lied to by politicians and about different manifestations of crony capitalism.
Another common feature of the 2011 mobilisations is their ‘leaderlessness’ and lack of visible rooting in the sustained interaction familiar to social movement scholars. The movements have sprung up outside political parties and (with the exception of Tunisia) and largely outside organized civil society organizations such as NGOs and trade unions. These features too have antecedents in the last decade, ranging from the “ ‘submerged networks’ which come to the fore only around certain campaigns or exercise resistance through a particular lifestyle” described by Desai and Said in the context of the anti-capitalist movement (Desai and Said, 2001, 69) to the ‘non-movement’ of Iranian women that pre-dated the Green Movement (Bayat, 2007). The lack of visible leadership partly has a protective element: the survival of the Syrian opposition movement to date for instance may in part be attributed to its anonymity. But it is also presented as a value in itself, akin to the emphatic rejection of leadership by the Social Forums (Glasius and Timms, 2005, 224) and particularly striking against the background of the traditional patriarchial political cultures on both sides of the Mediterranean. In its place, the movements of 2011 posit a commitment to ‘thick’ democracy as a method. On both sides of the Mediterranean, participants have reported that they believed themselves to be ‘doing democracy’ on the square itself. In the camps of Occupy, deliberative methods are used for strategic and practical decision-making that have been inherited and evolved from the social forums.
It is true to say that the 2011 movements have not to date articulated clear substantive aims for instance in relation to regulation of the global economy, social justice or sustainable development. But despite the apparent urgency of all these problems, they should not be in too much of a hurry to do so. They appear to be relearning how to do politics beyond representative democracy, and we as social scientists may learn something by witnessing and participating in the process.